She is a mystery to me.
I come from a world that may not be the world she comes from. We are surrounded by strangers who resemble us. But are they as much strangers to her as they are to me? That's the impression I get when I look at her but when I look away I'm not so sure. I'm scared.
She speaks to me. What happens within her when she says those words? Is she transformed the way I am when I hear them? Are her words part of both of us, the way I feel them to be?
She stops, sits; she gazes at infinity, they say. I can't take that kind of infinity. Is there any way back from it?
She glances at me, now, very quickly. She wants - I don't know - I think she wants time to pass without her; I must be the one to hold her back. In the sun, where it's so hot, like before being born.
The sea nestles on the beach with gentle but incomprehensible speech. I will never be more eloquent than the sea, with my human words.
I hear them saying that the water's lovely, that there'll be a camp fire this evening. What is the point of these words that seem to me like mist, far off in the distance where the sea and the sky become one, where nothing is created?
And yet these are the words she listens to - she laughs and sits up: "Are you coming in?" The water must be cold, as cold as having to cope on my own, without her. She is a good swimmer. She plays with the salt water that will presently leave powdery white traces on her body.
Stretched out on the sand, she looks made to turn the eyes of the boys, who have finished swimming and are talking about themselves. About themselves or about what must naturally be said?
I didn't know anyone here. My parents had sent me off to holiday camp. I had plenty of plans, school being silent for the summer, but no, I had to have a holiday. Just when I was free to think my own thoughts, I was pitched into the company of boys and girls who, given leave, had fled from their schools and now seemed like a fading echo of the intellectual tumult of their latest year in academe.
I was disconcerted at having to leave; on the station platform, seeing the crowd I was going to have to go with, I tried not to get lost. She was standing slightly to one side, clearly visible. I moved closer to her.
Now I was beside her, lying on the sand, still trying to answer the questions she never put.
She had not left my side throughout the whole journey, saying little, talking about things that might well have been ordinary. We slept a little, and often stood in the corridor watching the invisible landscapes that the darkness brought.
The night was neither long nor short, it was merely present and our sole companion. And yet the others were there also, sleeping or talking. Were we in the corridor or in the landscape outside?
I asked her if she didn't want to put something on so she wouldn't get sunburnt. I didn't know exactly who she was or what school she went to. We just exchanged thoughts that touched on nothing that was visible. The conversation was disjointed but I felt that its thread was an unbreakable bond. Our talk was about us but in a strange way we were not its subject. The world of which we spoke - the world in which we were living - seemed to change whenever a thought from one of us invaded the other.
Swimming was over for the day; it was time to head back to camp, half an hour's walk away. From time to time, like at the beach, I heard her being asked questions whose meaning, through lack of attention, I found hard to catch. She answered, though not expansively, calm and smiling, the way people talk to children. When the boy who had spoken to her moved away, I realised that she had given all her attention to what she had been asked. There was nothing wrong with that but I felt something like a tiny eddy in the air between us.
I was mostly left alone during these walks. The others hardly ever addressed me and, when an answer was called for, I always felt their unease at my opinions, which no one asked me for anyway.
I got used to being regarded as something of an outsider, not rejected but treated with caution. Although it bothered me a bit at first, I not only got used to it but even felt myself protected from the jostling I suffered in my relations with what were referred to as my "mates".
When we got back to the camp the boys separated from the girls, our tents being on either side of a little thicket.
Solitude encircled me again. The hills I could see in the distance seemed like a hostile and insurmountable barrier keeping me away from home where everything was. My friends were not there. But the moment the thought came and called my friends to mind, I realised that the word concealed people whose consistency had changed.
Of course they were not as insubstantial to me as my fellow campers, but they suddenly gave me the impression of being spectators of a life to which they did not wish to give anything of themselves.
Was life beginning to require something of me?
I tried to think of her but couldn't. I had the impression that she ceased to exist as soon as she was no longer beside me. I knew that she was alive, but with the life that is attributed to Paradise where all is contemplation and, for me, immobility.
I believed I would find her just as I had left her.
While waiting for lunch I tried to take part in what the others were doing. But, not knowing what to say, I simply repeated the words I heard around me. The result was poor and they hardly paid attention anyway. I would willingly have felt left out if I had made any real effort to join in.
At lunch I found myself next to her again. Had her life continued since we had gone our separate ways?
The meal was animated, with everyone talking and no one listening. She was always attentive, talking with a smile in which a hint of irony was perceptible, though an irony that was not directed at anyone in particular or at anything that was said. It was just a sieve sifting all the importance that the gathering had assumed for itself. I abandoned the idea of talking with her, ate hurriedly and got up to go before dessert. "Come over after quiet hour", she said in the middle of a sentence without changing her tone of voice.
I left, a little put out, not quite understanding my situation with regard to myself. Those few simple words had unexpectedly placed me in a position not only of dependence, which was just about admissible, but also of submission, and even willing submission. I realised that she had an energy of which I had not been aware; I had seen only the seamless side of her character. A defensive reaction welled up inside me, countered imperiously by the impossibility of a conflict for which there was no call. I was immobilised, shackled.
At three o'clock I was in the girls' camp. A great meeting was being held there, and apparently I was the only one not to know its purpose. An excursion into the hills had to be organised, half by bus and half on foot, probably to admire the view and certainly to visit some admirable something or other, doubtless some craft workshop of a traditional or, worse, remarkable, unusual or historical nature. Nobody from the camp had ever been remotely interested in anything of the kind when at school - their conversations provided ample proof of that - and the triumphantly brandished refusal to devote time to any sort of study, and especially to take it seriously, was flaunted by many like a banner. But here everything was different. Anyone could pretend to take an interest in anything, which redounded to the pretender's credit; at the same time, as no one was accountable to anyone else, least of all to themselves, the serenest heedlessness could blanket the said pretender's mind.
In short, I was furious not to be alone with her.
Had she seen me when I arrived? Several boys had gathered round her and seemed to be lending the greatest weight to her opinions. Of course the final decision lay with the camp leaders but, although she could not be said to be directing operations, for some reason nobody came to a decision unless her approval was clear. The discussions, in which I took no part, were lengthy; times and routes had to be settled, appointments had to be made for certain visits and so on and so forth. When an outline began to emerge, at least for those who took an interest, the final schedule was discussed. A few points still remained to be cleared up, but in order to do so a delegation would have to go and sort them out on the spot beforehand. Half dizzy with all the noise, I was not sure I heard her properly when, addressing me for the first time, she said: "The two of us can go together, can't we?"
Not waiting for my answer, of course, she continued her conversations. As there was no longer any reason for me to stay I went back to the boys' camp for a game of cards, what people call a "good hand of bridge", meaning that they would like it to have been good.
The next morning came and the two of us were on the road. It was hot and she could stand the heat better than I. Did anything ever bother her?
The bus ride to the little town where the visit was due to take place was spent discussing the structural and organisational aspects of the trip. My analytical faculties were sharper than hers and I also had a broader perspective that allowed me to point out certain flaws in the plan or suggest some improvement that would fit well with the general design, and I could see that she listened to me with interest, showing that she was able to accept, without being in the least bothered, a better assessment than her own of difficult propositions. Her smile, kind as usual, reassured me, if that were necessary, about what she thought of me. The hint of irony, also habitual, which could have been so disturbing, had vanished. I might even say that it had given way to an air, when she looked straight at me, that was not only serious, and attentive of course, but also - I don't know why I think of the word - grave. Grave, as though - I don't know, I really don't know.
But my plans crumbled once we got there. Things were otherwise. The Museum we were supposed to be visiting was closed for renovation throughout the summer. She had come to say that she knew a visit was impossible, she understood that there was nothing to be done, she was only sorry for the children because they wouldn't be able to come back and visit the museum another time because it was too far away and they didn't have the means, she knew she was being a nuisance and she was sorry but she thought that the appointment had been made earlier and she hadn't dared not to come, as had been promised on her behalf, she meant that she had been told to keep an appointment that had been made some time ago and was afraid the children might hold it against her if she didn't because they were so keen to come - and then it's not at school that they get the opportunity to broaden their minds, school isn't about culture, it's about earning money when you're grown up and - oh well, never mind.
The visit to the museum was organised; the Curator was sorry the children wouldn't be able to see the entire collection because of the renovation but he would make sure they got to see the most important pieces because he fully realised that what they wanted to see was his museum and not the contents of some tourist guide.
She smiled kindly, without irony, and her gaze sought support.
The question crossed my mind whether I were unwelcome in her life, but at that moment her life seemed separate from her person and I felt closer to her person than to her life.
I wondered what on earth the children - aged between thirteen and nineteen - would do in this museum.
After leaving, we went to buy some food - biscuits and fruit.
She mentioned a bus we could catch in the late afternoon, leaving us the rest of the day for a walk. As the weather was suitable, being somewhat overcast, I was happy not to return to the camp until evening and even dreamt about missing supper and avoiding the crush.
Our steps led us towards a park by a river, a peaceful spot. We ate our sumptuous repast sitting on the grass.
"A proper lunch at last", she said with a little clear laugh.
"Yes, it makes a change", I replied, finding nothing more original to say.
After a few moments during which the apple I was eating absorbed all my attention, I heard her say encouragingly:
"Penny for them".
My mind still bent on the apple, I said:
"Not worth it".
"Come on, you must have something worth saying", she persisted in the same tone of voice, as though I had not spoken.
"You want to hear me the way you strain your ears to hear the faint sound of a river so as to know whether you'll be able to go swimming when it's hot".
A short silence followed, then she burst out laughing the way people laugh at a child who comes out with something surprising.
"Where did you get that from?" she said in a conciliatory tone.
She pondered for a while and then added:
"Just be yourself, don't..."
She did not finish. I was being myself.
The silence was a little longer this time. I wondered what she wanted to know. She didn't often chatter ingenuously. How many people around her had I seen change direction while thinking they were still looking at the same horizon? I had no fear for myself: not only was I not trying to find anything, I was there by chance and it mattered little to me where I might be because my real aim was not to be there - at the camp, I mean, where I had been sent against my will.
I too wanted to know. Actually, I wasn't sure I really wanted to and most of all I was irritated by my curiosity. I asked her acrimoniously:
"Why do you waste your time with them? You couldn't care less whether they visit the museum or not!"
"You came with me, didn't you?"
"That was to be with you, not for the museum!"
"You're with me every day at camp!"
"We're together here."
"We can be together just as much back there. Except for the walk, of course."
"It makes a change for you. You don't need to behave in the same way as back there."
"You know very well I didn't want to go to camp. I wanted to stay at home. If it's change I needed..."
She interrupted me: "You're a prisoner here. At home you could change planets on a phone call."
I noticed that I still hadn't finished my apple.
I was suddenly filled with yearning for that phone call. Here I felt desperately lonely, alone since the moment I had left home, was it already so long ago?
I imagined myself at home again, though whether before that day or after was not very clear. The telephone was in my hand and I was going to dial a number. It was easy; I was happy, greeting with a smile the voice I was going to hear. We would be us, diluted in a sometimes hostile world but bringing each other the comfort of our breathing. All I had to do was dial; I put out my hand but could not recall the number. I was bothered for a moment, my thoughts missed a beat and suddenly I understood that the number I wanted to dial was hers.
I was no longer alone, I had been isolated by her.
I needed time to think; I hadn't expected that. I prepared myself to continue as ordinary a conversation as possible while maintaining a level that would keep me out of reach.
"I'll tell them you'll take care of the visit to the museum", she said. "It'd better be you because they wouldn't take any notice of me, I haven't got enough authority."
I tutted in irritation: it was I who had decided to guide the conversation in order to steer clear of the ground on which she had placed it. And now it was she who had changed the subject, without warning, and who had decided something, though I was not quite sure what: all I had heard through my thoughts was "you'll take care", but what I had not so much heard as understood was that for her, relations between us seemed to have been settled.
What I needed to do now was not to think but to recover my thoughts.
Some of her words came back to me: "I haven't got enough authority". I looked straight at her and said clearly:
"Everyone does what you want at camp; I think you just don't want anyone to notice. If I'm to be in the know, is it to make me aware that the person guarding the prison is you?"
"You see," she said, "I knew you had something worth saying."
Her customary ironic smile returned but there was nothing playful about it; I even felt a hardness in it.
I did not have the courage to continue what I had no option but to call a struggle; I told her that I would go to the museum and take care of the practical details of this gripping excursion. The conversation had indeed become banal, as I had wished, except that I was the object not the agent of the decision.
The following morning I got involved in a marathon card game that lasted until lunch. The other three boys in the game were strong players - two of them even played competitions on occasion. I myself was pretty average, maybe because I lacked talent, maybe because I lacked passion; I had never been good at confusing games with life. If they put up with me it was only because the rest were even worse than I was and because I took their criticisms with good grace. For me, the game had the advantage of keeping my mind occupied most of the time and not disturbing the sensations, or maybe the feelings, in which I found myself.
My manner during the game was rather nonchalant, though sufficiently attentive not to attract too many comments. A few difficult plays aroused my interest and I negotiated some of them successfully. For once, I even got some compliments. My thoughts were not exactly focused, but nor did they really wander either. I think I was content to see that my independence of mind was complete, that I was capable of taking part in the game without being absent from it, that I could remember what to do without being bothered by... by nothing, because I could see no reason why I should be bothered - and I wasn't in the least bothered anyway. Of course, I said to myself with a confident smile as I picked up a trick, I know that yesterday... well, no, yesterday was a moment in my life, I'm not trying to deny it - but today I am living as fully as yesterday although the interest - or rather the importance, I know, is not the same. It's a beautiful morning, I'm having fun and above all my mind is here, not elsewhere.
Lunchtime came and I was happy to stop because games tended to get on my nerves after a while. I was also looking forward to seeing her again and thought that I could talk with her about pleasanter things than the previous day. I was cross with myself for having spoilt, as I saw it, a lovely afternoon because I had not been capable of guiding the conversation differently. But today my mind was rested and I had the impression, even though it was midday, that I had just woken up. The light was lovely, the heat was not too oppressive and I waited lazily for the moment when I would see her again, leisurely, after lunch.
During the meal, I didn't think I saw her at the girls' table; I paid no particular attention and chatted, or, as was my wont, pretended to chat, with my mates. Riveting conversations, in which the most important thing was to destroy whatever had more value than oneself.
Everybody had got up. I still couldn't see her. She must have been getting ready to go to the beach where we rested before going swimming. I hadn't seen her all morning. I couldn't understand why I was so interested in all these details. She did as she pleased anyhow. I would see her soon. I began to laugh: "I'm not going to start worrying about what she does with her life, am I?" No, that would be ridiculous.
I had decided to go to the beach straight after lunch, but in fact I had something to tidy away or some business to settle with... I don't remember who. I took my time so as not to forget what I had to do. I had no reason to hurry.
When I got to the beach there was nobody left; they were all far out to sea. I didn't know what to do: stay and wait or go swimming. I wasn't particularly fond of the water, which I always found too cold, or of the beach either, because it was full of sand.
I decided to wait quietly and a few seconds later found myself in the water, heading towards the place where the group had gathered. I was greeted with the inevitable "water's lovely, isn't it?" and, after swimming about a bit, saw her coming towards me with quick and fluid strokes. As she approached she shouted: "Where were you? I was waiting for you!" Once beside me she added: "Another ten minutes and I'd have gone looking for you. Is everything all right?"
I replied that after lunch I had had some tiresome details to attend to and hadn't been able to get out of it.
After a good while in the water, by which I mean a long while, we returned to the beach to dry off. Some were already sunbathing.
The two of us were stretched out side by side when a girl came up and asked her:
"Did you see him this morning? Did he agree?"
She answered distractedly:
"Yes, yes, it's all taken care of, you can go and see the medallion."
The girl said something or other and left, beaming.
"Another chore for you," she said after a short silence. "The bloke from the museum in charge of the dig has just found an ancient medallion and is willing to get it ready - I suppose it needs cleaning - for the visit. You'll have to sort out with him how to collect it, he hasn't got time to do it himself."
"Yes, I see, you've already taken up his entire morning."
"The medallion was worth it."
I studied the traces of salt on her brown skin. I wanted to brush them off but didn't.
Apart from a few casual words we said nothing until we got back. After dinner there was a camp fire with the usual entertainments. Everyone was in high spirits, as though the world did not exist. I couldn't have cared less about the world either but was unable to match the others' gaiety, though not because I didn't want to. I had no reason at all not to have fun and even tried to. But each time I started to unwind I felt my laughter stifled; I gave a little snort, like horses when they are unsettled, and started to laugh again. I had the feeling, at times, of not being where I was. Some vague memory nagged at the back of my mind but I was unable to fix my attention for long enough, whether on the camp fire or the undefinable trouble that I felt but whose origin I did not really seek.
After a time which, on reflection, cannot have been very long, she came out of the darkness and sat down beside me. She didn't look at me or say anything and stayed until the fire had died out.
The visit to the museum went off very well, at least for them. Exclamations of admiration, excited interest for any old rubbish as long as it was one of the things to be seen, one of the official exhibits, something to be talked about knowingly with friends, referred to as "Truly amazing!" or, more likely, "Totally brilliant!" The Curator was very pleased and doubtless believed that everyone was aware of his existence.
That morning, before we left, I had been to see the "bloke from the museum in charge of the dig", said bloke being not far from the camp. He was a tall fellow in his thirties, pleasant and open-looking with a frank smile, "I don't look for complications, I'm not much of a navel-gazer." He gave me the object - I'd forgotten what it was, it was in a packet without any questions, "seeing who I was", and without giving me any instructions. That way I didn't have to promise to be careful, which people usually say with their mind elsewhere. And my mind was indeed elsewhere.
The same bus brought us back. She was busy handing out biscuits; I sat against the window at the back, looking out. The countryside changed constantly but I was in the same place. In the bus. Was it like in a prison? How many prisoners does a warder guard? I realised that my thoughts were wandering and that I must be dozing, having got bored at the museum. So I looked... We had arrived. I had indeed nodded off.
The next day it rained. There was no option for the kids other than to find things for themselves to do. A few games, of course, but they soon got bored. Letters home: "Food's good, I'm bored, having fun, food's bad, weather's fine, how's the dog, hope you are well", or to friends: "Having a great time, weather's fine, we go swimming a lot, the sea's warm, I've got three girls after me, I'll have to make sure they don't start fighting."
The rest of the time it went on raining. What shall we do? Nothing. Sleep. Some theorised: "What do you think he really wants?" - "Do you think I'm in with a chance?" Others talked about cars, or matching dresses. Those who were alone feared the answers.
I spent the time dreaming and was afraid someone might say "Why aren't you doing anything? Isn't there something you can be doing?"
I went to see her after lunch. She was reading in her tent. As soon as she saw me she threw down her book and greeted me happily.
"Come and sit down! Have a biscuit."
I had the impression I was entering the Princess's castle.
I said: "It's sunny enough in here!"
A gust of wind showered us with drops of the rain that was still falling. We started to laugh, exchanging a look of complicity in shared amusement.
"It'll be fine tomorrow", she said with exaggerated confidence. "I thought we could hire a boat."
"A four-master with two rows of cannon on either side; we'll sail the seven seas, flying the Jolly Roger..."
"With a skull and crossbones and ruined holidays!"
Her interruption steered the vessel into the little bay where we had our beach.
"OK, OK," I grumbled, "we'll hire a rowing boat and you can row with me."
"No, dummy," she said laughing, "I don't mean just ... I mean we'll all go ... it's to take everyone ... on a boat trip", she finished in a rush.
A slight embarrassment spurred me to answer:
"Yes, there must be a fishing boat that'll take us; we'll have to go down to the harbour and see if anyone's willing."
"Would you mind doing it? I'm sure you'll organise things just right."
"Do you want me to go on my own?"
"No, we can go together. I meant that you'd be better than me at making the practical arrangements."
"Including the details?"
She looked at me steadily and squarely for a brief moment.
"Are you interested in the details?"
"You know, organising the thing with a fisherman is already a detail. What matters was thinking of a boat trip in the first place."
"Do you reckon I think faster than you?"
I started to eat the biscuits she had offered.
"Now I've upset you", she said kindly.
"No, no, don't worry about that. But it's true that I can't always follow you."
I saw her open her mouth to say something but she stopped. For a fleeting moment I felt that a veil had lifted; but the impression passed as quickly as it had come and I was left with the sight of her generous lips.
I sought refuge once more in the biscuits then asked her if she had anything to drink. She busied herself finding a bottle of orange juice just in front of her.
"Would you like some orange juice?" she asked me importantly.
We drank and listened to the rain falling. We always suppose that others, or at least those to whom we are bound, feel the same things as ourselves. Perhaps she didn't listen to the rain falling. And yet it seemed to me that the rain brought our thoughts closer together, that it commanded our attention when we were silent. I also thought vaguely: "I am not bound to her."
I picked up the book she had been reading and leafed through it absently. "Is it any good?" I asked. She looked at me with her usual smile and said with a hint of condescension, or rather with a mixture of impatience and condescension: "Of course it is. Why else would I be reading it? I'd already got through a fair bit of it when you came in. If I hadn't liked it, I would've stopped."
"Oh, don't go on so," I protested. "I only said it to... oh, I don't know."
"For the sake of saying something? In that case, let's talk about the boat trip."
"You always need to be doing something. Are you afraid, if you stop, that you might be seen?"
"Why? Can people only be seen when they're not moving?"
"I may be wrong, but I think that I see them better that way."
"And when you've seen them, do you judge them?"
"No, I think about what my life might become."
"If you are with them?"
"No, just because they exist."
"Your philosophy lessons seem to have made a great impression. You must've got good marks!"
"No, not at all. I spent most of the time reading and dreaming. That's not what they're after. What they want is to be sure that I think like the others and won't give them any surprises."
"You mean any unpleasant surprises."
"No, just any surprises at all. There are times when I think that a pleasant surprise would be even worse."
She was listening attentively. I went on:
"People know what to do if they get an unpleasant surprise, or if they don't know, they kill. A pleasant surprise leaves them at a loss; they do things... at random. It's maybe worse than killing, I don't know."
"So you'd rather I gave you an unpleasant surprise than a pleasant one."
She added with a little laugh: "Better not to have any surprise at all!"
"If you never expect any surprise, is it possible to go on living except as animals?"
She looked at me for a long moment with, from time to time, a hesitation. Finally I looked at her too. Are we always afraid of the answers when we do not ask any questions? Did I need answers? At last she said: "Is a prison warder free?" It didn't sound like a question. The rain was still falling.
I didn't see her the next morning. She was there of course, but she was preparing some show or other that the girls were going to put on at the next camp fire. I wasn't interested in playing cards again and turned down offers to join in other games. The weather was hot and sultry and nobody even suggested going for a walk. I wanted to be on my own for a bit and went off. I met a couple of people who often went swimming near us; they told me that it was silly to miss a day at the beach. I cast around for an excuse as though I had been caught playing truant and mumbled something about the bad weather but, under disapproving looks and remarks about the temperature - "the water's lovely" - felt I was the object of some disdain.
As a result my walk was rather melancholy. I was aware that my behaviour was inconsistent. I kept on trying to get away from the other campers who, at a loose end, shouted and bellowed and gesticulated, trying to give the impression that they were part of human life; but at the same time I was quite deeply involved in camp activities, like the visit to the museum. I wasn't especially bothered by the contradiction, having no reason to behave in one way rather than another, but I was seeking, perhaps a little anxiously, the reason for my - could it be called interest? - in the affairs of this camp.
Of course, it didn't take long to find what should have been obvious from the outset. She had... she had what? Placed me under an obligation? No! Bothered me? I couldn't see how. Directed me? Maybe, but no more than a signpost that points you in the way you want to go anyway. What had my choice been? Not to be alone where I had been obliged to go. Why her? Because she watched. The others only saw what was put in front of their noses.
So what did she see when she looked at me? And what else did she look at?
When I got to the beach that afternoon, I didn't see her. She wasn't in the water either. I asked the girls where she was. She had gone to the harbour.
She wasn't at the harbour, or anywhere round there. I finally discovered that she had gone out on a fishing boat. She would be back in the evening. I waited for her.
The boat came in as night was falling. I saw her land with the crew and head off towards the main square with one of them. I moved closer. She was in the middle of telling him something when she saw me. She broke off and left him, moving towards me. She gazed at me steadily, her eyes wide open, I thought. Coming closer, she said in a soft, slow voice: "Have you come to fetch me?" I replied that I had wondered whether she might not be alone going back, as it was rather late. She told me, in the same voice, that the captain of the boat, who was there with her, had offered to give her a lift to the camp. She added, after scanning me for a moment, that she would walk back with me, then went back to the sailor, who was still where she had left him, exchanged a few words with him, came back alone and, passing close by me, looked at me thoughtfully then motioned me to walk with her.
After a few seconds of silence, she said pensively: "When you are with me at the museum, it bothers you; when you are not with me on the boat, it bothers you."
She said nothing more and we walked on in silence, quite slowly, for she was in no hurry. I got the impression that, deep in thought, she was pondering some subject full of hazards, as though she lived in two worlds at once and each world excluded the other. At times she seemed to be contemplating something self-evident; at others, she seemed filled with nostalgia for a life which, for her, could only be a dream.
We were halfway back to the camp when she said in a subdued voice: "You told me on the train that you liked aeroplanes." I felt uneasy: she didn't usually change the subject for no reason. I replied simply: "Yes, that's right." Her thinking was effortful. She didn't look at me. In a leveller tone she
asked: "Have you ever been in the cockpit of an aeroplane?" I felt as though I was looking at a hunter setting traps. Feigning interest, as though this were the real subject of the conversation, I answered: "Yes, I liked it a lot. You experience things that you can't feel on the ground. It's fun to make new discoveries..." I was going to go on but did not; I don't know why, but I got the impression as I was speaking that I was pulling on a hook. "Don't be daft, it's not as though you were a fish", I said to myself with a touch of irritation. I had the feeling I was being watched, but when I thought about it there didn't seem to be anything unusual in that, because I was answering questions. It was just a reflection of how carefully she listened to what I was saying. "You're imagining things", I added to myself. She went on: "Would you have gone off to see these new discoveries if a pilot had offered?" I felt uncomfortable; I couldn't really say that I wasn't aware what the cause of it was, but I didn't think such a reaction was justified. Could she read my thoughts? Her ironic smile reappeared, but it seemed altogether sad and disenchanted. "There are not many fisherwomen", she said in a voice that lingered. I remembered my unease at her first question about aeroplanes. Now, I was a little frightened but unable to put my finger on the cause of my fear; was its source in me or in her? I was well aware that her remarks had contained a trap, but why had she withdrawn it just as I was about to fall in? Was it because, even in a trap, I would have told her exactly what I meant? Whereas in this way her only commitment was to herself.
The conversation left me feeling drained. When we reached the camp she went her way after giving my arm a friendly squeeze; she looked at me with a calm smile. I fell asleep as soon as my head hit the pillow.
I woke with the feeling that I was still asleep. The weather was fine. Everyone was already moving around: the beach, of course. I found it difficult to focus. I wasn't hungry; I lingered at breakfast, latched onto a group of boys who were discussing this and that, talked about things that were of no interest to me, vigorously defended what I was saying and forgot to finish the conversation. Another boy asked me about cornering: which car took corners the best? I had no idea: once, on a bend, I slipped while I was running and hurt myself rather badly. The boy retorted something rude and went off to the beach. I decided to go to the beach. Some girls from the camp went by; I asked them if she was going to the beach. No, she had just left to give back the medallion. The medallion. Oh yes, the medallion! Why not before now? Perhaps he hadn't been there. No matter, it doesn't matter. She won't be there, at lunch. Why shouldn't she be there? I'm sure she won't be there.
I want to leave the camp, straight away, without a word to anyone. Who is there to tell, anyway? I don't know anyone here, I don't know who they are. My parents won't be pleased; perhaps they thought they were doing me a favour, being nice to me, I don't know. What do they think being nice to me means? Giving me what they would have liked to have had themselves? How can I be nice to her? I have no reason to be nice to her. I can't leave the camp. I decide to write letters. To my parents: easy. Whatever might happen, all's well. To a friend: I find it impossible to talk to him; I need gestures as well as words, he has to be there; I have written a load of rubbish, the letter should go in the bin; just as I am about to tear it up, I hesitate: perhaps he'll understand. I don't even know what I mean by understand. There is nothing to be understood in what I have said. I don't try to understand anything either. I don't want to think about it. I send the letter anyway. I no longer feel like writing. Is it lunch time already? I go and sit down. I see her coming in the distance. She is lively and beautiful. I no longer have the impression I had this morning of still being asleep.
I ate without appetite. I didn't go to the beach in the afternoon but to the village not far away; there was a little fair with rides and sideshows. I ran into some of the campers who greeted me with pleasure, shouting: "It's great fun here!" They looked bored and bent on revenge, though on whom and for what I did not know; I must have been mistaken. I went on some of the rides, dodgems in which you could pretend that you weren't really out to get the person you were bumping, horses which changed direction all the time; I tried the shooting gallery, taking time to aim carefully, but some shots went in between the targets because I did not always pay attention to what I was aiming at. I went back for dinner, a little late. Not far from the camp, there she was, on the road, unmoving as I came towards her. When I was close to her she asked with authority: "Are you hungry?" I looked at her and did not answer. She said: "Come to the beach, there's no one there at this time."
Of course I obeyed. The idea of not obeying only came later, after we had started out. It didn't bother me, but I thought to myself that it ought to have done.
Now we are on the beach, lying on our sides, facing each other; we look at each other for a long time; she bites her lips, which redden slightly. The ceaseless noise of the sea gradually invades my mind, my thoughts thin out, the imminence of the expected conversation becomes less real; I drift, waiting passively. I see her tracing lines on the sand with her finger. She speaks.
"My mother didn't like to see me disappear without warning; I wasn't yet fifteen at the time. She knew where I was going, though. What she didn't like was seeing that my life was not conducted through her. Who was I, when I wasn't there? When I came back, during the usual lecture, she scrutinised me to see whether I was still the same, really the same. I was aware that she wanted to know and I would willingly have told her, only I didn't know myself. When I got to my room, I sometimes asked myself the same question; what stopped me from answering was not knowing who I was before I had gone out."
As she spoke, she appeared to me as if she came from a world, a world that I knew nothing about, whose inhabitants possessed secrets whose nature I could not even guess, but the mere idea of which made me shiver. When she said: "My mother did not like to see me disappear", it was into that world that I saw her going. For me, the most important thing was not, as for her mother or perhaps even herself, to know who she was, but to try and enter the world of which she was a part. I understood, now, why I had not asked her about her absences. Whatever her answer, I was not ready to understand it.
She did not speak while I was thinking; had she guessed, from the intensity of my gaze, that I needed a moment's respite? She went on when she saw that I had become calm again.
"What did I go looking for, when I went off like that? No particular logic guided me, I had no particular goal: I think I wanted to drink the whole world."
She snorted with laughter, as if shaking off a burden that she had taken up to no purpose. She looked at me, her mouth still showing a trace of unease but her eyes lightening into gentleness.
"You know, it just came to me, I didn't really know what it meant," she said with amusement in her voice. "Drink the whole world! How can you do that?"
Her thoughts drifted off for a moment, then she took a great gulp of air and went on:
"Perhaps I just wanted to have fun. Everyone has fun. Our parents and teachers are always telling us to work, but the only thing they talk about with any pleasure is having fun: it's their only reward for working."
She nodded with a kind of surprised melancholy.
"Is life real?" she said pensively. "In the morning, when I wake up, I'm not always sure whether yesterday existed; and even if it did exist and even if people today are the same as yesterday, I don't know whether their memories lasted the night. Of course I remember what I have done, but I sometimes get the impression it was in a world that disappeared with the night, while I was sleeping. What a lot of nonsense I talk!" she exclaimed, tossing her head.
Her hair swung before her eyes.
"Of course, today follows on from yesterday," she added, making a face. "I know that I lived life yesterday and that today depends on it. Right?"
Throwing the question, she turned fully towards me.
Her eyes had caught me and my eyes were unable to escape. I had raised my head slightly and was in a rather uncomfortable position but I was unable to move. Giving her an answer would mean I would have to accept looking within myself. Did I want to ask her to justify her life or not? Of course it was clear that certain bonds now existed between us, but asking her such a question meant becoming responsible for her thought. I shifted into a more comfortable position and said:
"For one thing to depend on another requires a commitment. So far I have only seen one sort of commitment around me, that of being obliged to do what you have promised. That kind of commitment doesn't mean a great deal to me. On the one hand, you can choose your promises as you like, and on the other, you aren't always aware of them. I don't mean the times when you make a promise because you can't do otherwise without sacrificing your life for nothing. That isn't promise, it's acceptance - there is no commitment because you're under duress."
She listened attentively and it seemed to me that I noticed for the first time since I had met her that she was younger than I was. Until then, I had known that she was younger, by about two years, but I had never felt it, and not only because we were just one year apart at school. It also seemed to me that she was a little surprised as though, having swum far out to sea, she suddenly realised that the shore was barely visible.
"And life isn't given, you have to take it", she said sadly.
I hadn't finished what I wanted to say to her, but I didn't dare go on. Her remark told me that I had touched something deep within her.
She looked at me, a little shyly, and asked: "You said 'only one sort of commitment'. Did you mean that you can see other sorts?"
"What I really meant is that I had never seen any other sort. If someone shows their feelings, it is fiercely prohibited to consider it a commitment."
"Sure, because a bond would be created between two minds and, if the bond were allowed to form, how could they each be banished into solitude in order to weaken them in front of others?"
She looked at me, surprised and anxious. I wished I had never spoken. I felt as though I had brutally shaken the universe which had formed around me without my knowledge. I looked at her with terror, imploringly. She said with a lost air:
"I cannot die now."
We said nothing more.
I woke up in the morning not knowing exactly where I was. I was at camp, of course. I was hungry. I had barely finished breakfast when I saw her come running, a huge smile on her face, her eyes crinkling with the brightness of her look and I don't know what else. She threw herself at me, pulled me by the arm, I almost fell, all the other boys were staring at us, I felt really stupid. "Come along! Is food all you ever think about? You've finished, haven't you?" she said, laughing gaily. She dragged me away; I heard the others sniggering and making jokes.
We were outside the camp now; she skipped along like a little girl, then turned round to face me and carried on walking backwards. I returned her look with a slightly mocking smile.
"You know," she said in a clear voice, "I didn't believe you were interested in what I thought; I've never met anyone who was interested in what I thought. I even wondered if it was my fault for thinking wrong, until I saw that no one was ever interested in what anyone else thought either. That's an exaggeration, of course."
She stopped walking backwards, put her hands on my shoulders and added in a lower voice:
She took a breath.
"You know, it's like life to me, someone who actually sees me. If people speak to me, it's because I've done something. They're nice to me or cross with me, depending on what I've done. But I," she said stressing the pronoun, "I don't count. One has to please, not do right. I displeased you and you looked at me. So now I'm happy."
She stopped and repeated "I'm happy", at the same time pushing me with all her strength and running ahead of me.
I wanted to watch her running, without moving myself, so as to see her from a distance, fill my eyes. But I set off after her, as she intended. I caught up with her, pushed her in turn; she stumbled but did not fall, swerved and ended up facing me, laughing with all her heart.
"It doesn't matter, I'm sure I can swim faster than you", she cried.
"You want to try?"
"Yes, right now!"
She ran back towards the camp; I ran beside her.
I went into my tent to put on my trunks; the others had already gone off to the beach. I lingered for a moment, lost in my thoughts; there was no hurry, girls always take longer than boys to get ready and she had told me we would go together, as I had to show her the way! I did not try to speculate about why she seemed so happy, I mean I thought about trying but told myself that it wasn't the right time, there wasn't enough time. And then, everything was all muddled up, my fright the previous day, my sulking - only it wasn't sulking it was just.... I don't know - her unknown world; she, so present now - God, is that the time? She'll be ready before me. I get a move on and step out of the tent just as she arrives and together we head for the beach.
I can swim faster than her, no doubt about it. But I never manage to overtake her because each time she ducks me, the cheat! I start to shout and swallow half the ocean. Of course, I lose. I get my revenge by pulling her under and beating her back to the beach, but that doesn't seem to count.
"Can't even beat a girl!" She begins to throw sand at me, the pest, but I run away, it's the kind of thing I hate. The others from the camp shout "Go away! Leave us alone! Can't we have a bit of peace and quiet?"
"Corpses!" she shouts back. "You're just a load of corpses!"
Finally, out of breath, we collapse on the sand, panting, without even the strength to laugh. I look up at the blue sky - how beautiful it is today; usually I hate blue sky.
Buried in the sun, we talked... about what? All I remember is the smiling calmness of her face, the way she attenuated the disagreeable impressions we sometimes felt talking about life - everyday life: school, parents, friends who aren't really, leisure activities, books. I preferred thinking about what I read or saw; she had a more instinctive feeling for what was around her. This instinct, on which she relied a great deal, led her to touch the things or people she came close to and even more, I thought to myself with a twinge of anxiety, to go in search of food for her curiosity.
I took advantage of our easy conversation to touch on her preferences for this or that historical or fictional character. I noticed - what I had been looking for: every time, her eyes lighted on the ones who placed their inmost beings at stake. Was she guided by want of fear? Was she willing to sacrifice herself to pass through another life than her own, albeit for a brief instant? I did not listen to what she said in any orderly fashion, but allowed myself to be filled with images, caring little whether they were connected or not.
It was time to go back to camp for lunch; everyone was leaving and we were not long behind them. Getting up, she said quietly: "How far can thought lead life?"
I had the impression, which did not even seem disagreeable, that she had followed everything I had been thinking about.
Lunch was a cheerful meal; the boys, being amongst their own kind, could exaggerate to their hearts' content without risking a feminine gaze whose indulgence would have intimidated them. The sole risk was that of outdoing one another in exaggeration, though only in an approximate way as nobody really listened to anyone else. I took part in the general uproar willingly enough and did not stop to wonder about the quality of the conversation. I felt in rather nonchalant mood that afternoon, disposed to do more or less the first thing that came along. I knew that she was busy with preparations for her camp fire and thought of going for a walk, as the day had clouded over somewhat. I looked for someone to walk with but everyone, or at least everyone tolerable, was already involved in games, each one more earnest than the last. Being in no mind to receive lectures on my futility, I went off on my own.
I did not really know which way to go and headed off at random. A slight nervous feeling came over me, surprising me. It was a nervousness not of the mind but of the body, a slight trembling for which I could discern no cause. It was not really a trembling, more a shivering of the skin: perhaps I had caught the sun that morning.
This morning. The sky was blue.
I went towards the harbour: had I noticed? I had not chosen to go there, I had gone off at random. Was I surprised to be heading for the harbour? The trembling was stronger. Was I heading towards an unknown world? It had no meaning. So? I thought of the boat trip; was there something I ought to be doing for it? What had she said to me about it? I couldn't remember very clearly. It was doubtless for that reason that I had had the idea of going down to the harbour. Yes, I had not gone off at random - I must have not been thinking about it; I must have been thinking about it inside myself, by distraction; because no doubt I was thinking about the games I did not want to play; when I left camp, a few minutes ago.
As I walked on, the trembling began to affect my legs. The same shivering. It did not bother me, but it was not a touch of the sun. It was the memory of the square, in front of the harbour, where I had gone to pick her up. I stopped mentally but did not slow down. What was happening? Why was I going that way? It was not a walk, it was no longer a walk; I wanted to see her, there, while she was not there. The world I was going to see, the square, the harbour and I don't know what else, were going to tell me who she was, the day she had been there. I knew that it was a vain hope, but at least I might perhaps glimpse a trace left by her mind.
I was still walking steadily towards the square; a few moments before reaching it I slowed down and turned into a little side street, almost stopping. I did not understand why I had - not turned away, exactly, but taken another path. In fact, I wanted to take a look first, but I could see nothing at all from the street. It irritated me and I returned suddenly to the square. I found a few people out walking, passers-by, one or two sailors. Nobody took any notice of me, which was perfectly natural. I went further, towards the harbour. There were half a dozen fishing boats there, well clear of the numerous pleasure boats. I headed towards the fishing boats and saw the sailor from the other day on one of them, stowing his nets, or preparing them, or repairing them, I had no idea and it was none of my business. Without stopping, I went straight onto the boat and up to the man. I said:
"Afternoon. You're the one who's supposed to be taking the camp out for a boat trip."
It was not a question. He started, looked at me the way people look at a stranger prowling around their house, took a step towards me and said rather roughly:
"And who might you be?"
I felt that I was going to get the worst of it. I squared up my shoulders and remained where I stood, four or five paces from him.
"I'm from the camp", I said.
He busied himself with his ropes for a moment before answering, without looking at me:
"You aren't the one I talked about it with."
I paused a moment; I was unable to choose the direction I wanted to take, or get him to take. His reaction would have interested me, but he carried on rummaging around with his ropes. In a rather emphatic and stiff tone, perhaps like I had heard my headmaster use, I said:
"I have come to see if the conditions for the trip suit me; if they do not, I shall cancel it."
I had stumbled over one or two words, and yet I felt quite calm; I wondered if I had pronounced the word "me" clearly, not that it had the slightest importance, except for the clarity of the sentence.
"Are you in charge of the camp?"
"Well, I've already discussed it with the girl. I'll settle all that with her when she comes back."
"I see no reason why she should come back."
"Well, for one thing, she likes the sea more than you do! In any case, she's got to come back."
"What do you mean, she's got to?"
"If your camp wants to go on a boat trip, I'm the captain of the boat and it's up to me to decide."
"Who said the camp wanted to go on a boat trip?"
"Look here, you, I've got work to do! I don't see why I have to talk to you; you're not in charge, are you?"
I was going to reply, but two different sentences got mixed up on my tongue: "I'm the one who decides" and "She was at sea with you". The second sentence was not clearly constructed; there might have been a "Why" in it somewhere. The "Why" brought me up with a start: I had no business to be asking myself that kind of question, and I certainly had no business asking any old Tom, Dick or Harry. She... My thoughts got all tangled up. I looked at the boat again, saw the sailor who had turned his back to me, took a deep breath, stayed still for a moment, then moved away slowly, looking inland. I had hardly left the village when I stopped, wanting to go back and say to the sailor, "I'm cancelling the boat trip!". An uncertainty kept me back; I had not really found what I had been looking for; or, was I supposed to think that I was not wanted on the boat? She had said something like "It bothers you", but I couldn't really remember what she had said it about - it had been about the trip on her own, but what was supposed to have bothered me? I mean, what exactly? Yes, of course, that she had gone off on her own - but she had no reason at all not to and had no account to render to me.
A car from the village passed close by me and I realised that I was still there, immobile. Feeling stupid, I started to stride off towards camp. As I walked, it occurred to me that it would not yet be dinner time. I took little side tracks to delay my return. I thought about the camp fire that was due to take place the next evening. Is a camp fire a happy event or a sad one? I was tired; I had the impression that the day had lasted for ages. I wanted to sleep. I went straight to my tent and stayed there until evening, until bedtime, proffering some excuse or other about a headache.
The dawn had not yet really broken and I had already left the tent; I went and sat down not far away, in the shade of a tree which did not give any. I would have liked to have been at another time or in another place. I was wide awake and found myself in a solitude that sheltered me from the mass of those still asleep. I was astonished to be feeling in a joyful mood; not really so joyful as to sing hymns to the sunrise with the birds I could hear around me, but enough to take a slightly amused look at myself. I wondered whether I might not be playacting. Why this interest in each moment of her life? It was pure chance that I had got to know her. Of course, I... OK, let's say, well, let's say I liked her; but I could equally well not have got to know her, and if I had met her at a party, for example, among friends who were familiar to me, would I have been as interested in a girl like her, whose outline I was unable to grasp - or rather, whose personality, for she definitely had one; her instincts, fair enough, but how could I have a moment's peace of mind with her? I had things to do, school, the future, so much to organise, and with such difficulty! Why had I gone down to the harbour? "She can do what she likes!" I said out loud. Surprised by myself, I glanced around to see if anyone had heard me. Everyone was still asleep. It was no reason to speak to the spirits. "She can't do what she likes!" This time I said it under my breath, but I had been determined to utter the words and not only think them. So why couldn't she do what she liked? Or rather, why did I not want her to? I dreamed for a moment. Why does she come to see me? I'm not a Dresden china doll in a museum display! Or a medallion, rather! I was no longer joyful but wrathful; yes, wrathful was the right word, the Greek gods did not have a monopoly on wrath!
The camp began to stir. I passed through breakfast time without noticing and went to take up station on the path to the beach. A flock of girls arrived, bumping into each other, straggling off towards the beach without knowing why; excuse me, they did know why, they had been told: "The camp is in a lovely spot, by the seaside. The weather's beautiful there and you can go swimming every day". So they did!
She followed, a little behind, with an elegant step; as always she noticed everything, for immediately she waved at me and ran lightly over. "Hi there! Ready already? What have you got to say for yourself?" she said with a smile in which there was a hint of curiosity. I was getting used to her intuitions and was not even surprised; I had prepared a reply in which I was supposed to indicate to her that I was out of sorts. I said: "I'm glad to see you, this morning!" I had spoken happily and realised that I had indicated nothing at all to her. I told myself that I ought to be irritated by it, but I wasn't. My "joyful mood" of the morning had returned.
She was still looking at me with curiosity; as I did not speak, she finally said:
"The people at the dig are going to begin excavating a milestone on an ancient road: I'm sure it doesn't interest you in the least. How am I supposed to act towards the world that isn't yours and the people in it?"
"How am I supposed to act towards people who regard you as their property?"
"And who aren't you!"
"With my ship and my cannons, how am I supposed to sink another ship if I thought you might be on board?"
She pressed her lips together, looking down, and nodded slowly.
"You're interested in science subjects, I'm not really; what if I like archaeology?"
"You've never mentioned it to me until now; was it your... professor who got you interested in it?"
"You're right, he is a professor - a university professor; he's here for the summer, for the beginning of the dig."
"How lucky. He can finish teaching you this winter."
"Aren't you intending to go to school this winter?"
I did not answer; she added:
"Perhaps you have no option, like you had no option about coming here; or meeting me."
She lowered her voice as she finished her sentence. I looked at her. How did she pass through a life that wasn't her own?
We had arrived at the beach, a little later than the rest of the group. As nobody pressed us to jump straight into the water, we sat down on the sand, not saying anything and not looking at each other. I had no impression that she was sulking or angry. Why did I think in terms of anger or sulking? Was it so as not to accept that what I felt in her was sadness? But what reason might she have had for being sad?
"What did you do yesterday?" she said, without looking up.
I did not want to talk about my visit to the harbour, but it was difficult to elude such a direct question. I noticed that the questions I asked her were always more evasive - was it though clumsiness, or was it that I did not seek more precision? It was just as hard for me to tell her a lie because, sooner or later, I would have to talk to her about the boat trip. So I replied:
"I went for a walk on my own. You were getting ready for the camp fire this evening. I went as far as the harbour."
I was watching her as I said this. At the word "harbour", she jerked up her head, looking first surprised, then interested; just as she was about to speak to me, a shadow of doubt seemed to cross her face. I did not hear very clearly what she said, catching only the last few words: "Is everything arranged?" I blinked and stared, probably looking so stupid that I heard her say:
"It's fallen through, then? But he promised!"
I could not breathe. I turned round with a sudden movement, I think so as not to show her my face. A silence fell; I imagined that it might not be reassuring. But she said in a voice that expressed only irritation:
"It was your doing!"
I still had my back to her: she grabbed me by the shoulder, turned me round to face her and shouted:
"Why did you do it?"
I did not reply; there was an emptiness in my mind. She took hold of my hand and forced me to look into her eyes. The emptiness expanded. Finally, she released my hand and said tiredly, looking down at the sand:
"What do I have to give up?"
The answer came to me immediately: "You don't need to give up what you haven't got", but I was unable to utter it. I wanted to take her hand, as she had taken mine a moment before; the mere thought sent an almost painful shiver through me. I remained silent and motionless. She looked at me again and I was suddenly very afraid that she might take my silence for an accusation; I said very rapidly:
"I wanted to discuss the boat trip, but he said he only wanted to talk about it with you; I left straight away. Look, I didn't sleep very well last night, let's talk about it another time, come on, let's go swimming!"
I sprang to my feet, throwing sand over her legs, and ran backwards towards the water shouting, "Come on!" She smiled, then got up and ran at me, throwing me into the water. When I surfaced, I saw her waving at me a little way off and heard her shout: "Try and catch me!" before speeding off with energetic strokes.
We had hardly got back to the beach when we were overwhelmed by the young ladies from camp who had been waiting for her to take part in the meeting to organise the camp fire that evening. The meeting was being held on the beach. I was in the way. I was going to leave, quite happy to do so because that kind of discussion was of no interest to me, when she asked me to stay. The young ladies pulled faces, saying that they didn't need boys - "all they do is criticise, they never actually do anything" - that I ought to go and play somewhere else, that I... I interrupted them, telling them that their ear-splitting chatter was incapable of arousing even a thought in me, never mind a criticism... I stayed. The conversation was absolutely fascinating: each part of the little play that was to be put on that evening was studied in detail, while the numerous remarks intended to show either that the person in question was there or capable of making them added still more details; new ideas whose effect was to nullify existing plans were put forward with regret; nobody ever considered either the reason for the play or the reason for putting it on. She asked me my opinion; I replied that it would be best to forget about the play altogether. The silence that followed was much more expressive than the play itself. "Of course, we shouldn't have expected anything else" - "Do you realise, after all this work" - "Don't know why we bothered to ask" - "You should always finish what you start" - "If we don't do that, what else are we supposed to do?" I replied that they could always simply do nothing. The answer seemed to scandalise them: "It's better to do any old thing than nothing at all". Actually, I think they used the word "something", not "any old thing". Someone said: "So if you're not Shakespeare you shouldn't ever do a play?" "Something like that", I replied. Of course they asked me: "What about you? Have you done anything?" No, I hadn't. I did not add what crossed my mind. If I hadn't done anything it was because I was waiting to have something to do, not that someone else would tell me to do, but that would come, quite naturally, from myself. She said: "You're spoiling everything." I realised that the meeting, to which I had wanted to contribute a great deal of myself, had not been a success. I went off, telling them that they were right and that I was incapable of understanding what they were trying to do. She came over to where I was, a few feet away, and said:
"You're right about the play."
"Why did you tell me to stay?"
"I wanted to watch you living."
"Is it some kind of stage show?"
"No, I just need to get accustomed to it."
"I never get used to it."
After a short silence she said:
"Can we meet after lunch? I should appreciate it."
"Of course; why the formality?"
"It is appropriate to one of such gravitas as yourself."
She gave a little laugh and went back to her meeting.
Lunch was over and the quiet hour had finished. The campers had deserted their tents as though panic-stricken and fled to the beach. For sure, the spartan comforts of a holiday camp did not allow them to live as fully as if they had been on their own estates, which doubtless they would not have fled in such a way on such a futile pretext. Only the presence of genuine friends would have made it possible to remedy this inconvenience; but did such friends exist? And who were my friends? I had been furious at leaving them to come here. Why? What did we do together? Was it because I was used to them? We too had our games. My friends were different from the people here, the conversations we had were more complex, we had subjects in common that here would have been regarded as pretentious. Talking at length about a play or a symphony could hardly compare with discussions of the scoring system for a ball game. My mind was bored here; at home, I could always find something to do, someone to talk to. There was more variety available to me, not to mention more culture. But while these thoughts were running through my mind, I felt a disturbing question that was becoming increasingly insistent: were not my friends merely tools to give me life? I tried to forget this disagreeable thought, not knowing how to meet it.
Time had passed; I ran to the girls' camp, where silence compounded the heat. She was waiting for me in her tent, reading. She said, without turning round:
"Didn't you want to come?"
"Don't be daft; did you think it was because of your meeting this morning?"
"I hope not."
"I was miles away; I was wondering whether I missed my friends - and why."
"I was going to stop you before you said 'why' - you've slagged off camp enough already."
"I know. I felt as though I'd been torn away from my whole life, but now I wonder whether I haven't just been torn away from things I'd got used to."
"Didn't you tell me this morning that you never got used to things?"
"Yes. I guess I didn't mean the same thing. What I meant this morning... I'm thirsty! Have you got anything to eat or drink?"
"You're greedy! Yes, I've got some orange juice. Will that do? And biscuits - I wouldn't mind some either."
"Thanks, that's great."
"Is it as good as in a pirate's cabin?"
"Better - it doesn't move like the sea!"
We laughed; my mouth tensed for an instant but I did not want to cast a shadow over this moment of calm. A slight insistence in her gaze told me that she had noticed; she did not want a fight either. I went straight on:
"You know, with my friends, I do lots of things; but do we do them separately or together?"
"Together, of course, but I suppose you mean with separate minds. When you've finished, you each go home alone."
"That's right. Alone and without knowing what happens to the others, or rather who they are when they are not there. You said the other day that you did not always know who you were, or something like that; perhaps I don't pay attention to who my friends are but to what I do when I am with them; in which case, what does it matter what they are when they are not there? Perhaps with you I'm trying harder to understand who you are; in which case, if you are someone else when you are somewhere else..."
I stopped, slightly taken aback by this sudden conclusion. I made a face which was supposed to be funny and finished mundanely:
"I mean, like you were saying the other day, what your mother said, it's harder to understand you if..."
"My mother has never tried to understand me; she wanted to know me, so as to know what to expect and how to get what she wanted from me."
"Reminds me of school."
She pondered for a moment. Her look, which had become hard, changed to one of almost disillusioned irony before shading into resignation, or rather the look of people in front of children they can't explain things to because they are too small. She said calmly, gently, in a voice which bore no trace of regret but only nostalgia: "Everyone is out to get something; I suppose it's only normal".
Still with her gaze elsewhere she added: "If I'm with someone in order to learn, is that the same as being out to get something? If I read a book, it's so as to learn; what am I supposed to give the author if the author's dead?"
"You have to give to the living what you take from the dead."
I was surprised by my words; I did not really understand them.
"That's a beautiful idea," she said, wide-eyed. "Really, I mean it, it's a beautiful idea, but you have to be able to. And what if you're not?"
"I don't know if I'm able to either; I think it just came to me like that."
"Yes, sometimes our minds go looking and we notice later..."
She didn't finish her sentence; I waited for a moment, looking at her. It was as though she had stopped, as though the next step was impossible. She turned towards me and wrinkled her lips, comically; then she went on, nodding:
"What's difficult is knowing what to accept to give to the living."
"Of what you've taken from the dead?"
"No, of what the living ask when you learn something because of them. I suppose it's because of them, though sometimes they don't even have anything to do with it; they were there but didn't do anything - I saw whatever it was by myself."
"So what do you owe them?"
"I don't know, but it doesn't stop them from asking. I often get the impression that they start asking even before getting to know you. Just appearing before them is enough."
"In that case, you don't owe them anything."
"Where do obligations come from, from others, or from oneself?"
"You're not alone, when..."
I did not know how to go on without touching on some area of silence. She waited a moment and finished the sentence herself: "When what I do implicates me?"
I did not know what to say.
"I probably never implicate myself with my friends", I thought aloud.
"You're a boy."
"I'm a boy?"
"Yes, you're stronger; or at least the others think you are."
"Those who... make demands; maybe those who just ask. No, those who make demands. People always demand more from girls."
"They also make demands on boys. It's just different. It doesn't make it any easier."
"I sometimes get the impression that girls owe some sort of debt, as though that was the way of the world and they can't refuse."
The hard look was back. I murmured: "You frighten me".
"Are you afraid for yourself or for me?"
I almost yelled: "For both of us", but held back just in time. I realised that my thoughts had lost their freedom during our conversation. I felt a slight trembling, like when I had gone down to the harbour, but the reasons genuinely seemed different. Were there reasons? I took a biscuit and started to nibble it. She did not look at me.
"It'll soon be dinner time," she said lightly. "Afterwards there's the camp fire. I like talking with you. See you at the camp fire?"
I got up with a cheerful smile which she returned.
"See you," I said, leaving the tent.
At the camp fire, everyone is part of the same pack. The howlings - we call it singing - are produced so that no one can hear anything from outside. There is no time for thoughts to take shape, no place for distress; happiness, that immobile state, encircles us. A stranger, happening upon us, would be burnt alive: the flames would burn more brightly, the songs resound more loudly.
The playlet that she had prepared was amusing; I followed it with great pleasure. Everyone was laughing, the younger ones clapped. A girl sitting not far from me exclaimed: "Gosh, she's really great, she ought to go into the theatre!" Her neighbour said admiringly: "There's plenty else she could do too. She's amazing!" "I hope she doesn't waste her time and makes best use of all her possibilities", squeaked another. The night seemed to take on a darker cast. "I hope she doesn't waste her time." With me - was she wasting her time with me? "Best use of her possibilities." What did I know about her possibilities? She had already said some pretty strange things: "What do I have to give up?" Was it a choice in which I had a place? A place to lose, I mean. What place to lose, then? I had no particular place. Was it something else she would have to give up? On my account? In which case I was spoiling her life!
The camp fire went on for quite a while longer after the play. She came over to where I was sitting; she was in high spirits. She asked me if I had liked the play. I said yes, just as brightly, but I looked at her in a way that was different from usual. Did she notice? Her gaze had lingered on me for a brief moment, but her lively manner returned as she spoke. I was surprised to see the rest of the evening go by as merrily as it was supposed to; I had managed to hide my thoughts. But each word she spoke, practically every movement she made seemed to come from further off than on other days. She was still as close as ever, but this evening the life I divined in her had its roots in a place I had never been before. As the fire was beginning to go out I said, without really realising:
"I've sunk your ship, haven't I?"
"I'd already left it," she replied almost before I had finished.
I was a little scared: the outline of my question had not yet formed clearly in my mind when I heard her answering it. Where did she hear me from? I didn't dare look at her. Gradually everyone got up, talking to their neighbours, calling out to others further away, beginning sentences with one and finishing them with another; or finishing them all by themselves. The little groups which had formed during the evening merged into a single crowd. She was surrounded now by all those who had come to congratulate her on the play. It did not concern me: I was a little irritated. I hung around for a few moments but no longer felt part of it. I tried to signal that I was going but she was not looking my way. In the end I went off, turning round a couple of times; a wave of her hand showed me that she had seen me leave.
I woke several times during the night; an absurd thought crossed my mind on each occasion: was she in her tent, in the girls' camp, where she was supposed to be? Not that she might have left, or not have gone to bed, that wasn't it at all. It was really absurd: was she alive, was she living out there, in the camp, when I couldn't see her? Was she alive, was she living somewhere? Sleep steals over me again and I don't understand, don't understand...
It's lunchtime. Will she come back for lunch? It's not as though I've been asleep all morning; she wasn't here. She's over yonder. She told me yesterday, or the day before, that she'd be going. She said it didn't interest me. It doesn't. Archaeological digs don't interest me. How come I know so much more about archaeology than she does? I've read books that she hasn't, no doubt about it. I know things; she's interested in them; how can that be? My knowledge leaves me here. Her interest takes her elsewhere. If I just want to be with her, stay with her, spend time with her, here, at camp or at the beach, do I have to study archaeology? Science - big word, that - is my subject at school; she can study archaeology, can't she? Not necessarily with me. I mean, I'm not going to ... She said it herself. She just wants to be able to ... Life is made up of many different pieces. Whatever I do, I can't take her to school with me. What about her school? What do they do there? Literature! Reading, in other words! I read too; I've even read books on archaeology... She hasn't come back for lunch. She can't be hungry. I'll go for a walk. I shan't go over to the dig. I don't even know where it is. Well, not exactly. In any case, I shan't go.
I went off towards the beach; there was a ball game going on in the water. Two teams, points, shouting; not much laughter, the game no laughing matter. I won; all my team won; each of us won. But I had played better than the rest, or at least so I was told by one of the watchers on the beach, a girl who yelled and thumped me on the back. It was the Camp Director's daughter, a great admirer of physical prowess. What would the boys not do in the way of physical prowess in order to win the kind of favour that had just been accorded to me! With shoulders, arms and back aching, I promised to take the girl into the village for the vital ice cream. We had to go straight away. We sat out on the pavement - or, rather, the terrace of a shop whose wares would have been difficult to guess had it not been for the sign marked "ICE CREAM". And yet the shopkeeper must have had some fears in this direction because he had added another sign, handwritten this time, above the first: "Ice cream". Left in no doubt, we ordered ice cream. After tasting mine, I was amazed at the persistence with which the Director's daughter got one or other of the boys at camp to play knight errant. There's no accounting for tastes, my charming companion said, though the subject was not ice cream. A little dumbfounded - can one be a lot dumbfounded? - I gathered that the reference was to a person who had been away all day - and of course my companion, being the Director's daughter, was in the know - and who, so I was reliably informed, had gone to the dig. But, as far as taste was concerned, it was mine that was at issue here. And not my taste, or lack of it, in archaeology, but in girls, and in particular a certain girl who was always much too busy, whether with archaeology or other things. This was followed by a long, insistent look intended to provoke - I use the word advisedly - thoughts appropriate to a situation about which I so urgently needed to be warned. Mission accomplished: I had been warned, though not exactly about what had been intended. I had been warned that I would have to be on my guard about our conversation. At each lick, at each bite, the sweet young thing sitting opposite me was enjoying not only the taste of ice cream but, even more, the effects of the disaster I was supposed to be experiencing. Help was called for; at least, that's what it looked like. I was right to accept; instinct was a reliable guide in these matters. I was not long left in doubt as to the kind of help intended : I was invited, without further ado, to spend the following afternoon in the village with my ice maiden. "That way you won't have to go to the beach and go swimming, I know you don't like it!" The words "have to" were carefully underlined. I realised at the same time the extent to which my tastes had been understood. The proposal, given my constant state of mind at camp, had no more attraction than an offer to join some card game or other. The girl was disagreeable and the feelings which stirred in that particular breast were either slightly distasteful or quite simply ridiculous. But when you join in a game, do you ask the other players for a bill of moral health? I had some shopping to do, a chore that I had been putting off as long as possible. Writing paper, other things you could only get in the village. I mentioned the fact; we would go the next day after lunch. The last mouthful of ice cream nearly ended up on my companion's skirt. We went back for dinner.
Everybody at camp was sleepy after the previous day's long evening spent around the camp fire. The whole world was sleepy. I was sleepy. Was she asleep? I had seen her, some way off, during dinner. There was little animation in her movements; she was usually more lively. No doubt she was tired. Hardly surprising, she must have been working all day. Yes, of course, all day, as I hadn't seen her on the beach that afternoon, nor... I'm not interested in thinking about all that now, I'm sleepy; everyone's off to bed, even though it's still early. A few hardy souls settle down to play so-called parlour games: an opportunity for them to hate each other. No, that's an exaggeration, the word "hate" came unthinkingly. No matter, I'm not sleepy, I'll go and play. Tomorrow I'll not be properly awake. My mind will be a little hazy, thoughts vague. Good. I ought to be joining in, I'm here with the others, I have to live their life; or lose. It's only a game; what would it be like if it weren't a game? My mind must wander sometimes; they berate me: "Are you playing or not?" - "Why are you always going off like that?" - "There's no point playing if your mind's always elsewhere!" True, one's mind should never be elsewhere. It's the same at school. My mind isn't elsewhere, it's on her, but as far as the others are concerned she doesn't exist. I must keep my mind on what does exist as far as the others are concerned. What will she be like tomorrow? What a question! Does it mean that she isn't always the same? You can't hear a bird sing if it's turned into a plant. The day ends.
A grey day today. The beach is out. Walks, games. It's up to me to go and see her, she won't come of her own accord. That's stupid, she's already been. Something has changed; perhaps it's only me - I was bored yesterday. Oh yes, the ice creams! I think I've put myself in a quandary; I am no longer as free to talk about yesterday with her. But we never talk about yesterdays. She doesn't come. I go.
I went up to her tent hesitantly; she was not alone. Two or three other girls were tidying round, or perhaps talking amongst themselves. They said hello, I said hello. I sat down beside her; she wasn't doing anything, just tossing a pebble. We didn't speak. It didn't bother me, sitting like that without saying anything; her silence was neither rejection nor expectation. It was as though we were sitting listening to music. I was calm, serene even, without understanding why. The other girls glanced our way now and then and imperceptibly lowered their voices. She looked around, surprised and thoughtful, then turned to me with a smile that was encouraging though sad. "Coming?" she asked, getting up. "D'you want to go for a walk?" she said when we were outside. "Aren't you tired?" I asked. She seemed surprised and looked into my eyes. "Come on!" she said gently.
We walked slowly along the seaside paths; there were few other walkers, as it was not a sunny day. Were we still listening to the same music as before, in the tent? The silence continued and I felt that it kept us close to one another. "You would like the world to exist only when you look at it." She had spoken, but her voice did not break the silence; my thoughts seemed to mingle with her words and I could no longer distinguish when she was speaking and when I was reading the images of her consciousness. If the world existed when I did not look at it, was it the same? And always, always: was she the same? Is that what the onset of madness is like? I saw her - no, I represented her to myself, outside the scope of my gaze - but it was not she that was different, it was the world in which she lived, and that world obliged her - against her will? - to live as though she did not belong to this earth. Did I tell her that or did I just dream it? She turned her whole body towards me, took my arm and squeezed it and said: "The world is always there, without you; I can't help but see it." She had stopped and stood facing me, still clutching my arm. I thought she seemed pale, but that was doubtless because she was watching me without moving, her eyes wide. I stood motionless, but, looking at her, I had to make an effort to see her, to see her clearly. It was not an unreal world that clouded my vision but the pebble which she had been playing with in her tent and which reminded me of the previous day. I spoke to her as if she was listening to me from the top of a wall although my voice could have reached her even if I had spoken softly:
"I said I never got used to things; perhaps I ought to accept them."
"If you do, you affect yourself and perhaps even me too."
"Which of the two is the more important?"
"That's an odd question. It's as if you were trying to hit me."
"Yes, it was daft, I said it instinctively."
"Boys have fierce instincts."
"They spend most of their time talking to other boys."
After a short silence I added, a little more slowly:
"Girls are more careful."
"In what they say?"
Unconsciously she had let go of my arm and started walking again. Before I was able to stop myself, I asked:
"Did you find anything interesting yesterday?"
"Looking is what I enjoy, you know. I don't even know that I care whether I find anything or not."
"What would you do if you found something important without looking for it?"
She slowed her pace and looked down, biting her lip; she seemed to be thinking about a subject that caused her some astonishment.
"I've just realised," she said with a sort of wonderment in her eyes, "that there are two kinds of finding: for oneself and for others. If it's for ourselves, we are sure that it is our due."
She added brusquely, almost in anger, though without the object of her anger being visible:
"You're not a pebble!"
I felt my hands grow damp and could not understand why. I could find no answer, nothing to say. She was walking briskly now and I followed a little way behind. Without turning round, she said in an even voice:
"Don't forget your appointment this afternoon!"
Stung, I tried to answer, but my tongue got caught in my teeth and all I could produce was a sort of gurgle; I didn't even know what I had meant to say. I was irked not to have been able to find a simple answer, about such a banal event. It accorded importance to something which ought not to have any. I was irked. Still a little behind her I asked, raising my voice:
"Are we going anywhere in particular?"
"Anywhere in particular? No, not in particular. Why do you ask?"
"It's just that you seem to be in a hurry to get there!"
"I'm not hurrying!"
"OK, you're not hurrying, you're just walking quickly."
"Are you tired?"
I wanted to stop; I didn't want to go on; in my mind, what had started out as a walk seemed to be turning into a route march. I had slowed down so as to keep some distance between us but she must have slowed down too, and nothing had changed. I looked at the sea; there were a few little waves; there was a slight breeze, the air ... the air was transparent, air is always transparent, bully for air! I looked down; there was earth, hardly unusual for a path. Next to the path - in the earth - there was grass or some other plant. Oh hell, I don't give a damn what there is, left or right or up or down. Ah! Ahead! I'd've done better to look ahead! She had stopped suddenly and I ran straight into her shoulder. She didn't budge and I almost fell over. Well done!
"What could I have?" she growled.
We stared at each other for a moment - all that was missing was a crowd to egg us on to a fight. We were still staring at each other.
"I know, it's my fault," she gasped in a raw voice, "it's better to stay quietly at home, I ought to stay at home, I shouldn't... I shouldn't anything!"
Her gaze was riveted on my eyes. I was frozen, body and mind. She went on in a duller tone:
"You know, I don't want to make you... yes, I do; I..."
I had the impression she made as if to take my hand, but I saw her unmoving still. She had lowered her eyes and her head had shrunk into her shoulders. I heard her take a deep breath, then say:
"I want to walk with you until lunchtime."
Her eyes were clouded with anxiety.
"I don't want you to do only what I..."
She did not finish her sentence; her voice had lost all substance and passed smoothly through my mind. I said without really being aware of it:
"Do you want to spend the whole day together? We don't have to go back for lunch."
She looked at me brightly, with a slight smile gradually shaded with irony then began to laugh, a laugh in which fractures could be heard.
"You can't! You've got to go out!"
"No I...", I began, and my appointment reared up in front of me.
She could see that I was casting around for an answer. She could see it and wanted me to know she could. Suddenly she cocked her head on one side and smiled peaceably at me, saying:
"I'm happy you're here; don't be cross."
I wasn't cross, I was ... I had no idea what I was. I took her hand and said:
"We've still got plenty of time; I want to walk with you."
We went on side by side.
I had let go of her hand and my thoughts seemed at the same moment to leave the day I was living through. I was old and had run into her; she was old too. "Do you remember?" I said. "We were at camp, it was before." She looked at me, smiling affectionately: "Life has been long, where I've been," she said, "I didn't know where you were living, or how; you're here now, why did you leave?" Her eyes hadn't changed. I spoke to her: "I wanted to be with you all day, every day; but sometimes, when I spoke to you, my voice didn't reach you. Perhaps I thought I was there but wasn't really. Sometimes you discovered me and that was wonderful. I saw you always, but when it was while you weren't there, there was nothing around you and I was frightened." "I'm here, I'm here", she said. "Time never passes; worlds come and go, but it is always the same time when we're together." Neither of us was able to move. Her eyes were very large.
I felt her come and take my arm and give it a shake. I was on a path, not far from the sea; it was today. She said, with a trace of anxiety:
"Where have you been?"
She was there: she didn't look the same, she wasn't old, I wasn't old. There was no eternity of memory between us. We hadn't known each other very long and I couldn't talk to her about ... before. Above all, I couldn't say: "It's too late! I can't bring back the past." The past was now, and I hadn't been anywhere. Time was not a rampart between me and her.
"It's hot," I said, feigning exhaustion.
"No it isn't. Do you want to stop for a while? You're ... What are you thinking about?"
I couldn't say "About time running backwards".
"About the sea, renewing itself wave after wave against the shore."
"And breaking down cliffs", she added evenly.
We started laughing, gently at first, then harder and harder. I almost said, "How dumb!", but saw the same exclamation in her eyes. It made me laugh even harder, and her too.
"Yes, we've been for a walk - yes, by the sea - no, not along the beach - no, we haven't been swimming - right, we didn't have our costumes on - yes, of course, as we didn't go swimming - no, why should we have got lost? - yes, that's the main thing, we're not late for lunch".
Having answered the vague queries - "Oh, I was just wondering!" - of the special investigation unit we went to lunch after a last smile.
Lunch was not a peaceful affair; everyone was on edge. Piercing shrieks could be heard from the girls' side - girls will scream at anything, of course, but that's going too far! -; the boys munched away, giving each other sly looks. As always, I didn't know what was going on and was unable to understand what all the fuss was about. I was told that the afternoon was to be spent training. Training for what? The race, of course. "There's going to be a race, down at the beach." Oh, a race! What fun. It did not take long for me to realise that it was not fun, it was deadly earnest. Surely not everyone thought it was important? Oh yes, they did, even those who weren't interested were taking part so as to set an example, especially if they were good at it. "Especially if they're good at it" was underlined. I understood that while the remark might not be aimed directly at me, it could well be directed at a certain person who I was not to prevent from training for stupid reasons like going for a walk. "Fine, fine, in any case I've got something else to do." "What do you mean, something else? Aren't you coming?" I didn't know what to say, grunted something, shrugged vaguely and got up without realising whether we'd had pudding or not. I didn't know what to think or what to do. So everybody else knew about the training session!
"Hi, let's go!" The voice, slightly harsh, cut through my perplexities, allowing me to identify, behind the fashion plate which had just appeared, the directorial progeniture. Were we going to a tea party that a highly coloured imagination had turned into a society event? It was not the
sort of question one should ask.
"You're not likely to come first in that get-up," I teased.
"In the training session."
The laugh which answered my remark was as harsh as the voice, but I could detect without difficulty a hint of sarcasm. Yes, even I knew about it now! Around us, though some way off, a few boys were watching; they looked surprised, stood rooted to the spot. I was well aware that I was considered a strong swimmer and that my absence from training would be regarded as a cause of concern: was I so sure of myself or was I going to train somewhere else - and with whom? Certainly not with this creature who had never been seen swimming except for as long as it took to come back and stretch out on the beach glistening with pearls of water. I was highly amused and, laughing, said:
"Got your watch?"
"My watch? Yes. What for?"
"To time how long it takes you to eat your ice cream."
"You never know, sillier competitions exist."
I said it with what I tried to turn into a slightly ironic look. The allusion was understood, I think, but there was nothing to show it. I heard a cheerful voice: "Let the children go paddling, we're heading for town!" The cheerful voice was calling from the distance: the monitors moved off towards the beach.
The walk into the village was accomplished in good spirits. We strode out briskly and I was treated, at the same pace, to a detailed description and comparison of the various faults of the girls at camp. There was nothing especially remarkable about these faults and they could have been a mere pretext for spicing up, as is the custom, the type of conversation generally referred to as being "between friends". However, it was difficult for me not to notice, perhaps because I half expected it, the numerous mentions of naive hearts turned to ashes by some of these faults, which were in fact only one: inconstancy. I smiled inwardly: if anyone was a past master in the art of inconstancy it appeared to be the author of the discourse I had just heard.
The conversation was a mere distraction for me. However, a contradictory thought seemed to slip out: can one be constantly inconstant? I must have been looking particularly stupid because I heard a voice saying insistently: "Don't you believe me?" "Yes, yes, of course I do," and I thought posthaste: "Who is the trap being set for?" If it was for me - the logical answer - I had no need to worry; but if it was for someone who might suffer on my account, I couldn't allow it. But wasn't the real answer rather different? A shadow had formed somewhere in my mind where a fear lurked, the kind of fear one feels at approaching destruction; and what could be destroyed was what men feel when their instincts, the same instincts as those of wild creatures, deprive their reason of exclusive domination.
We reached the village; my thoughts had not disturbed my companion, whose sermon continued to flow around me.
"... you to like it; I mean, you've got to think of yourself a bit, haven't you?"
"Of course you have. Shopping first, or ice cream?"
"Shopping, and then a well-earned rest."
"You know, I haven't got much in the way of shopping to do."
"I have! It's a good job you told me to come to the village, otherwise I'd've been up shit creek!"
I had never told her to go anywhere at all; I asked distractedly:
"What have you got to get?"
"I simply must find a swatch of calico to make a canezou."
"Yes, of course," I said, having understood nothing. "Let's go."
"I hope we'll find a shop that has some."
"Not very likely, here in the village."
"But whatever shall I do? Don't you realise?"
I didn't, and it clearly got on her nerves. One had to realise. I said, trying to give an impression of interest:
"What's it for?"
"What's it for! You don't even know what it is!"
What was a man to do in the face of such intuition? The best thing was clearly to surrender.
"So what is it?" I asked.
"Your zoo thingy."
"Canezou. It's to wear."
I was onto a winner. I replied in a flash:
"You don't need one, you're very pretty just as you are."
The answer came back with a sway of the hips:
"It's for the play; I can put a play on for the next camp fire, too. I need a period costume: I'll show you."
"I'm sure it'll be wonderful. I hope we find something."
We finally found something similar, but which would be "just as good, maybe even better". After finishing the shopping, include the writing paper which I almost forgot, we went to chill out, as it were. Ice cream was not as high up on the agenda as on the day before and it was not long before we were under starter's orders again: "There's plenty of time, we can go back over the rocks, I know the way."
Her pace was lively, which surprised me, for her attitude usually came across as somewhat languid. Her step was brisk and it occurred to me that the girl must have a good deal more self-confidence than it appeared at first sight. Her remarks, which always gave the impression of having been made at random, were perhaps much more carefully chosen than one might think - than I had thought. I followed, not having to hurry, but at a good lick nonetheless. Seeing her move, from behind, I became aware of her solidity: not graceful, perhaps, but harmonious. A stupid idea crossed my mind: the girl didn't like ice cream. I supposed that the thought ought to mean something but I didn't know what. I abandoned the subject. We came to a particularly steep and inaccessible bit, the way through being half in the water and half over the rocks. The girl bounded on ahead of me and I had only to follow. Reaching a little hollow in the rock with a view of nothing but sea, I heard a whoosh of breath; the girl sat down suddenly, panting energetically:
"Whew! Out of breath! Can't go on!"
I looked more closely than I had done before. There was no suggestion of fatigue in the figure sitting in front of me. The whole purpose of the afternoon's escapade had been to come here, an isolated place but apparently familiar. I decided to halt my train of thought right there.
"What do you think about trust?"
I was not expecting that sort of question: was it meant in general terms or did it refer to someone in particular? I answered harshly:
"Trusting means accepting death."
"And you can?"
"Maybe that's what I would like to find out."
I was still standing. I took a few steps along the sand and settled myself down comfortably, leaning against a large rock. After a while, during which we said nothing, I saw her moving her hand slowly over the sand as if smoothing it, then lie down on it, hands clasped in a pillow. The silence continued. The sea was calm; there were a couple of boats, far away on the horizon; the sun was hidden behind the clouds. I was bored. Seeing her lying there, not far from me, frightened me a little. I was not scared, far from it, but what was at stake here was me. Depending on what I did, I would be one person or another. To whom? I did not even know. To myself, to the girl who lay there, sure of her powers. I shall do only what I want to do. And where is what I want to do to come from? I look at her: lying there motionless, eyes closed, seeming to sleep. I look at her, I want to know. My thoughts blur. I want to say something. I say nothing. I look at her. I do not move.
"And when you know?"
The voice came to me slowly, haltingly. When I knew what? Surely what I had just been thinking couldn't have... No, of course not, it was what I had said earlier! Perhaps those eyes had not really been closed. I answered:
"It depends on whether the most important thing is me or someone else."
"The other person would have to be worth it."
"I don't know. Maybe not."
"Don't you care if you make a mistake?"
"Of course I do."
"Don't you ever make mistakes?"
"I try to reach an opinion as late as possible."
"It bores you..."
We were silent; I saw her raise her head, half sit up. I felt embarrassed without knowing why. I launched into a complicated explanation:
"It is difficult to achieve a full awareness of the overall psychological..."
"You mean you're not sure what girls think about you?" The interruption was accompanied by a mocking laugh.
"I'm still capable of knowing what a girl's thinking!" I retorted.
"So tell me what I'm thinking right now!"
This had nothing to do with eating ice cream. I wanted to say something hurtful, something that would break her train of thought - because there was one, no doubt about it! I said calmly:
"I don't have to tell you, even if I know."
"That's too easy!"
"Too easy? So what? Does what is right have to be difficult?"
"You just don't want to answer."
"You want me to say what you want to hear."
"Of course, you're not used to being contradicted, at least not with some people."
"Who do you mean?"
"You know who I mean. People laugh at you and you don't say a word!"
"Laugh at me! You... It's... I don't see anything to laugh at."
"I'm not the only one to say so."
"We can all do as we please, so long as..."
"Oh yeah?" And then, in an undertone:
"You really are dumb, you know."
I told myself it was probably true. I had been expecting a rather simpler attitude, the sort of attitude boys expect from girls when they discuss the subject amongst themselves. I was confronted with a person whose thoughts were individual and did not follow the paths that my mind proposed for them. I had to accept a different thought process to my own. It reminded me of another discussion: I could not accept, because if I did I was no longer myself, or something like that. We were there, the two of us, and I was making life unnecessarily complicated: I was indeed dumb. I knew that later I would regret this moment but I was - no, not paralysed, but bereft of volition. I felt watched, felt that I was giving an impression of inadequacy. And yet my friends all said that I was not short of character. It seemed to me that this character had been dissolved, that it was no longer manifested through itself but formed part of a will that was outside me. "You're right," I said, without hearing what I said. Then I went on tiredly:
"I'm not much fun."
"You're sweet; I've been horrid to you. I don't mean to hurt you."
"But you're not hurting me! Do you see anyone bursting into tears, for God's sake?"
"Come on, let's go!"
"What's the hurry?"
My answer provoked a burst of laughter.
"So're you," I mumbled.
What was there to do but follow her vigorous stride? I stayed some way behind, not daring to get too close. I was filled with a sort of shame. I did not understand, nor did I try to. After a while, without hurrying, I found myself alongside. I only realised when I heard the girl talking about the play that had been mentioned in the village when we were buying the material. I tried as best I could to listen attentively and answer in the right places - in other words, I tried not to show that I felt as though I had done something wrong, and above all not to show that my mind was elsewhere. I was worried about my return to camp. I felt as though I was coming back from far-off lands. Far-off but not alien. I won't have much in the way of marvellous tales to tell. I'll have to answer...
Back at camp, we separate with much smiling and waving. General hubbub; detailed analysis of the results of the training session; invective; challenges; commiseration. People running everywhere; she goes past me, stops:
"Oh, there you are! Didn't you come to the training session? Oh, of course, I'd forgotten! Did it go well?"
"No, it went very badly," I bellow. "Are you satisfied?"
She laughs; then there is a catch in her laughter. Suddenly she appears worried; she stands in front of me, immobile. Now she looks anxious.
"It's my fault!" she gasps.
I am flabbergasted.
"What's your fault?"
"I don't know."
I no longer understand anything she says. I don't know what I think. I feel like crying.
I interrupt her:
"After dinner I'm going to bed."
"Tomorrow. Yes, tomorrow."
I didn't go to dinner; I went to bed.
The next morning I arrived at the beach before anyone else. The race was due to take place soon; I would have to remember to find out which day exactly. Why not train for it after all? I knew that I too was a good swimmer; perhaps I could even win this famous race that seemed to have brainwashed them all. And there was no need for a gallery full of spectators just for a training session. I'm fine here, I thought to myself, and if the others come, I'll go further out - the sea's big enough. The idea crossed my mind that I could swim further out right now, without waiting; yes, without waiting - for what, though? Yes, yes, but I didn't want to get involved in a discussion with that particular idea. In any case, I had come here to train and not to gossip. I waded into the water - oh! isn't it lovely, meaning bloody freezing. Never mind, the harder I swim, the less cold I'll get. But I'll still start with a few practice strokes. Look, here come the campers. Never a moment's peace. And who's that with them? And what do I care, in any case? Let's start swimming. It's not as though I'm obliged to move a lot further out either, especially not on their account. I can swim wherever I like, can't I?
She has just arrived. She looks around the beach; she comes down to the water - she sees me. I carry on swimming as though I hadn't seen her. She stands there, following me with her eyes; she must be, I can see her head moving. I swim as well as I can, but I'm supposed to be training, aren't I? All that takes a few minutes. I see her wading into the water; she comes towards me. I swim. She comes closer; without her usual greeting, she talks to me about my swimming style, giving me her opinion on this or that movement. She knows a lot about swimming, I know she takes part in competitions; her advice is good, I can feel it after I make the corrections she suggests to my stroke. We swim side by side, heading away from the shore. It's harder work since she arrived, but I'm also swimming faster. I feel like heaving a sigh, but I'd only end up swallowing water. I feel like sighing because I didn't reckon on having a teacher swimming alongside me, and now... Can't I live any more without her help? What's the phrase? I'm a big boy now! So what's she, then? A little girl? No, definitely not a little girl. Suddenly, I feel under her tutelage. To hell with it, she's not my mother after all! In any case, it's not as if I'm under my mother's tutelage either. Unthinkingly, I open my mouth to tell her... I swallow a great mouthful of water - ugh! salty - choke, stop, splutter.
"What's the matter, then? Got your breathing mixed up?"
She had spoken with all the seriousness of a trainer. I wipe my eyes and open my mouth again to tell her... and burst out laughing.
She looks at me curiously; like someone trying to guess what is going on.
"You want me to win!" I say, my laughter subsiding.
The look she gives me is almost mistrustful. She answers cautiously:
"Do you want to lose?"
I sketch a smile.
"I don't know."
"But you want me to win."
"I want... I think that when you decide to do something, you should do it as well as you can."
"Of course, that's right: the most important thing is what one does, not who one is."
Her arms have stopped moving for a moment; her head begins to sink, but she must have started treading water because she resurfaces.
"Who's got their breathing mixed up now?" I tease her.
"Would you rather swim or talk? If it's talk, let's go back to shore."
"Is it too difficult in the water?"
"OK, let's go back."
"No, no, we have all the time in the world. I feel fine. I feel like swimming today, and you're giving me so much help."
"I can go if you like."
"You don't have to stay for my sake, if you don't want to. No but really, you are helping me. It makes me want to - not do as well as I can, but... just do well, for the fun of it."
I put my hands on her shoulders and ask nicely:
"Shall we go?"
She nods. I duck her and race off. She catches me up and gives me a thump.
"You're not allowed to hurt me - I've got a race to win!" I cry.
"You'll have to do better than that!"
I carry on training for a while longer. She is always there, attentive, tireless, serious. Her comments are precise, never superfluous. If I make a joke, her mind is sufficiently free to laugh, or even to answer back. When I begin to feel tired, she tells me we ought to stop. We head back for the beach, where I collapse on the sand. Not that she doesn't look pretty tired too! We lie there, resting; and yet, I wouldn't mind... Why does she want me to win? This kind of thing doesn't have any real meaning for her. Even though I am here, must I do battle in a world which exists only for her? Against whom? Or if not that, for what image of myself?
Lunch time is approaching. One of the campers gets up, then another, then another, then a whole bunch, then all of them. A procession forms up and trails off towards the common repast. We agree to see each other after lunch. After quiet hour we'll go over to the little rocky island, we can wade there, we won't have to get wet. It's a pleasant spot; with a little imagination, it could even be a desert island. See you!
Lunch was excellent and I was hungry after the morning's swimming. I fell asleep during quiet hour, something which never happened to me as a rule. She woke me up, coming into the tent. "I should've been more careful," she said, "I didn't think you'd be asleep." I told her that it didn't matter in the least, that I wanted to go for a walk as we had agreed and that it was a good job she hadn't left me to go on sleeping. I think I was still half-asleep as I talked to her.
The walk woke me up altogether, after a little while. I was tired - not something that happened to me very often - and the sensation amused me. If I was tired, it was because I had not done what I usually did. Fine logic! Yes, but that meant that she got me to do things that I hadn't intended to do. I was exaggerating: after all, it was nothing more than a pastime; nothing momentous depended on it. And was it just a pastime for her?
"You're not very talkative," I heard suddenly.
"Yes; I think I must still be asleep. That training session with you has worn me out, you know! Do you always train that hard in your team?"
"Yes, even harder actually. But this isn't a competition."
"Apart from the fact that I've got to win."
"Oh, do as you please!"
"OK, OK, don't get mad."
"I'm not, but I get the feeling I'm jolting your life."
"Is this how...?"
She didn't answer, but was it really a question? We were nearly there and she was busy trying to find the best way over the rocks. There was nobody on the little island, there rarely was, but campers sometimes came there to dive because the water was deep. Having chosen the most beautiful spot she asked: "Will this do you?" I answered that she had made an exceptional choice, was teased in return, and... there we were! The view was pleasant enough, the way views tend to be. So we looked at it; should one be afraid of revealing one's sensitivity? I knew that I had just asked her a question... was it important, was it embarrassing - if so, to whom? I couldn't remember.
"You're never in a hurry; I like that."
I should have been surprised at what she had just said, but I wasn't. On the contrary, I had the impression that she had just answered what my mind had sought to confide in her. I smiled into her eyes. I did not feel like talking to her. Everything around us was quiet and my mind had just finished calming down. Time passed all by itself, without drawing us in its wake.
"You're not a stage show to me."
Her voice came to me mingled with the sound of the sea, diluted in the warm air that surrounded us. I listened.
"The world is not the world of parents or school. What are the secrets I threaten when I look elsewhere?"
I replied, thinking aloud:
"What are the secrets you find?"
"Perhaps I find them without realising it. If people notice when they look at me, it frightens them. But I would like to know these secrets too."
"Who will you be if they are revealed to you? And who will be doing the revealing? You, if they are within yourself?"
"What you want to know is whether I will be dependent on the person who reveals them to me, not who I will be."
I felt a violent shiver. I had a vision of a giant - no, he was not that big, it was just me seeing myself small appearing in front of her, and telling her, or showing her... and she was radiant, and she was going off with him - for ever; and most of all, she was leaving this world and no one would ever see her again.
"Are you crying?"
It was her voice.
"It's the wind off the sea," I said with difficulty.
"You know, when I was little, I decided that I would never depend on anyone."
"And have you changed your mind?"
"I haven't thought about it since; if the subject has come up again, it's because of you."
"Yes, you. When I thought 'anyone', I didn't mean anyone in particular, it was insubstantial. Now you are there, alive, in front of me..."
"I'm not the only one there, alive, in front of you."
"I know, I know. But... I don't know... There probably aren't any secrets after all."
"If there weren't any, you'd know it in your bones."
We were silent for a moment, then she began to laugh:
"We're not talking about the same thing; I'm talking about the world I live in, you're talking only about me."
How could I talk about the world she lived in? Was I supposed to tell her that it fascinated me - and frightened me? And that I was unable to separate that world and her? It would have meant telling her that she did not exist for me if she was outside that world. Only, for her it was real and for me it was created by her own life. And if her life slipped from my grasp, it was her that I lost. I didn't know how to answer. She was the one to carry on:
"You're talking only about me, but you're thinking of someone else."
"Yes, the person of your imagination, who would live guided by your mind and die when you stopped thinking about her."
"So I have to die each time you're not there."
"I wasn't dead during your date yesterday."
I was disconcerted; it caused a silence to fall. She broke it:
"Unless I was. What do you say to that?"
I smiled; I couldn't help smiling.
"You call that an answer?"
Her voice was calm. I started laughing.
"You're dumb!", I exclaimed.
"Why? Are you the only one who's allowed to drift away into daydreaming fantasies?"
"What's that supposed to mean, daydreaming fantasies?"
"It's when you make me do what you want when I'm not there."
"I don't make you do anything at all."
"OK, OK; so neither of us was dead, then."
I fell silent a moment, then muttered:
"When are you going back to your dig?"
"When are you going back to school?"
"You've already told me."
"So if I say it again it stops being true?"
"I didn't make any great finds yesterday."
"I don't know..."
"Hey, look here!"
"I don't find her as stupid as they say."
"Stop talking rubbish. You're behaving like a twelve-year-old."
She seemed to gather her thoughts before replying:
"Oh yes, of course, you always have to be the same age - and have the thoughts that go with it. It's like at school: you're in one class or another. You aren't allowed to know more than you're supposed to: "It's not for this year!" And of course you aren't allowed to know less, either: "You know nothing!" And most of all, you aren't allowed to have your way lit by other lights."
"Your life is full of other lights. I feel too dark for you to see."
"And if these other lights lit you up so that I could see you better? I know it's just another load of rubbish, but how can you know anything without being compelled by curiosity?"
"As long as that's all it is..."
"I can see you're not a twelve-year-old!"
"I'm sorry, but your other lights don't seem to be shedding a right lot of it just at the moment."
"OK then, I'll shut up."
"Don't be daft, it was meant as a compliment."
"You see, I didn't understand because I'm too daft!"
I started to protest. She burst out laughing:
"I'm entitled to pay you compliments too, you know."
"Of course; you're entitled to anything."
I added hastily:
"Well, almost anything."
She gave me a broad, kind smile. I pulled my face into a scowl.
"Do you want to go swimming?"
I said it so as not to let a silence grow. She looked astonished.
"You're tired," she said, "too tired for it to be worthwhile."
"Maybe, but wouldn't you rather be in the water?"
"No, not really."
"It would be better if there was someone there with you."
"You can be there with me when you're properly rested: tomorrow, for example."
"You don't like to be on your own."
It was abrupt. As chess masters say, the next move could be: if you are with me, I am not alone; if you are not there, et cetera. I was a prisoner. A conversation came back to me, in which she said that I could ... no, that I was ... that I was free before coming to camp, holiday camp. I was a prisoner. I was doubtless a prisoner of the camp. Or rather, I should have been. Was I her prisoner? Dammit, how many delights had I not found in my freedom, not so very long ago!
"I don't like to be on my own either when you're there."
She spoke softly, with hardly a trace of irony, but with authority nonetheless. I felt oppressed and said dully:
"How would you put it? You mustn't dream in class, you have to listen to what teacher says."
"I'm sorry. I didn't mean it like that. I think what I meant... I would like you not to be alone when I dream without talking to you."
"That depends on where your dreams take you."
"That depends on where I find you; you know, daydreaming fantasies!"
"Come with me tomorrow."
The invitation had been tendered with a frown of concentration. My curiosity was roused:
"Is something happening?"
"Come with me to the dig."
"You told me it didn't interest me."
She did not answer. I went on:
"I wouldn't like to..."
"Wouldn't like to what? Don't start that again!"
"Why do you want me to go?"
"So as to be there."
I stared at her wide-eyed - to show her that I was staring wide-eyed.
"So... do as you please."
Her voice sounded resigned - no, not resigned, weary rather; I was irritated without understanding why.
"You ask me... you have to admit it's a bit surprising... then you don't ask me..."
I realised that what I was saying was either incomprehensible or else ridiculous. She said in a voice that was firm again:
"I was wrong; there is no reason at all why you should come."
She paused before carrying on:
Another pause. She adds:
"I want you to come."
She has taken my arm; I am scared. I ask her:
"Are you in bother?"
"Yes, with you. Don't ask me any questions, I don't know how to answer. I don't really know what I'm saying."
She gives a small, derisive laugh. She lets go of my arm, then carries on:
"It doesn't matter, you know? But now, the way I've said all this... I don't know..."
"You know, I haven't understood a word."
I also pause before going on:
"Don't worry. Don't worry. I'll come. And if you don't want me to, I won't."
"Yes, yes, I do."
"OK then, don't worry. I'll come."
She has taken my arm again, lain her head on the rock, turning away from me. I do not move. I look at the sea which had seemed so pleasant; the waves, though tiny, make a threatening sound. A dark sound. It doesn't mean anything.
She has let go of my arm and is standing up. "Let's dive," she says, and plunges off without waiting for me. I see her enter the dark-sounding waves and, as if I had seen her in danger, dive after her. Coming up, I see her swimming strongly. I have to chase her a long way before catching her up. Then she stops suddenly and cries:
"You're there! You're there!"
She laughs and tries to duck me. I get away, we fight, laughing, that is to say, I make an effort to laugh like her. She stops again, speaks to me as though she were out of breath.
"You're nice to me. You know, you're really nice."
I smile at her. She continues:
"Let's go back, shall we?"
I slept well that night.
Waking up was rather a slow business. Not that I felt tired, but I had no desire at all to return to consciousness. Usually I got up as soon as I woke up; this morning I took at least two long minutes to decide. I got dressed with my eyes still closed, delaying as long as possible the moment when I had to enter the arena in which the game of life was played. Everyone was highly agitated at breakfast: the race was to take place the next day. I was annoyed; I had rather forgotten about it because it had never really roused my interest. It was the sole topic of conversation: the boys asked me questions which I answered as well as I could: had I been training and would I be taking part? The impression of being feared was disagreeable, causing me to feel the bitterness of exclusion, though many men are happy to be excluded if they are given power in exchange. The boys had declared what I supposed to be a friendly war against me, intended to remove my desire to fight. Among the arguments put forward was one which suggested that I did not have the necessary courage to fight in certain circumstances which were left vague but about which various signs and gestures left little doubt. The consequence of this war, which I found more amusing than irritating, was, for me, unexpected: I discovered that battle could only be joined against an enemy. A fine discovery! But must an enemy be that which is only the purpose of the person against whom one proposes to do battle? As far as the race was concerned, it was only a game, although some of those involved were tearing into each other for no apparent reason, except possibly self-interest or sheer madness. As for me, who was I to do battle against? Whatever happened - yes, whatever happened - she could not be my enemy. I was paralysed.
I found myself with two desires: dropping out of the race and winning it. Wanting to win was stupid, an idea that could be born only of animosity which I found in the boys' attitude towards me; animosity was not really the right word, their attitude was more a compound of astonishment and incomprehension for which I was ultimately responsible. I did not openly show my disagreement with what they were doing, but I suppose it was difficult not to see that I judged the mainsprings of their behaviour with intense conviction. And if my conviction appeared ill-founded to them, I reckoned it unlikely that they would not have told me. I was, in a word, a nuisance. Not too much of one, though, because I never imposed myself. That was the reason why I wanted to drop out of the race. And yet there was something else. Sure, I never imposed myself; but she, held in such esteem by the whole camp, she, so friendly yet distant towards all these boys, displayed an attachment to me that more than one of them hoped was not exclusive. I was a plague. It was not as though anyone wished me ill; but I should not have existed, I should not have destroyed the ideal that these pastime-hungry creatures had elaborated for themselves, persuading themselves that she belonged to them.
Nobody. She belonged to nobody. I belonged to nobody. I had never noticed that I belonged to nobody. And yet I was dependent... on whom? The grandiloquent answer was: on myself! Or, grandiloquence apart, on many people. But on her? Did I depend on her? Depend and belong. No, they were not the same. The link; I was unable to see the image of the link clearly in my mind. Between me and her, I suppose. I had not seen the link form. I could feel it. She did not belong to anyone. Did the same link exist for her? Was it unreal? When she was not there, was this link unreal?
The boys got up from table, their eyes mocking: "Are you coming, then?" "I'm coming," I replied with assurance, as though I had been thinking of nothing else since waking up. "I feel like a really good work-out this morning." It amused me to see their displeasure. During the training session I thought of the advice she had given me the previous day; I made a strong impression on my future adversaries.
Back on the beach, I saw the girls arriving. They had been training by themselves, not very far away. She came towards me. "Have you been swimming?" she asked anxiously. "Everything's all right, as you can see." I felt my answer to be as obscure as the source of her anxiety. She seemed satisfied. Other girls came up. "Are you going to win, then?" I was used to the boys' mockery and took offence at this question, coming from a girl; I answered crossly: "I won't have much trouble if it's against you!" I heard a voice telling me calmly: "But it might be better to avoid more dangerous adversaries." I turned round. It was the Director's daughter. I had no time to react: several girls surrounded me, overwhelming me with their cries: "Don't listen to her, she's only trying to discourage you!" "I can think of someone who'd rather be in someone else's place!" "You'll win all right!" "It doesn't matter if you don't win." "The gods themselves rail against stupidity." "We never see you." The last remark cut through the hubbub; the silence which followed cast me up alone before a thousand eyes that adorned me with a presence I had never imagined. I wanted to flash my most charming smile and make some witty remark. But just as I was adopting a flattering pose, I met a gaze from two eyes that transfixed me; had I forgotten that she was there too? The first words I uttered were a disaster and I was on the point of rushing into the water to hide my shame when the one who had remarked upon my absence came towards me and said: "You always seem so sad." This was the last thing I had been expecting; I stood there looking stupid. "Why don't you come down more often and have a bit of fun?" I couldn't understand how I could be of interest to her and wondered, hearing the question, if I might not have become a toy. And yet the look was a friendly one, the voice engaging; the figure in front of me astonished me. I found it difficult to believe that this girl, who I found so austere, or rather - the word came to me quite naturally - so untame, could be tempted by the idea of having fun. I had felt flattered at being the centre of attention, and now her remarks were depriving me of space. The day I had left on holiday, I had decided not to take part in camp life: but life never takes any notice of anything that is not itself. This girl, who I found so untame, was shouldering me roughly back into a real world, a closed world, a world closed up over those who dwelt within it. It was no doubt an act of mere kindness, asking me to take part in their common life, but I was afraid of finding out that such a return had to be made through her presence. I had a sudden desire to involve the girl in a conversation in which we would be the only ones, to go off somewhere else, to leave the beach together...
And then I will know what becomes of me when I am not there.
I started to laugh and ran away making great waving motions that did not mean anything much: I could run as much as I liked, I did not become anything I was not aware of.
Lunch was a pleasant meal, all the more so in that I had no wish whatsoever for it to end. In the afternoon I was supposed to be going to the dig. I replied to all the jokes about me that were flying around, even the least funny. They seemed all the better in that they kept my mind busy so that I did not see the time go by. Curiously, the boys treated me rather more cordially than they had been doing recently; had they understood how little anxious I was to win resounding victories, or had they merely found my behaviour this morning ridiculous, and hence reassuring? Wishing to find everyone agreeable, I was satisfied with everything. When you feel yourself to be in danger, you try not to make enemies, at least not among people you know. And although you know that friends are rare, you are happy enough to imagine the benevolence of those around you. Does one feel less alone in the face of adversity? An illusion, certainly. Or is one just preparing a refuge to return to after defeat? I shook myself: what enemies, what defeat?
"I was..." I heard the silence that followed; I turned my head. "Are you cross?" It was the untame girl.
"Why?... Am I supposed to be?" I stammered after a moment in which I did not know what to say.
"I embarrassed you, down at the beach. I shouldn't have ..."
"Shouldn't have what? You didn't embarrass me; why should I have been embarrassed?"
I was annoyed because I felt that my answer was becoming confused - for no reason. I made an effort:
"Have you finished eating?"
Her voice was hesitant. I hadn't yet started the fruit that ended the meal.
"Do you want some cherries?" I asked. "Come and sit down."
"No, no. I'd just like... You're... You're a really good swimmer!"
And I saw her run off. I ate a few cherries, wishing they didn't have stones.
I was not tired after the morning's training session; I should have been feeling relaxed. But the afternoon, instead of being already over, was occupying my thoughts. I was about to head over to the girls' camp when I saw that she was still at table. I was surprised not to have noticed her earlier. I stayed put; did I have to go over and join her? She was talking animatedly to her neighbours. While I was hesitating she gave me a little wave of the hand, without even looking at me. I felt an unease whose cause I was unable to define. I hurried up to her table and said abruptly:
"Shall we go now?"
She was talking when I spoke; she slid her answer into a gap in the conversation, still without looking at me and without interrupting the flow:
"Sure, if you've finished."
A dozen vehement answers sprang to my lips - but all at the same time. I said nothing. She finished her conversations and got up.
"I'm ready," she said. "Let's go."
So we did. We walked in silence, or at least without any mention of ourselves. I was indifferent to the visit, not having any influence on its consequences. Not wishing, above all, to have any influence on anything. You cannot transform, ahead of time, what you want to know. I shivered slightly, trembled rather, but hardly at all, hardly at all - I remembered the same trembling, the day I had gone down to the harbour to see the captain of the boat who would no longer take us out. The visit annoyed me. Why did I have to go? Why did she have to take me? Did she have to? I was... no, I wasn't, I wasn't afraid, not a bit! After all, archaeology is interesting. I couldn't care less about archaeology or archaeologists. I'd have been better off staying at camp; having fun; like somebody or other had suggested. I can't remember who - I could very well remember who. So what?
"Yes, yes, I'm listening," I said.
"If you're listening, why don't you answer?"
"Yes, you're right, I'm sorry; what were you saying?"
"I don't remember; it doesn't matter."
Silence fell again; we were approaching the site of the dig. Had she slowed down? I was not sure; I was in no hurry to get there, but I might have been to get away. I asked her abruptly:
"Why don't you say anything?"
"I thought you didn't want to talk."
"True enough. But what about you?"
"Are you going to enter the race, tomorrow?"
"Do you want to know if I'm going to win?"
"Or if you want to?"
"Why do you ask? Are you interested in the race? You know perfectly well you aren't. What am I supposed to win? Are you expecting the Victor Ludorum?"
"There you go again."
"What do you mean, there I go again?"
"You're being grandiloquent."
"You prefer action."
"I prefer it when people know what they want. No, that's not true. Can action be within us?"
"I don't get what you mean."
She nodded almost imperceptibly and said softly:
"When you think, you can dream about things that exist. You told me one day that you used to dream instead of learning, at school. Perhaps I dream when I go looking around."
"So you live your dreams, then?"
"I suppose I imagine I do."
"I don't know if I did use to dream instead of learning; I used to dream while I was reading. Whether or not one learns like that, I don't know. Now, I hesitate between dreaming and..."
"I don't know. When you're there, dreams are disturbed like water by the wind; but the wind eludes our grasp and when it has gone, there is nothing left."
"Not even memory? Boys are always saying `Do you remember?'"
"Do girls live only in the present?"
"Perhaps girls have got things to do."
"And boys just have fun?"
She laughed at this... reproach that I had just made.
"No, no," she replied, "boys never have fun, they're too busy fighting."
"And you said philosophy wasn't your strong point!"
"That's not philosophy, that's pain. If the hand lets go, it's the one being held who falls."
"Better make sure the hand is strong."
"Or else fall together."
We had been stopped for quite a while without realising; I mean, without my realising. The site of the dig was very close. I was tempted to say: "Shall we carry on walking? We can go and see the dig another day." Was the temptation too visible? "Coming?" she said, and went on towards the site. I followed her, a little way behind.
The pleasant-seeming man greeted us with a ready smile. In other words, the man in charge of the dig composed a broad grin that he directed towards me. "Hello, good to see you again! Do you enjoy archaeology? It's really exciting work, you know!" All said in a jocular tone of voice, to make me believe he was talking to me. "What I enjoy never seems like work to me," I answered calmly. He stared at me as though he did not understand. Then he gave a little chuckle and said condescendingly:
"You have to work at school!"
"At school, I discover a world that is unintermediated. I accept it or reject it: work has nothing to do with it. For work to be involved, I would have to submit to accepting everything indiscriminately. It would be wasting my life."
"By not submitting, you run the risk of making a mistake."
"I know. I know that if one is in the wrong, it is better to be so with the consent of the greatest number."
He began to laugh again - a pleasant laugh, with no reservations, no hidden agenda.
"You're full of ideas. I like it when pupils try to express themselves."
He went on, speaking to her:
"The milestone's been cleaned; you can see the inscriptions quite clearly now. You were right about the third letter. Let's go and have a look; shall we show it to your friend?"
She did not reply. We went to see the milestone. The superintendent of the dig continued in an authoritative voice:
"You see, when I find an ancient object and show it to people, which allows them to enrich their minds, the problem of error does not arise. I do not need to immerse myself in useless speculation: I do my work as well as I can and the object speaks for itself. Afterwards, everyone can make their own judgment. I provide the knowledge."
She listened to him as though in wonderment; her eyes strayed over the horizon and she murmured:
"It's beautiful, this earth where we can see nothing, guess nothing; we cannot look through it with our eyes, only with our thought. But thought is not enough; what's needed is a force that will bring it to life, make it penetrate into the unknown. And under the earth, where nothing is, there is a life that is lost."
She stood there without moving, her gaze miles away; and he watched her carefully, like a statue being taken out of the ground that had to be kept intact.
"Let's go and see this milestone," I said impatiently. "It's there so that someone can say he's found it. It has no other value."
The fount of knowledge turned to me and answered:
"What do you know that makes you able to judge the value of a discovery of this importance?"
"You mean the importance this discovery gives you?"
He swallowed and squared his shoulders as though preparing for a fight. Then he looked at her as if taking her to witness. She still did not move, but her gaze had settled somewhere on the ground.
"All mankind will benefit from this testimony of the past," he said.
"Would all mankind be of such great value to you if it were not from your hands that they were receiving this... rock?"
"When you're given a problem to solve at school, you're judged on your answer."
"And if there never were any problems to solve? What would become of those who set them?"
"Your reasoning is still pretty untidy. You need to mature."
"Ripe fruit is for eating - by anyone."
I got no further answer. Another conversation started, in which I had no part. The excavator of the past held forth; she said nothing. But she watched him. When he showed her the inscription, he saw only the great attention she paid, not only to the object but also to the explanations he gave her; when she was outside the field of his gaze, she examined him slowly, observing the expression on his face as much as his bearing. She never turned towards me, but stood in such a way that no feature of her face was hidden from me. I felt that what was happening was the reason why she had brought me here. I was troubled in the same way I would have been entering a shrine. Although she was there, in front of me, reality became hazy on contact with her. Was I catching a glimpse of the world, inaccessible to me, into which it was her habit to disappear?
Evening was drawing in as we headed back. She walked with a light and lively step; her determined features had taken a milder cast. She was smiling.
"You've been there," she said. "Where there are things. You never talk about things. Things can be brought to life; you talk about life."
"Perhaps I don't talk about the life you see."
"Do you even know whether I see life? For me, life has to come from... somewhere; for you, life is there - and always has been."
"I'm afraid my ideas aren't as profound as all that!"
She began to laugh, her eyes crinkling, hopped on one leg and turned a pirouette. I felt like pushing her, pushing her so that she would lose her balance, but resisted the urge; then, as she continued to hop and turn, I took her by the shoulders and started to turn with her, faster and faster... We are turning together, I'm gripping her, she's still laughing, I'm laughing - the laugh stops on a motionless smile, our eyes are fastened on each other; in a sudden movement I pull her roughly towards me, press her against me - but we're still turning and now we're falling. Falling, I pushed myself violently away from her. We are on the ground, a couple of steps from one another. Our eyes are close. We are unmoving, motionless. I must have been frightened. I am calm. We do not move. For how long? She begins to roll over. She gets up, turns, hops, dances, comes over to me, grabs my arm, turns me into a whirligig. "Come on!" she pants and runs off. I chase after her, she halts, starts walking. "We'd better be getting back, it's late," she says in a low voice.
Yes, it was morning; but of which century? I closed my eyes again. I wanted nothing to do with this particular day. No, that wasn't it. Yesterday was another time and that time had not set me free. My empty hands clutched only coldness. Couldn't they have warmed it up a bit, this coldness? No, I wasn't feverish; my hands retained yesterday's warmth. Yesterday, increasingly shot through with the noises that surrounded me - noises, words, words... "Are you getting up?" - "Get a move on!" Yes, it was morning.
My eyes were open. Everyone around me was busy. A dull anxiety grew within me; my world seemed to have shifted and the world of those running around before me was still in the same place. Until then, it had been I who had refused to be a part of the group, but now the incessant course of a life that was not mine nudged me away from a reality that was fading from my consciousness.
The movement drew me towards breakfast. Questions to which I was unable to find answers swirled around me. I made a great effort to try and grasp the meaning of what was being said: they were talking, yet again, about the race, the race which was due to take place that morning. I knew that; I had been training yesterday. Yesterday! She was sitting at the end of one of the tables, alone. She did not raise her head; she hardly moved. I could hear her speaking to me through the words that filled the surrounding air and her words, though unuttered, imperceptibly attracted me. Could the unreality that had enveloped me be the same as hers?
I suddenly realised - with the help of a thump on my shoulder - that the boys were talking to me. They wanted to know whether I was going to take part in the famous race that morning or not. Yes, yes, I was going to. We had to leave straight away. "Don't wait for me", I said; the comments flew: "Might have known!" - "Surprise, surprise!" - "There are separate races for the boys and the girls, you know!" - "You don't have to wait!" I riposted, exchanged bluster with a rival in the race: "Don't forget your rubber ring!" - "And don't you pretend to swim while you're walking on the bottom!" - and fled, accompanied by a chorus of whistles, towards the girls' camp.
She was not in her tent and I supposed that she must already have left for the beach. I was about to leave when I heard her calling me; she was with a woman and a small child who might have been a baby still, or perhaps a toddler. I went up to them. She explained that the woman, her cousin, was asking her to look after the child for the day. She looked pleased at the idea; I supposed that she was pleased to be helping out her cousin. I wondered, for a brief instant, where this cousin had sprung from, in the middle of the camp, but as the question was unimportant I gave it no more thought. After a few minutes' gossip the cousin went on her way, leaving the two of us holding the baby, as it were. I was getting slightly impatient because we had to get down to the beach. I was surprised at my impatience because the beach, whether this morning or at any other time, had never seemed worthy of interest. But impatient I was all the same, and irritated by it. I gave up. In the meantime she had been billing and cooing over the child. I meant to tell her that it was time to be going, but no words came out.
"What do you think of him?" she asked, her eyes wide.
I did not think anything of him at all. I muttered:
She lifted him up and showed him to me:
"Look at his eyes..."
I broke in:
"Look, we're going to be late."
She gave the child a kiss on the cheek and - talking to him! said, shaking her head and pulling a face:
"And yet you're lovely! Or at least, I like you!"
The child began to giggle. She still held him, looking at him intently, eyes wide open, as though she were searching for something. I did not know what to say, so said nothing. At last she put the child down; he began to look at me, surprised. I could not understand why he was so surprised and it bothered me.
"You're right, it's late," she said pensively. "You ought to be on your way."
I did not understand straight away. On my way where? How stupid... to the beach - the race!
"What are you waiting for then? Let's go. What are you going to do with him? Bring him with you?"
I pointed at the child. She stifled a laugh.
"Do you want him to drown?"
I could not understand a word of what she was saying. She went on:
"I've got to look after him. You know that."
At last I got the picture! I reassured her:
"I'll look after him while you're swimming; there are separate races for the boys and the girls."
She laughed out loud.
"How on earth are you supposed to look after him when you don't even notice whether he's there or not?"
"Not so!" I replied with a significant sniff.
"Go on, don't worry, I'll be fine here. You ought to get a move on, it's getting late."
"I'd rather stay with you..."
"That's sweet. I'd like it too, but it's not on. I've got too much to do, and then... you'd only get bored."
So now I'm at the beach. I should have stayed with her. It's true, I would have preferred it. The race does not interest me. I think that I didn't dare to insist. I was afraid, I think. It's not that I felt in the way at all, but I felt as though I was not in the right place, as though I were an intruder; not a nuisance, but an intruder. I did not dare stay. "No one is allowed to be present at mysteries", I said to myself. I blinked; what mysteries? And why shouldn't I be present at them? And there's no such thing as mysteries anyway! I was really cross. One of the boys asked me tritely if I was ready to do battle; I replied shortly that it wouldn't take much to beat this bunch of cripples. "Cocky!" he replied. Yes, cocky. At least in this particular set of circumstances. I ought to win, didn't I? Suddenly, winning seemed to matter. A strange doubt crossed my mind about this sudden necessity, both futile and urgent, but the latter characteristic caused me to avoid any further thought on the subject.
The moment to "do battle" had arrived. The boys waded into the water under the admiring gaze of the girls. Did each girl have a favourite? Some of them accompanied their heroes into the water, some of them were dancing about with impatience. Others basked unconcernedly in the sun; did they also have a favourite? Apparently not, but in that case why were they watching each other like that? The Director's daughter had several favourites. Clearly, I was one of them. And yet it was just as clear that there would be no commitment to any particular one until the race was over. The boys pretended to take no notice, while flexing their muscles. Of course I too had a few admirers. I surprised myself trying to locate a pair of eyes... No, I knew full well that she was not there; and in any case, she was hardly likely to play the calf-eyed mooner. Something... the thought... I... Had I ever seen her with an admiring look? Or was it...? I felt suddenly sick; then angry, furious. Then I remembered that she was back there, with the child. It was only nerves, wasn't it: serene, I couldn't help smiling tenderly. I shook my head and plunged into the water.
I am back on the beach again. Sitting, my arms around my knees. I feel far away. At the start I had swum off as fast as I could; a few strokes had been enough to take me ahead of the others. My lead kept increasing. It was easy; there were no real swimmers among the boys. By the half-way point I was well in the lead. I was going to win, no doubt about it. I approached the finishing line. I thought I could hear shouts of encouragement from the beach... I had suddenly stopped, right where I was. I did not want to go any further. I saw all the others overtake me, cross the finishing line. I don't know why I did it. I can't find any valid reason. Any reason. That's it: a reason. For what reason should I have carried on? So as to win. So as to win what? So as to be congratulated. By whom? By her. She couldn't care less. Why does she want me to win? I can see a number of answers, but none of them convinces me.
"What happened to you?"
A low voice; a voice that came from beside me. A voice that contained no irony; no sadness, either. A voice in pain.
"Come and sit down; I'm afraid I haven't got any cherries today."
I had spoken calmly; I had recognised her. Not by her voice, but by her movements which I could not see.
The untame girl sat down. I couldn't see her but I knew I was being watched, knew that my answer was awaited.
"Did you want me to win?"
"You had won!"
"No, no," I said brusquely, "it was impossible."
"What happened? It wasn't cramp, I was watching."
I started to smile and felt a little less far off. Turned my head so as to see her better.
"Are you disappointed?"
"I couldn't care less whether you... but you did win! Is something the matter?"
Her eyes burned.
"Why is winning important?" I repeated obstinately.
"So as to be feared by some and at the mercy of the others".
Her look had become grave. I watched her: head lowered, her thoughts seemed troubled by the approach of some danger. Happy laughter from the group around the winner floated over us. A few boys had proffered words of sympathy, without dwelling on the reasons why I had given up. The girls stretched out on the beach looked at me, looked at us, from time to time, closely. Three or four girls going off to join the happy throng waved little signs at me and flashed knowing smiles.
"I bore you."
Her voice was almost inaudible. I exploded:
"Why do you always think that you... that I... You don't bore me. You don't bore me, you answer me... you're the only one to have told me."
"Told you what? Shouldn't I have done?"
"Yes, yes, of course you should. And then, you say things. Have you started philosophy? No, of course not, not at your age."
"I'm not a child!"
It was like being lashed by a storm. I did not dare smile. I went on carefully:
"I just meant you're very bright. And then, it matters, I can assure you. It matters a lot."
"You don't care whether people are afraid of you or not. That's not what matters - to you."
I looked on with a twinge of anxiety. The storm growled:
"You were afraid."
I had answered nervously, having sought to do so nonchalantly. I went on firmly:
"I'm not afraid of anything."
For the first time I saw her smile, amused rather than ironic. I went on quickly:
"You'd rather not have been. Do you want me to go?"
What was I supposed to say? "No, don't go, stay... stay with me"? Why did those words come to my lips? I thought the girl was nice, fair enough, I thought the girl was nice. I could stay there, chatting, couldn't I? I wasn't bored; no.
"Stay", I said hazily.
A silence; then again, her voice pressing me:
"Why don't you do what you like?"
"I don't know what I like."
"What I like is what I want."
What I want... Could I like what I wanted? I answered:
"You want before; you don't know if you'll like it afterwards."
"The world won't wait for you if you never do anything."
"Would you let go of the branch you were holding onto if the river was heading into an abyss?"
"If I knew there was an abyss I wouldn't let go."
"If you don't know, that means there is no abyss?"
"If I was at the end of my strength, I'd let go."
A confused memory trembled in my mind; I answered distractedly:
"The branch isn't going to hold you up."
"Who is then?"
The voice was harsh. I went on with a timidity that I was not expecting:
"You're not short of ideas..."
"I'm too young, I suppose. Parents and teachers only have one idea, and always the right one!"
"Better to have the right idea than the wrong one, don't you think?"
"Yeah, sure; that way you don't have to bother looking for any others."
"Tell me: if I find something I like, must I reject it?"
"You have to devour it - and then go looking for something else."
"And yet you don't look as if you like enjoying yourself."
"It's not a matter of enjoying yourself, it's to see death!"
The fixity of her gaze was painful; her face was as calm as her look was fierce. Volcanoes are like that.
"It's you I'm afraid of," I murmured.
"It's not me you're afraid of. You're afraid of losing your quiet life. If someone stirs beside you, it wavers. You probably say they're infringing your freedom."
"Who told you that?"
"It's obvious. You're always running away."
"I'm not! When have you seen me running away?"
"When I stopped? It's not the same thing."
"You were the one who was stirring. Your freedom couldn't commit suicide, could it?"
"You don't know what the hell you're saying!"
"Is your quiet beginning to crack?"
I lowered my head; opened my mouth; took a deep breath. I looked up, gazed at her. Age? Three years younger than me, perhaps. Why was... what? Where did...? I was unable to think... quietly. I tried to avoid the attack:
"You know, all I want is to live..."
"A quiet life?"
I was about to utter a sharp retort but was beaten to the draw:
"And nobody's allowed to bother you?"
"It's not as if I was making anybody..."
Again I was interrupted:
"Want to be with you? You're not the only one who decides about that."
Her voice did not really match the severity of her words; there was something - might one say anguished, perhaps? As though deprived of hope.
"Are you afraid, too?" I said gently.
"No, I can't be afraid."
"Because I accept the unknown."
"What's that supposed to mean?"
"I don't wait to be sure. Parents and teachers are sure, but only of what they're told. For them, it's enough to say that they know that someone else is sure."
"I see," I said laughing. "And anybody will do?"
"No, it has to be someone big."
"Yes, big; it has to be someone who is big in some way."
"Intelligent, you mean."
"No, that's not what I mean. It could be, yes; but big in any way. You know, for example, they could be good at something."
"Good at what?"
"Running, for example."
"What a load of rubbish you talk!"
"I know it's rubbish. That's why I accept the unknown. Everyone's always telling me that I don't know much; at school, for example. And them, what do they know? More than me, that's all. They too know what the unknown is, but they turn aside from it like from a beggar asking them for charity."
I had done everything I could to disregard the unease that this conversation gave rise to within me. The unknown! The unknown was what frightened me so much. Did anyone know what was to be found there? Of course nobody knew, otherwise it would not be unknown. My mind was wandering. Who, still invisible to me, could be lurking in this unknown?
"And what if the beggar's asking them for their life?" I asked brusquely.
The reply came in a voice softened by sadness:
"No one wants to give their lives. I don't cling to mine enough."
I was troubled; had I spent my life merely withholding it? My life. Could I, alone, fill it? But then how could I trust only in myself? And who is the other? I said dully:
"I have to confront the unknown, not accept it."
"You make it sound as though you were going on an expedition."
"I want to see death!" I rejoined with a diabolical laugh.
"Why are you making fun of me?"
"I'm not. It was just a joke; it came to me like that; I had the impression death was waiting for me. Oh, not real death. A life without anything, or else a life with nothing."
Her words came to me in a whisper:
"I don't understand what you're saying, but I'd easily go there with you."
Her voice was fearful; her look anxious. I lowered my gaze, heard a rustling of sand... I am once again alone on the beach.
I was at the Director's table for lunch. She was there with her cousin and the child; I had been invited because the cousin was a friend of the Director's family. I hadn't fully understood the reason for the invitation; it must have been her... They were talking about the child. He was beautiful, he was clever; I say he, because it was probably a boy. The chatter suited me. I did not have to answer, as no one asked me anything. Could I have answered anyway? I still felt ill at ease, as I had earlier. The feeling was still with me, like some pain borne in the body. I think I was asked some questions about what had happened that morning. I said that I had talked about the unknown. The Director looked at me as though I had uttered some discordant cry. "Do you mean you don't know why you stopped?" he asked. I did not answer. "It must have been cramp," he said benevolently. I said that that was what it must have been, cramp. They were distractedly sympathetic, very kind. I felt like weeping. My sadness must have been apparent: "It doesn't matter, it won't happen again, it'll be better next time." "There won't be another time", I said. The conversations had started up again. I realised that I had not spoken the last words. I had only thought them.
At the end of the meal she came to tell me that she would be busy with the child for the rest of the day, because... I did not listen to her explanations.
The afternoon was soaking wet, just like me on the seaside paths where I wandered until evening.
After breakfast I saw the girl I had dubbed untame, but who seemed shy more than anything else, coming over towards me. I felt full of a sudden irrational anxiety as the girl sat down opposite me; not really opposite, but to one side. A gaze that bounced all around the table bruised mine. I thought I could hear her breathing through the jerky movements of her body. Her silence dazed me. Finally, I mumbled a few words:
"Did you sleep all right?"
Her gaze settled on me. Eyes the colour of ripe dates, inscrutable.
"I left you yesterday... I wanted to..."
I did not know what to say. Her eyes gradually filled with light, transparent light, as though through tears. Words grated in my throat:
"You're not going to run away again?"
The answer came in jerks:
"You want... me to stay... it's not me... the unknown."
"Life isn't only the unknown."
If I had just been able to stretch out my hand and touch hers, I would have...; but it was too far, it would have meant leaning over; I did not move.
"Why do you have to confront it, then?"
I did not understand:
The light disappeared from her eyes and her voice became impatient:
"The unknown! You have to confront the unknown! You told me you had to confront the unknown! You talk rubbish!"
"Calm down, I didn't mean to annoy you. I can't confront the unknown every day!"
"But you think about it every day!"
"For you, the unknown is not the unknown. That's all you ever think about."
"I don't get what you mean."
"You know very well what I mean!"
"No, I don't!" I said stubbornly.
"So come swimming with me this morning!"
"I don't like swimming."
"You told me not to run away; I'm still here."
Suddenly, I saw the girl disappear under the table and come and sit down beside me. Her hand, much stronger than I would have thought, took my arm and shook it violently. I wanted to say "You're hurting me", but said nothing. There was no one else left at table; we were alone. The silence stretched on. At last I heard a murmur:
"I've come up with a little sketch for the camp fire; there are two characters. Will you do it with me?"
"I don't mind."
I had not been aware of my answer. The camp fire was in two days' time. The girl, though untame, had planned all the rehearsals.
I approached the girls' tents as though returning from a long journey. Would I find everything the way I had left it? What did the word "everything" include? She had not changed, that was for sure; but I could no longer represent her to myself as acting of her own free will. It was no longer to her alone that I had to address myself. But to what else, then? I did not know but felt it as though it were obvious. It was not the people I had found around her at yesterday's lunch, it was the child. I did not know the child; it was not her child; but it was a child on which she seemed to depend. You approach a she-cat surrounded by her kittens at your peril. But how would she acknowledge me, the traveller returning from far-off lands? What account of my travels would she be demanding from me?
I heard her call me from the depths of her tent. I was unable to give a colour to her voice. I went in. She was tidying her things. "I was waiting for you; come and give me a hand," she said. Give her a hand. What could be more natural? But this request came from her, and it came today. I had already noticed before, and by no means disagreeably, that I was under her orders. Now I was no longer under her orders but in her service. And yet there was no desire in her to give orders, or any desire in me to refuse them. "Come on, I'm waiting!" she said. "Are you dreaming?"
I did not answer and went to help her. We did not speak; she did not attend to me, nor I to her. I felt closer to her in our silence than if a thousand things had been said. But does the sailor forget the sea when he sets foot on land? My memory was star-studded with images that faded as they appeared. All that were left were traces of fire, like when you close your eyes on a burning light.
"Chuck this out for me, will you?" The injunction, rather than breaking some reverie, moved me. I went gladly.
She had not mentioned the race. I did not understand. Was she merely disappointed and did not want to talk about it out of kindness? But she must have known that I would be expecting questions; by not asking them, was she trying to show that she had given up hope of being able to count on a part of myself? Not daring to speak, I could not bear to be silent. At last I said hoarsely:
Nothing would come out; she carried on tidying the tent; I had to clear my throat.
"Now you talk about it!"
Angrily I said:
"I thought you would bring it up!"
"Perhaps you don't like saying the same thing again and again?"
"I answer people who ask me questions", I said, trying to bait her.
I did not understand straight away.
"Of course!" I insisted.
Then I got her meaning and growled:
"It's not my fault if you didn't come yesterday!"
"You don't like children."
"Why did you tell me to train to win?"
"There's no law against having fun when there's nothing important to do."
"For you, whatever I do is only for fun, whereas what you do always has to be important."
She stood still; then, in a whisper:
"I'm always horrid with you."
I did not want to listen and went on:
"What are you doing tomorrow? Are you going to the dig?"
"I haven't got any children to look after, I can do as I please. So can you. The other girls are nicer to you."
"The other boys are nicer to you."
"When I go to the dig, there's something that interests me; I don't know what, exactly."
I heard my breathing. She was still talking; I could no longer understand very well. I broke into the flow of her words:
"There are more interesting people than me."
"Could be. I don't know. I don't think it matters. I must seek; perhaps even against my will."
"But what? What are you seeking?"
She was going to reply; I stopped her:
"I know, you've already told me you didn't know. But how can we talk to the unknown?"
"The unknown? You said that at lunch. Why are you talking about the unknown?"
"Girls are always seeking something."
"You seem to know a lot about it. And boys never seek anything, I suppose?"
There was a silence, then she said:
"What girls seek is for themselves; it's cruel to ask boys to bring it to them."
"But if the boy is willing..."
"You mean, if the boy says he's willing."
"And how many girls will the boy say it to?"
"And how many..."
She interrupted me, almost shouting:
"That's up to the boy!"
Another silence, then she added:
"You stopped. I know. I also know that it was your decision. I know. Are you always going to stop?"
"It's hard to keep going when you don't know what winning gets you."
"Would you rather let the others win?"
"I don't mind winning if the thing is unimportant; I mean important, but only affecting me."
I fell silent; she pondered. The silence endured. I sat down on the edge of one of the beds, pressed my hands to my cheeks, slowly rubbed my eyes. Exhausted, I asked:
"What competition are you the prize of?"
Another silence. She sat down too, not far away, opposite me, upright. She answered:
"You've got to reach me."
"Before anybody else?"
"Yes. And without stopping."
"Don't you belong to yourself?"
"Can you stop a bird from eating when it's hungry, without it dying?"
I gave a disillusioned smile and said:
"Our thoughts do not dominate much."
"Can we say the same about our feelings?"
She let the silence fall, then repeated:
"Our feelings: what use are they to us?"
"Perhaps so that we believe we decide things for ourselves."
"Feelings, attractions; you seem to be attracted by so many things, and yet you say that you are interested in nothing."
I laughed stupidly:
"Boys are attracted, girls attract; it's a well known fact. And what's more, you're a seeker. Though you're not seeking to attract."
"It's as though I was being called and I don't want to leave..."
She remained in suspension, then added in a low but hurried voice:
"I like talking with you, I like talking with you."
After a moment I asked:
"Who's calling you?"
I was not even able to say "Rubbish". That's the unknown.
"That's the unknown."
"The unknown again," she said. "Explain."
"The unknown is no one; who may appear at any time without my seeing."
"And if I didn't see myself?"
I vaguely remembered something:
"Is no one big and strong?"
"No one doesn't decide for himself."
She gave a shy smile:
"Everything's getting muddled. You use 'no one' as though it were someone; all I said was no one."
"It's just that you give me the impression that there is someone."
"There isn't. But I feel that my life might create... this someone; or else there won't really be anyone. But then my life will disappear."
"And do you think that there might be no one?"
She laughed without looking at me; then gently shook her head and angled it to observe me sideways on.
"Your world is very close to you," she said.
She was smiling now. Her voice became more lively:
"You want everything to come to you. Why do people say that boys are always looking for adventure? I'd say that they try and take possession of adventure rather than give themselves up to it. Perhaps girls give more of themselves, even though they may seem not to move."
"Yes, yes! That's it, that's it!" I exploded.
She opened her eyes wide, lifted her head even higher and said half-mocking, half-anxious:
"What did I say? You look as though you'd heard something supernatural!"
"... give more of themselves!"
She was listening to me now, without speaking. I shuddered.
"That's it! Girls give! And afterwards, there's nothing left!" I gasped.
She assumed an earnest look.
"Well, that proves they only give once."
Her answer surprised me because it was reasonable. It dazed me. My fear returned, combined with a great calm. Is fear then other than anxiety? I felt pressure to speak, but nothing came to mind. I did not dare look at her. Suddenly she cried lightly:
"There's a camp fire the day after tomorrow, you know! I've got to go and make costumes, help with the scenery..."
Still pensive and amused, she added:
"Do you want to go swimming before lunch? I can do all that this afternoon."
A little annoyed, I asked:
"Do they interest you so much, these amusements?"
"Why? Do you need me?"
"No, no. I was just surprised, that's all."
"I like amusement."
She had stood up and was busy about something or other.
"And the girls are counting on me," she said, in the same light voice, though a little slower.
She explained... Listening with half an ear, I heard that it involved the Director's daughter, another girl or perhaps two, a dress to be made - I remembered the canezou - and other things... But how could she...? Once again, she heard my thoughts:
"You look preoccupied," she said, coming closer. "You're bigger than I am, but sometimes also not as big."
She pouted her lips ironically and murmured:
"I don't feel big today, I want to play."
I had become a damp towel; I smiled a blissful smile, harrumphed - then took her by the arms, holding her tight; we began to laugh; to laugh, her eyes close to mine.
Lunch was jolly. The boys, around me, laughed gaily. They laughed as they talked aloud to themselves. Noise breaks up thought. Around these fellows of circumstance flourished a serene life whose flow neither eddy nor even whirlpool could disturb. A seductive torpor held out the promise of reaching the place where everything ends without having to endure awareness of the journey. No effort is needed to follow the river. Go back to sleep, thought; you will disappear without even breaking the smooth surface of the waters.
"Are you coming?"
My dream was broken and reality splattered its light over me.
"Are you coming? We're going to rehearse the sketch; we've got all afternoon!"
Untame. Why had I dubbed her untame?
"Yes, yes, I'm coming."
I had spoken so softly...
"Why are you shouting?"
We left. I did not look back; I did not want to know whether she had seen me go.
I know that she has seen me go.
The rehearsal bored me and amused me. My lines wrapped me up, concealed me. So all you have to do is speak in order to become a person in the eyes of others. Any person you like, as long as you never leave the stage. I wondered if I could be two - two people leading two different lives. Strange thought. Strange, but it fascinated me all the same. Could one have two lives in the same universe? And her? If she was alien in a different world, did I also have to be alien in order to follow her? And no one ever returned; I was sure about that, now.
"It's as though you'd been an actor all your life! It's fantastic!"
My eyes seemed to open, as I heard my cues and spoke my lines without realising the presence of my opposite number.
"It's my first time..." I stammered.
That made her laugh.
"Your first time? I'm happy that we're together... for this..."
"Are you happy that we're together, or that I'm doing what you like?", I broke in.
"That you... I don't know. You're complicated."
Had a shadow passed over her eyes? We returned to the rehearsal.
Dinner was agitated; the talk was of singing, dancing, theatre. I was surprised to find myself taking part. I was taking part in camp life; it was unexpected. I felt out of place. I felt all the more out of place because I felt that I had mistaken my... what? I was ill at ease. After dinner, I went over to the tables where the girls usually gathered. She was there with her little group, talking about their play. Nobody paid much attention to me. I sat down, a little to one side, without interrupting them. The conversation continued; I still felt ill at ease; but, and that surprised me, I was not more ill at ease than I had been before. After a while, I got up discreetly and went away. It was as though I had not been there, as though I had been invisible: not as though anyone had not wanted to see me, but that they could not have.
I had left camp. She was there, close to me; I had not heard her come up. She took my hand, let it go. I heard her take a deep breath, then say calmly:
"It was hard work, this afternoon; I hope it'll be good."
I was still ill at ease and still in the same way. I sought an answer, but it would have taken something other than a murmur in my head; a murmur which said: "I wasn't there, today". She smiled at me:
"It was good of you to have minded the greenhorn; no one wanted her for the camp fire. There's nothing wrong with her ideas, it's just that she's so shy..."
"You think she's shy?"
Unthinkingly I had interrupted her. She was surprised; so was I. Why had I spoken so loud? A silence. She ponders. I hear her voice, very soft:
"With you she is not afraid. It's true; I'm never afraid with you."
I was still ill at ease. But not for me; yes, of course, for me, but not only for me. It was not very clear. It was not her fault if I felt ill at ease. I was unable to speak.
"You didn't ask me..." I exploded.
I no longer knew what to say. Calmly, with a soothing smile, she murmured:
"There's nothing but girls in the play."
At a loss I mumbled:
"I wanted to help her ... I don't think I thought about it very much."
In a simple gesture she took my hand, squeezed it firmly as a boy might have done and said, looking at me squarely:
"I'm glad you behave naturally; I'll be afraid if you start to think."
Instinctively, I felt an urge to say "Afraid for yourself?", but the subject raised by the question seemed imprecise. It did not concern only her, in the same way as it did not concern only me. If I was ill at ease, it was because I felt that people might see - she might see - a shadow in my life. I knew there was no shadow; and nothing in her look showed me that she might have discovered a shadow. What did she know of me without ever having searched me out? Or without my ever having noticed? Did I see a shadow in her life? Her life; when she was not there. I had just realised my powerlessness before the illusion that reality casts before us.
Waking up that morning was unpleasant. I did not understand why. I did not feel like getting up and going... going where? Why did I have to go anywhere? I got ready for breakfast the way one might get ready for a last halt before marching to meet the enemy. But what enemy could it be? There was something I had to do. Yes, I had something to do. But think as I might, I could not remember what it was. I was on holiday. Soon I would go swimming; this afternoon... this afternoon... oh yes, that's right, I was supposed to rehearse... for the camp fire. All holiday things, those. I had nothing to do; there was nothing I had to do; I had no enemy. I was due to rehearse the sketch - well, I was due to... I wasn't duty-bound to do anything. Duty means dependence. I was not dependent... no, I had merely promised, no, I hadn't promised, I had agreed. But I was glad to be doing the sketch, I enjoyed it. I did not have to, but I felt like it. But there was something I had to do. I was not free. I understood why waking up had been unpleasant; I was in thrall to my freedom. I gave my head and my thoughts a shake and decided to go down to the beach.
After breakfast she came over towards me to say that she would be away all day. There was some bother with her cousin's child and she had to go and help... I did not listen. She had to. And what about her rehearsal? She seemed calm; perhaps a little bit worried about the child - or at least so it seemed from the few words that reached me. She did not speak of her freedom, whereas I had always felt her to be independent. Yes, independent. Was she free? But free with regard to what? I was afraid to say "who?" I must have said the right thing. She left, after smiling her thanks and giving a slight nod. I go down to the beach on my own; I no longer feel like going.
Rehearsal that afternoon, as planned. It's fun, I enjoy it. The author of the sketch also directs well - and there are two actors, after all! The Author - I think it deserves a capital letter - imposes a way of thinking, models my expression, frees me from my person. What will I discover?
"What do you want from the people around you?"
I am like a dancer brought crashing to the ground in the middle of a leap. I cannot try and find an answer, as I have not yet let the question reach my consciousness.
I was at camp; I was rehearsing a sketch for a camp fire. Was the author of the sketch going to be the author of my discoveries? At last I answered:
"Those who serve you; those who get in your way."
"Are you going to put that into the sketch?"
"Those you make think about you."
I was not expecting that answer; and yet it seemed quite natural. All the same, I wanted to defend myself, without knowing what from.
"I don't make anyone do anything," I said, clumsily indignant.
"You're there, and that's enough."
"So is everyone else."
"You stay close to them. You don't stand still somewhere where you can be found, at wish; somewhere where you don't get in the way, where someone can leave you and go away, knowing that you will still be there if they come back.
"When you think of someone, they are always close to you."
"Yes, but they say what I want. You say things in spite of me."
I found myself liking camp fires, games... It was no longer a rehearsal; it was life, and I was on my own playing the role no one had taught me. I spoke with difficulty:
"What do I say?"
"That you want something badly."
"I don't know that. And if you get what you want, I don't know what you will do with it."
What I want; what I wanted.
Dinner was gloomy; at least, I found it gloomy. The others were in high spirits and chattered about the next day's entertainment. It was plain to see, their happiness at being able to hang on to something that would enable them to give a false impression of themselves; that way, they could no longer be judged.
She was not there. After dinner, I went to find out more. She had stayed at her cousin's. I went to bed.
That morning I was alone. The camp was full of people. I was unable to speak to them because my voice was... invisible is the wrong word, although that is how I felt it to be. She alone could hear me. I was not worried, knowing where she was and why. There was nothing particular that I had to say to her. This day was no different from other days. I had things to do. Games, the beach, a walk. The last rehearsal, in the afternoon. The camp fire in the evening. She won't come to the camp fire. Her play... I don't know. It's not important; she attaches no importance to things like that. She has to help her cousin, the child is ill, very ill, I believe. I... I can do nothing; I would like to go there but the Director advised me not to, because I could get in the way. He told me - for sure - that it wasn't anything really serious. Nothing serious; no need to worry; she would have called me. I do not know the child; it is only her cousin. I'll go for a walk on my own.
No one, no one on this path; dust. No wind, the sun is not too hot. I wish the path had no end, no end with someone waiting for me.
When she's not there... What I imagine her to be comes from myself; and if she becomes alien, does it depend on me or on her? What I want from the people around me... that they increase my life? In that case, they too would have to be alien. Why they too? So that my life increases the way I want it to? Then it's my life I'm watching over when I act on the people around me. And I let them get away, those who want to. I want her to be always getting closer to me; does that mean that I never want her to be beside me? I should have gone to her cousin's; could I have spoken to her in her entirety? And if she is with me, I must be with her. In my entirety, also? And if I want her thoughts to belong to me, there can be nowhere for mine to hide.
I woke late; familiar sounds told me that the boys were already at breakfast. The camp fire had not gone out until well into the night. I was anxious, without any precise cause. Perhaps I was ashamed, but I did not know what the word meant. It came from outside me - parents... grown-ups: "You ought to be ashamed of yourself", when I did what they had decided to call "something wrong". Shame; a word like all those words stripped of meaning whose only use is to enslave.
I was about to get up when she came into the tent. She seemed frightened. "There you are," she said in a voice without strength, "I didn't see you outside... are you all right?" I answered very quickly, as though trying to cover something up: "I just overslept..."; I did not know what else to say. She stood still, without speaking. Suddenly: "I'll be in my tent this morning", she said as she turned and left.
I did not feel like getting up. I was not hungry. She had not come to take part in her play. I did not know when she had got back to the camp; not until this morning, probably. Her play had not been performed, since she had not been there. I acted badly in the sketch. I had promised; I had agreed. The rehearsal had gone well, but I knew that I would not be able to perform well. Even for a yea or for a nay. I should have fled before the performance. The untame girl was simply a girl, a girl that I had made untame for the sake of amusement and not let in on the secret.
I have got up, I am outside; it is raining. I go out into the rain, it's going to rain all day long; rain replete with laziness. She will be in her tent this morning, she said so a while ago. What does she want from me when she is not there, when she is not speaking to me? What does she want from me when she is not thinking of me? When she is not thinking of me... Do we only give someone existence by thinking of them? What I want from the people around me... that they be different from each other; what I want from her... that she be herself? or that she be different from herself by my will? What can she do against my will? She can... she can be not me.
It is raining; the water covers me, the water protects me. I go into her tent.
Her tent. She was asleep when I went in. I did not dare wake her; I sat down on a bed beside hers. She was asleep. Should I guard her against danger? I smiled. What danger, in this peaceful holiday camp? I was wondering whether I ought not to let her sleep when I heard:
"Where were you this morning?"
She had not moved; had not opened her eyes. I answered in a voice that was almost a breath, as if not to wake her:
"I went out into the rain."
She opened her eyes and smiled at me, saying:
"I didn't get any sleep last night. You stole softly into my dream to open my eyes."
I was drawn into her gaze. I felt her life thickening around me. I went on in a low voice:
"I would have liked to stay in your dream. When your eyes are open, where do you look at me from?"
"Do you look for me elsewhere in order to get away from me?"
She had not moved; had not closed her eyes. Again I felt shame. I cried in a voice that was broken and dead:
"It's so hard for me to be sure..."
"Certainties... you don't know whether they exist; you want to take hold of those that you believe to be accessible."
"I believe in you."
"Do you believe in me or in my image?"
Fluidly she had risen; she was sitting upright.
She was younger than I was; why did she seem so stable? Ready to receive, without having to seek. Ready to refuse.
"I can't always dream."
She had spoken cautiously, as though begging pardon.
"I shall be in the midst of life, a life which has no wings, and you will be far away if you remain in my dream."
Had her voice become sadder? She had lowered her head. I wanted to answer but she went on, slowly raising her head:
"Living... living with you. It's long, a lifetime; so many things that I will have to do alone, that you will have to do alone."
She fell silent a moment, then went on:
"They're always unexpected, dreams."
I did not dare to move - no, I could not move; I thought of the birds that freeze motionless in order to save their existence. I no longer wanted to think; but it was impossible. What words, that I had never uttered, was she answering? Words... words on their own serve only to be exchanged. She let her gaze wander over me; a slight intake of breath and she murmured:
"Promises are chosen; feelings are imperative."
We remained silent; I had still not moved. She got up and reminded me that we would shortly be leaving camp. I knew, without realising it. We had to start getting ready... yet again! She would have time after lunch. She asked me if I wanted to go for a walk with her that afternoon... in the rain!
I was distracted at lunch; the boys around me seemed like characters in a performance put on by a travelling circus. They milled around in a world of which I was no longer a part and all I saw of them was the make-up which buried them.
After lunch had probably finished, I went to look for her. The girls' tents were getting ready to leave; scrupulous, useless tidying.
Calmly, the rain continued to fall. We walked slowly, not separated by our silence. I had no clear recollection of what she had said that morning, but the feeling remained that there was no longer any need to speak, to speak about something awkward which I had to say. Gradually the silence was filled with her voice; she spoke of things we would do, that she would do, I don't know, after getting back from camp. I heard her living in her future; what was she going to get interested in next?
"What are you going to get interested in next?"
I must have spoken in the middle of one of her sentences; she broke off, looked at me the way people look at a child who has just asked a surprising question. After a moment, she answered serenely:
"In whatever makes my life."
The rain had covered us with its soft warmth. Her life... Adopting a protective tone of voice, I said:
"I'll help you at school... with your science courses."
"Do you want me to?"
"I want you never to make me want to live for myself."
I flinched; then a flare of revolt spurted:
"I certainly don't want to make you want to live for others!"
I had spoken violently. She smiled, shook her head slightly and said - though was it not as much for herself as for me? - "You think about others more than about yourself. If I live for myself, the others have no worth; the others are a crowd. Someone shines out in the crowd; the light attracts, but does not last. Then another shines out, with a different flame. Why stay, when the light has gone?"
Her words came to me mingled with the rustle of the rain; like the slow rain, they seemed unattached in a time without end.
"Her child was ill," she murmured.
She went on in a stronger voice:
"It's my cousin's child; I like my cousin, I like her child. I went away for two days; when I came back, you weren't there. No, that's not right, you were there, you were asleep. You had to be there, it was important."
She fell silent; I had to wait, without speaking. She went on, as in a fever:
"If it's my child - if it's my child that's ill... will you be there?"
"Yes, I will be there."
I had answered without taking breath; the thought only came afterwards.
I must have had dinner, I must have slept, I must have woken. It's cooler this morning, white clouds are floating in the sky; tomorrow, we leave.
Tomorrow... The past does not speak of the future. When I came to this holiday camp, I did not know.
I had lived for myself. My parents had received life only to give it to me; the world around me had nourished my roots. The girl that I had dubbed untame could have made my life pleasant. But did this life - my life - still belong to me, to me alone?
The camp was losing its reality; things were being tidied away, things were disappearing. I no longer knew where the girls' tents were. She was over there somewhere...
I am no longer afraid. It is to her that I entrust the fate of humanity.
I did not sleep that night; I did not dream.
The train is moving away from the earth where I have found life. The grey, luminous sky comes with us. She is beside me; I hold her tight, so that the whole world will know.
I shall no longer seek for certainty. Can I be sure that she will never die?
T H E E N D