Listen   LISTEN to Nous étions joyeux. (in French)





We were glad. We had a few days off school and would be able to meet quietly during the day.

School had started not very long ago. We weren't in the same class because I was a good year older than her. So we could only have met at break-time. Breaks are short and the yard full of people. It's not easy to talk but looks often speak louder than words. We walked together slowly. When I was asked to take part in some game or other I declined, which one day earned me a taunt that should have hurt my masculine pride. It made us laugh and annoyed the taunters.

It was decided that I would go to her house, just after lunch.

That evening, when I asked permission, my parents asked me questions I couldn't answer. I knew where she lived but had forgotten to ask her surname, which my parents found odd. Otherwise… I knew nothing. In the end they allowed me to go and see her as long as I followed a whole load of recommendations. It was new territory for me, because until then I had always gone to friends my parents knew. I didn't understand but it didn't bother me either and I soon forgot… their recommendations too, I think.

The next day I called on her.

Her parents welcomed me, in the offhand way people usually treat children who haven't done anything wrong. They told me I went to the same school as their daughter. I let them see how interesting I found the news. The question of my size for my age was discussed with care. I was bigger than their daughter, they informed me, though I wasn't sure whether they meant my size or my age. But it might have been something else because there was something hesitant in their attitude that I couldn't fathom. I was asked a few simple questions about my parents, to which I replied simply.

Her parents finally declared that we could go up to her room. They may have added that we shouldn't make too much noise but I'm not sure - we were on our way out.

Entering her room, she gestures expansively with her arm, as if to show me the place where she lives and to tell me to come in. I look around; I see her eyes following me. Her room isn't full of people but talking still isn't easy.

"Look, it's a cherry tree, you can eat the cherries, they're really good; and Mummy makes jam."

I go over to the window, a high double window that makes the room very light.

"If you're not cold, we can go out onto the balcony", she says.

I tell her I'm not cold and she opens the window.

"There aren't any cherries now, they come in the spring. Last year there were loads!"

She accompanies her words with a peal of laughter that wings towards the cherry tree. She suddenly adds:

"It's a good job cats don't eat cherries!"


"Because he's always climbing the cherry tree."

"You've got a cat?"

"My parents got me a cat. It's just right for children!"

"Just right for children?"

"That's what I heard them tell their friends."

"What about you?"

"I can't talk to him; he never talks back."

We fall silent for a moment.

"I haven't got a cat."

"Have you got a dog?" she quizzes me.

"No, my parents haven't got any pets."

"Would you have liked one?"

She scrutinises me.

"Pets don't interest me."

I get the impression she is relieved by my answer. I go on:

"Pets annoy me. My aunt has a dog. When I go to see her, she pays more attention to her dog than to me."

"Nobody here looks after the cat. And…"

She stops suddenly, then, after a pause:

"Does that bother you?"

"What, that nobody looks after your cat?"

"It's not my cat. It's the cat. No, that your aunt dotes on her dog, not you?"

She didn't look at me when she asked her question. She's gazing at the garden. I answer hesitantly:

"I don't know. I don't know if my aunt…"

"Is she married?"


"And your uncle?"

I ponder. She goes on:

"Does your uncle dote on the dog as well?"

"Yes… no…. not as much as my aunt, I think."

"Does he pay attention to you?"

"He gives me Christmas and birthday presents."

"The cat was for my birthday."

We stand for a long moment on the balcony without speaking. I look at the cherry tree and think about jam.

"I haven't got a cherry tree."

"Haven't you got a garden?"

She seemed worried when she asked me the question. I answer calmly:

"I have got a garden, but with lots of flowers and… lovely trees - that's what my parents say."

"And a cherry tree isn't lovely?"

"If you can get jam from it, it's lovely enough for me!"

She laughs, we laugh. She adopts a falsely conspiratorial air and says:

"We'll eat a whole jar of it together!"

We're back in her room again. She shows me everything that's around her when she's there, on her own. On the bed, something I can't call a doll, a rag thing but… it has eyes, big eyes, eyes that speak.

"I made it myself"

When she spoke, her voice was low and warm. She added:

"I called it Moon."

I didn't know what to say and picked up Moon… I don't know why.

"It talks back", I said.

We were silent. I put Moon back on the bed and murmured:

"Do you think I could talk to it?"

"You already have done."

I stood for a moment without thinking, then, as if it was an answer:

"You're Aphrodite."


"At school, they told us about the Greek gods. They share their lives with people on earth. Aphrodite is the goddess of love."

She looks at me with eyes that do not move, that do not let anything else move.

"Come on, I'll show you my books."

She has spoken with her low, warm voice again. She shows me the books she reads and her schoolbooks.

"Do you think I'll be a grown-up like my parents when I've learnt everything?" she asks me.

Her question takes me by surprise. I answer, hesitating a little:

"I think you can grow up without learning anything…"

She butts in:

"Yes, I'm sure you can! But you can't do everything that grown-ups do. It's because we don't know how to do what they know how to do. I think that's why."

Her words trouble me. Know. I have already wondered why I wanted to know…

"I often feel as though I'm forced to know…"

She seems surprised.

"You think you're being forced…" she begins.

I shake my head. Then:

"No, I'm not being forced… Well, of course I have to learn what I'm taught at school, but that's not what I mean."

She listens attentively, leaning forward slightly. Her eyes are still and wide open.

I start again:

"I get the impression that if I don't know… it's as though I were defenceless."

"Are you afraid people will laugh at you?"

"Maybe. But mostly that… not that people will overlook me, but… it's as though I didn't count… or that I wasn't… that I were…"

"Too little?"

I was expecting her to laugh. But she kept an attentive look that encouraged me to go on:

"I don't feel too little. It's them that are big. If I don't know, it's as though I had something missing - yes, that's it, it's like being disabled; you know, someone with only one leg. And he can't run - like the others can. And he can't run away if someone chases him."

"Why would anyone chase him?"

"I don't know. That's how it is. But it does happen. I mean, if I can't answer a question at school, the teacher chases me… to punish me."

"So those who know punish those who don't?"

She breaks off, then:

"Growing up means having the right to punish? No, it can't be that."

She seems saddened. I get the impression I've said something daft. I try and make up for it:

"I don't think that's the way it is. It's because I'm a child that I don't understand how adults think."

Aphrodite shakes her head disapprovingly and says:

"What does that mean, a child? People call me a 'child'. Some friends of my parents have got a little girl who's four; she's a child as far as I'm concerned. You're a bit bigger than I am; you're not a child to me."

She remains silent for a moment, then:

"My mother said a couple of months ago that now I was old enough to have children."

She studies me, then continues:

"She didn't put it like that, she didn't talk about having children, but that's what she meant."

She studies me again and adds:

"Are you with me?"

I'm surprised not to feel embarrassed and answer calmly:

"Yes. A doctor told me not long ago that I was old enough to have children as well."

I remain pensive. Aphrodite has taken Moon in her arms. I go on:

"When you have children you're a Mum or a Dad, when you don't you're a child."

She has lifted her head and looks at me smiling:

"So there are grown-ups who are children, then", she exclaims.

After a short silence, she adds:

"So what is a child?"

She looks at Moon and says softly to it:

"You're not a child, because you'll never have children."

Aphrodite's mother has called us to have tea. At our age, we needed food. And in any case we weren't doing anything upstairs, in the room. And then we could talk about school, about how I was doing there. If her daughter worked hard, she could be in the same class as me next year.

"But I think I'll be in another class by then."

"Yes, yes, of course, I'm sure you're very good at school. Do you like my cake? My daughter loves it. Is it hard, your class? I'm sure you've got good teachers, my daughter's are excellent. She works hard, she mustn't have too many distractions, she likes to do lots of different things, that's fine, but schoolwork comes first. Do you like school?"

"Yes, I like learning."

"Learning your lessons? Good, very good!"

"My schoolwork helps me to know… to find out…"

I hesitated, not wishing to seem pretentious by talking about an unknown world that I was looking forward to discovering. Aphrodite's mother came to my assistance:

"If you learn your lessons properly, you'll get good marks."

I hesitated again and started:


Aphrodite cut in:

"You get good marks for doing good homework too."

Her mother does not seem in the least surprised. She gives her daughter a big smile and says:


I am questioned again. But I think I have understood the reason for Aphrodite's interruption. I carefully repeat everything I have read in my schoolbooks and everything I have heard adults say about the way I ought to behave. Aphrodite's mother listens to me with the interest that causes a cat to contemplate a mouse. And a mouse is entitled to lie to a cat.

I have passed the exam and we can go back… to play in her room.

"Mummy knows what we have to learn."

Aphrodite has spoken in a measured voice with a tinge of irony. I murmur:

"Our lessons."

I go on, a little louder:

"And lessons are there so that we know what we have to know."

Aphrodite purses her lips sadly and says:

"I like what I learn, but sometimes I find myself wanting to know about other things. And then, either it's not on the timetable or it's things I don't need to know."

"Yes, yes. 'You'll find out later'. That's what they're always telling me. I'm supposed to show interest but not to be curious."

"I guess curiosity is trying to find out a secret."

"In class, copying off the person next to you is trying to find out a secret."

Aphrodite seems concerned. Her voice is flat:

"In that case, they're right to tell us not to be curious."

I'm surprised. It's my turn to be concerned. I protest:

"In that case, no-one ever has the right to know what other people know."

"You're right. I don't get it…"

For a while neither of us knows what to say. Aphrodite leafs through a book without looking at it. I think, but not very successfully.

I begin cautiously:

"It may not be the same thing…"

"Yes, yes, it's not a secret if you copy off your neighbour."


"Because your neighbour's learnt the same stuff, and in any case you shouldn't have a neighbour."

That really surprises me. I risk a little chuckle, while remarking wisely:

"And we'd all be alone in class."

She looks at me with an amused smile. Then she says ironically:

"Even without the teacher."

I start to laugh out loud. She looks even more amused.

"How are you going to go about finding out if someone is capable of doing what you expect of them?" she interjects smoothly.

I no longer feel like laughing. I must have said something daft, but what? I answer:

"Why expect? To benefit from it?"

"Sometimes you can't do anything else. If you're ill, it's better to know the person who can cure you."

"Yes, that's true."

I hadn't thought of that. But… I go on:

"If I want to know what I'm capable of, I shouldn't copy off my neighbour. Right. But how can I know if what I am asked to know, or know how to do, isn't bad for me? If…"

"Hang on a moment, you're saying too much at once. I…"

She stops for a second, then goes on:

"It's… Yes, if someone tells me I don't need to know, that can be harmful to me."

She is all agitated. She continues feverishly:

"So then you have to be curious. You have to try and find out secrets."

"And we'll be punished."

Aphrodite scowls.

"I don't want to be punished", she mutters.

"A mouse can lie to a cat."

She starts to laugh:

"And a bird can fly away when it sees a cat."

She laughs again, then goes to the window.

"You see", she adds, "I often see the cat watching the birds."

"And do they always fly away?"

"I've seen some of them get caught. They weren't on the lookout, or they weren't quick enough."

I have come to the window and look at the cherry tree. A thought occurs to me:

"We pick the cherries to eat them."

Aphrodite shakes her head and makes a face.

"Nobody's out to eat us", she murmurs.

"It may be because we're children that we don't understand what people want of us. What we learn at school will doubtless enable us to understand."

"Oh yes! 'You'll understand when you're older'. And in the meantime you have to take everything on trust."

"You're afraid of being lied to."

"I don't need to be afraid; I know we're being lied to."

I am rather surprised. Not by what she has said - I think we're being lied to, too, if not always, then at least sometimes - but by her certainty.

"How can you be so sure?"

She looks at me, her eyes unmoving.

"Lying is like curiosity. Curiosity gives us secrets. Lying…"

She breaks off, looks at the window, then adds:

"You said a mouse can lie to a cat. So lying can save our life. So we benefit from our lie. Why shouldn't someone else?"

"You think we threaten the others as well."

She thinks for a moment, moves towards the window, then sits down. I sit down also. She goes on:

"Yes. It's like we threaten the others in our class by wanting to be better than them. But I also think we bother those who have to put up with our life."

"You mean our schoolmates…"

"No. Well, yes, perhaps. But I was thinking of others…"

"The teachers?"

"Perhaps. But…"

She stops. She gets up, goes to the window, looks out. She comes back, sits down again. She shakes her head:

"I was thinking of our parents. My parents. Parents."


I am so surprised I don't know what to say. Aphrodite shakes her head again, pensively. After a moment I have to ask her:

"Why do you bring parents into it? Our parents love us. I reckon your parents love you…"

She breaks in:

"Yes, of course they do. Yes. But what does 'They love us' mean?"

She lets the silence last, then adds in a serious voice:

"Your aunt loves her dog. What does that mean?"

I protest:

"Come off it! It's not the same thing!"

"You're right, it's not the same thing. So why do we use the same words?"

I can't find anything to say. Aphrodite has got up, she shows me a photo stuck to the wall. Her voice is calm:

"Do you like it?"

I can see a big house near a river, with big trees around it. Aphrodite explains:

"It's my grandparents' house. It's a long way away, in the country. I spend my holidays there. Cousins sometimes come for a few days."

I tell her that the house makes you want to stay, as long as you're not on your own and don't get bored.

She laughs:

"I never get bored. When I'm on my own I go to the farmers nearby. I watch what they're doing; they make haystacks, milk cows. I've already milked a cow."

Silence falls.

"Do you like the countryside?"

I tell her that I don't really know it, but that on drives with my parents I have often felt like…


She looks at me attentively as she asks the question.

"I don't know. I've never really thought whether I would have liked to live in the country."

I don't know what else to say. She shows me more photos. Her grandparents, her cousins - a boy and his sister - farmers, fields, haystacks…

"That's not hay," she exclaims laughing, "it's straw!"

I look discomfited. She laughs again and comments ironically:

"My cousins live in the town too, like us, and they don't know the difference between hay and straw either."

She adds mockingly:

"They're the same age as us, but I don't think they'll know any better when they're older."

Her face clouds over suddenly and she says in a flat voice:

"The countryside doesn't lie. When you ask it for corn, it doesn't give you barley. And cows give the milk you expect them to."

I am surprised by what she knows. Or rather by what she thinks of it. I say:

"You know, with you I … I don't know… you show me things I'd never thought of. Everyone ought to listen to you…"

"Nobody listens to me here. So I don't say anything, or at least hardly ever. And they tell me to go and learn my lessons or go to bed. In the country, I talk to the farmers but only about what they do, because they're not interested in what I think. My grandparents listen to me the same way they listen to a film before going up to bed."

She is silent. I ask softly:

"Are you unhappy?"


A short silence, then she adds:

"You know, I only felt like talking because you were there."

Another silence and she murmurs:

"I don't think you'll lie to me."

I answer forcefully:

"No, I won't lie to you. And I know that you won't lie to me."

We say nothing, without moving, looking at each other.

Has time run backwards? The daylight was fading; it is light. The sun was sliding over the floor; it is at the top of the window.

"Today it's still yesterday."

"Or yesterday is today", she replies, smiling.

"I've just come in, but it's as though I'd never left. I don't think I was really there yesterday evening, at home."

"My parents took more notice! They asked me why you were coming back again today."

"Yes, I got the impression they weren't too pleased to see me."

"It's not because it's you. It's because it's someone who's not them. Someone who can talk with me."

I exclaim with surprise:

"Because they don't want people to talk with you?"

"No, it's not that. But the words aren't their words, so they worry."

I press:

"The teachers talk to you at school."

"Yes, but they say what my parents have asked them to tell me."

She says nothing for a moment, then:

"My parents are fond of me. They wanted to have a child. Perhaps they didn't even know why. And when you have a child, you don't go out and get it from the market. And if it doesn't come from somewhere, it can't go back there. My parents are fond of me. But it's not me that has to do the living, it's their child."

We remain in silence. I think of the cat catching birds.

"Your cat does what he wants…"

She breaks in:

"We feed him."

"He can feed himself, by eating birds."

"So I have to do what I'm told because I don't know how catch birds."

She starts laughing and asks:

"Do you know how to catch birds?"

"It must be difficult, on a tree. I like climbing trees."

"The cherry tree is easy to climb. I sometimes sit on the branches, at the top."

"And you eat cherries, not birds!"

She laughs again.

"You can come and eat them. They're good."

I am pensive. I ask, slightly anxious:

"D'you think your parents will let me come again? Just now, they didn't…"

She breaks in:

"You can come again…"

She stops. After a silence, she looks at me with her unwavering gaze and says:

"If you want to."

She keeps looking at me. The world I live in is her look and nothing else. I murmur slowly:

"I will never leave you."

Her look has not moved. She whispers in a slow voice:

"I will always be there."

The day refuses to break even though the morning passes. There is no school today. But Aphrodite's mother doesn't want the day to be wasted, a lazy day. So I can't go round. It's raining. No, it's not raining. The sky has disappeared. I don't feel like turning the light on in my room. I don't need to see. The day doesn't need to give me light, it can sleep on. I would like to sleep on, but I'm not tired. Aphrodite had a pretty good idea what her mother would say. What better excuse than school? Aphrodite really needs to work on a day when there's no school - she's always top of the class! So we decided we would see each other on the way back from school to her house. It's not far, but we could be delayed by having to call on someone to revise something or other.

We are on the path the day school started again. It's already dark. It's not raining but the air is damp. Aphrodite huddles into her coat. I ask:

"Are you cold?"

She answers with a sad little smile:

"No, I'm not cold, but we would've been better off at home."

She shakes her head, smiles more cheerfully and goes on:

"I like walking. I like thinking and talking while I'm walking."

I break in:

"I like walking too."

"Yes, but just now we don't have any choice."

She gives a quick laugh and adds:

"It's because we lied…"

"Even if we hadn't lied, we still wouldn't have been at your house."

"That's true. So it's not lying that means we have to be here."

She lets a silence fall, then says steadily:

"But lying means that we can be together."

We don't walk very slowly because the cold gradually seeps into us. But Aphrodite's house isn't far and we have to go the long way round so as not to get there too soon. From time to time we let silence unite us. Silence…

"Silence never lies."

Aphrodite looks at me and answers pensively:

"Because it knows who it's talking to."

After a few steps in silence, I carry on:

"If you know that the people you talk to are like yourself, you don't need to lie."

"And if that's not the case, and if you don't lie to them?"

"Then you have to pretend to be like them."

"That's already a lie."

I laugh, then add:

"Yes, but an acceptable one!"

"I see! So… so what they tell us is bad, they could also tell us is good!"

"Yes. Yes. Is it good or bad to learn our lessons?"

"You mean if they don't always teach us the same thing?"


She falls silent. The wind has stiffened and invisible drops sting our faces.

"If birds had to learn lessons…" Aphrodite begins.

I say nothing. She goes on after a short pause:

"If a lesson told them not to fly away when the cat comes…"

We look at each other.

The light is on in my room. I learn my lessons. Aphrodite…

Aphrodite seemed sad, at break this morning. At first I thought she had some kind of bother in class, because she mentioned some homework she found difficult, but I soon realised it was something else.

It is evening and we walk, taking the long way round that will give us more time. It is hard to make out the sky; will it start raining?

Aphrodite says in a rather low voice:

"I'm scared."

I am not surprised. I don't ask her what she's scared of. I understand, but I don't know what. Is it an answer I give?

"Your parents?"

She listened to me for a long time. Then she… answered:

"I'm not very strong."

I am ready to confront the enemy. She stops me in my tracks.

"Nor are you."

It's true; I am a child.

The rain has started; it stings us with its chill needles. Aphrodite grumbles:

"It's cold, it's raining, my parents don't want me to live at home… or at least only the way they want. Come home with me!"


I don't know what to say. I look at her and say again:


"But nothing! I'll say I asked you to help me with some difficult homework."

A silence; she adds:

"I don't want to be cold if cold isn't what I want to be. Otherwise my parents should've had a polar bear!"

I look at her with what must have been such surprise that she starts laughing:

"Come on, it'll be fun!"


I choke on the word. It makes her laugh all the more:

"My mother isn't expecting to see you, she won't know what to decide."

I answer hotly:

"I know; she'll tell me to go."

"She can't. She can neither accept nor refuse. She's not expecting that."

I don't know what to say for a moment. And yet I find her idea attractive. Perhaps because it's cold. And I don't want to be cold either if cold isn't what I want to be. I make a suggestion:

"Tomorrow… tomorrow would be better. We could go straight there after school. And that way you can tell your mother this evening."

Aphrodite scowls:

"It won't be as much fun."

I protest:

"The most important thing is being able to see each other."

"You're right, I'm dumb."

A short silence, then she continues:

"When I say fun… I was thinking of what you can get by… lying."

Another short silence and she adds:

"But you're right. Tomorrow, then. Or rather the day after, because there's no school tomorrow."

We separate shortly before reaching her house.

Class has finished. I wait for her in front of the school. Aphrodite has told her mother, who has said nothing. Classmates come out and give me a sly look. It annoys me. Aphrodite arrives, followed by another girl. I look down. After a moment the other girl goes off, laughing. It annoys me.

"You coming?" says Aphrodite curtly.

Then she gives me a proper smile and adds calmly:

"That girl got on my nerves. Now that we're together I've calmed down."

I say:

"The other boys in my class got on my nerves. Now that we're together I've calmed down."

We look at each other, smiling, but do not laugh.

Now we're at Aphrodite's. Her mother is in the lounge.

"It's very good of you to help my daughter with her homework."

"I'm sure it'll help me too; on your own, you sometimes don't realise that you haven't understood something properly."

I am surprised to have answered Aphrodite's mother so quickly. And, I believe, so well. Aphrodite does not smile, but her smile mocks. Her mother smiles at me… nicely. Then she tells me that we have to work hard but that I shouldn't make her daughter too tired. But she thanks me for coming. Where would we like to work? But we'd better off in her daughter's room because that's where her books are. I concur.

Moon is waiting for us. I say hello. She says she's happy to see me. She's been waiting for me, she adds.

"She likes you", says Aphrodite.

"She likes you too."

"That's why she exists."

"Why she exists? Yes; why she's alive."

"Yes. She's alive for both of us. Otherwise there would only be a bit of rag. Did you tell your parents…?"

"I meant to let them think I was going to see a friend, but I said I was coming here."

Aphrodite strokes Moon, then:

"It's better not to lie about something they can check up on."

After a silence she adds:

"I can lie about Moon; nobody can check up on her existence, and all they'd see is a bit of rag. Moon exists only for you and me. With you, if I lie about Moon it's as if I were lying about me."

Aphrodite's mother brings us our tea. "You can get on with your work."

"Doesn't it bother you", she adds, looking at me closely, "to spend time on things you're not doing in class?"

I had been expecting the question. I reply calmly:

"I think that when you explain something to someone else you increase your own knowledge, and besides, whatever class you're in, you need to have a thorough grasp of what you learned in previous years."

Aphrodite's mother has inclined her head gently towards me, looking at me all the time.

"Well", she says, "I'll let you get on with it."

Aphrodite's desk is near the window. You can see the garden while you're working.

"Mummy wanted to put it somewhere else", says Aphrodite ironically.

"Of course, working should never be pleasant…"

She laughs, then asks:

"What did your parents say?"

"The same thing as your mother did just now."

"So you had… practised your answer, then!"

We laugh, but not too loud because we are working.

We agreed that I would not stay too long so as to keep the way clear for the future. I won't come tomorrow and Sunday… Sunday is for parents.

This evening, when I arrived, Aphrodite's mother did not ask whether I had come to help her daughter with her schoolwork. We had our tea in the dining room and she stayed with us.

School. Of course we talked about school. You have to learn your lessons…

"But in that case, won't we know only what we've been taught?"

Aphrodite's mother seems surprised by my question. I get the impression she's looking at me uneasily.

"What else do you want to know?" she asks me slowly.

I hesitate to answer. She adds briskly:

"Yes, you can also learn on your own; yes…"

She leaves the words hanging, then continues in a voice she would like to sound firm:

"I think you can easily choose among all the things around you, your parents, school, your friends. You can think for yourself, of course. When your parents do something, you can try and understand why..."

She breaks off suddenly, then, sharply:

"Of course, you have to learn to choose the right friends."

Aphrodite's mother has stopped again, just as suddenly, flashes me a very quick look, then offers us some biscuits.

The biscuits are good. Suddenly I answer a question she has not asked:

"So we should never learn…"

I am frightened by the words I almost spoke: "… what other people don't know". I finish off as best I can:

"… things that aren't interesting."

My sentence is really stupid. I accompany it with a big smile. Smiles protect. We show our teeth. Beware! I have already shown my teeth to Aphrodite, when I laughed; she knows that I will defend her.

Upstairs, in her room, we work. We don't work much, there's not a lot to do. And anyway, Aphrodite doesn't need me; I've seen her exercise books, she knows… whatever there is to know.

"How can we know what nobody knows?" she murmurs.

I dream instead of answering. She adds brightly:

"What if we were to find out, you and me?"

"We'd be punished", I answer despite myself.

She looks at me with sad curiosity. Then, with a little sigh, she says:

"Yes, we'd be punished."

She is silent for a moment, then:


Another silence, and:

"Why be punished if… if…"

She gets muddled but picks up again:

"Why punish others because you yourself don't understand?"

I… answer, slightly amused:

"And yet it's we who are punished when we don't understand… in class!"

Aphrodite protests energetically:

"It's not when we don't understand, it's when we don't think the same as them."

I act surprised:

"How are you supposed to think different… in maths, for example?"

She ponders for a moment, then murmurs:

"Who knows…"

I laugh. She looks at me gravely. I don't laugh. She adds slowly:

"Since we don't know anything, how can we know what's right or what's wrong? You say in maths, but aren't we told that we have to accept the first things we're taught as being self-evident, so they say? And what happens to someone who doesn't find them self-evident? Should they lie, or should they… go away?"

"Go away?"

"Yes. I don't know. I don't really know what I mean."

We say nothing. The day has gone away; the cherry tree in the garden is no longer visible. Is the cat asleep on a branch, waiting for tomorrow's birds?

Aphrodite has spoken in a low voice:

"Nobody knows Moon, and nor can we."

She gets up, goes to take Moon and sits on her bed. She speaks slowly:

"Moon, all we know about you is what we think ourselves."

She looks at me and adds:

"No-one knows you. I would like to know you. No-one can tell me anything about you."

She stops for a moment, then:

"People can talk to me about you. People can talk to me about you. But it's not you they'll be talking about. I want to know you."

Another short silence, and:

"How…? How…?"

We were silent.

We were silent for a long time. We were silent for several days. We still met up at break-time, spoke together, looked at each other. But we were silent. Around us, everyone went on living, like the Earth goes round the Sun. In class, I was taught new things, things that were new to me; then I had to show that I had learnt them. What did Aphrodite do in her class? She was learning too, but she gave me the impression of being sheathed in armour that kept her safe from what was said to her. I was more permeable, and therefore less assured. We often exchanged our ideas and I sometimes asked her advice. She answered me good-naturedly and I soon realised that, far from directing me, she simply told me what she would have done herself.

The days passed. The schoolyard seemed to get bigger and our schoolmates more distant. Some evenings, after school, I went to her house, without showing any insistence. Her parents gradually got accustomed to this discreet presence; Aphrodite observed them with irony.

One day, during break, something that one of us said made us hesitate to continue the conversation. I stayed silent, I think, after a remark Aphrodite had made. We looked at each other and Aphrodite said:

"Come round this evening. You can say I've got some difficult homework."

Her house. Tea. Her mother is pleasant. A bit more distracted than at first. A fleeting thought: she's a bit embarrassed. Did I really think that? She no longer talks about school. Not quite true: she said that her daughter had very - very - good marks. She drank her tea and talked. She asked me what I was doing during the next holidays, that winter. I had no plans, since my parents weren't doing anything in particular. She said that if I wanted, she would ask my parents if I could come to the country, to her parents' house, where her daughter's cousins would also be coming.

The offer was unexpected. As much for me as for Aphrodite. I stammered some thanks. Aphrodite said that she was very happy. Her mother said we could go and work.

So we work. Above all, we are rather puzzled.

"I didn't ask Mummy anything", murmurs Aphrodite slowly.

I mutter:

"It's very kind of you to invite me. What should I do?"


She spoke firmly.

I answer with a slight hesitation:

"Yes; but I don't understand…"

"Me neither."

"Perhaps your parents find me…"

"Perhaps they do. But why, when something nice happens, do we feel it's strange?"

I suggest, still with a slight hesitation:

"We're used to people asking us things we don't always know."

"Yes; at school, for example."

"At school, at home…"


"Yes. Why do people ask us that?"

"To find out whether we know."

"Whether we know what they know."

"And not what they don't know."

We start laughing. Our laughter stops suddenly.

"And that we aren't supposed to know", emphasizes Aprodite.

I look out of the window. The garden is dark. What is the cat doing?

"The cat doesn't go up into the tree in the evening. It waits for night. The birds are asleep and don't see it. But they're on the little branches. He can't eat them."

Aphrodite has spoken slowly. I am surprised:

"You observe your cat. I thought…"

"It's not the cat I observe. It's how not to get eaten."

"You must watch a lot when you're at your grandparents'."

"Yes. I'll watch how they watch you."

"Do you think they won't be pleased to see me?"

"Mummy's already talked to them. I don't know. I don't understand…"

"Do you think it's a trap?"

I am embarrassed to have said it. Aphrodite gives me a serious look.

"It's possible…", she begins.

We are silent. She goes on.

"I wanted to talk to you… I don't know… Maybe we can… I don't know…"

I want to ask her questions but I can't find anything. She adds:

"I would like to know you. Is it allowed? You aren't Moon. I don't want to know of you what I think myself. I don't want to know of you what other people think. Is it allowed? If my mother wants you to go to my grandparents… I don't know…"

"Nor do I, but… I'm happy to go with you to the country. I want to know you too. I've never been to the country… Only for walks and that. But I don't think the country will punish us."

Aphrodite gives me a big smile and says:

"No, I'm sure the countryside will be on our side."

I didn't go to Aphrodite's for a few days, as we had decided.

On Sunday, at lunch, my parents spoke about the next holidays. I had told them about the invitation. "It'll do you good to get away into the country", said my father. "Your friend's parents are very nice", said my mother. "We must thank them", declared my father. "Let's have them over", suggested my mother.

The lounge. My father is speaking:

"You're a real teacher, from what I can see!"

His voice is jolly. It's a good joke, certainly. And yet I felt something else. What? As I haven't said anything, my father continues:

"What are…"

He stops for a moment, then:

"You're very good at maths."


I don't feel like talking. Why? My mother says:

"You mustn't become a bother for her parents."

I don't know what to say. My father answers in my stead:

"He always behaves properly. You… don't you?"

The "You… don't you?" was for me. Stupidly I didn't understand straight away, which is why I was slow answering. Which is why my father, still for me, said:

"Don't you?"

I burst out laughing. Couldn't help myself. Then blushed. Couldn't help myself. My parents goggled at me. I calmed down quickly.

"What are you laughing at?" ask my father and mother together.

I suddenly felt myself to be a grown-up. And now I reply, calmly, with amusement:

"If I had been a bother, they wouldn't have invited me to the country."

I notice that I haven't at all answered what my parents had asked me. For good reason: I didn't really know what they had asked me. But I was sure they wanted something I wasn't ready to give them.

My father starts up again:

"Has she got a big room? I suppose you work in her room."

"Yes, it is big, with a window that overlooks the garden. There's a big cherry tree with a cat…"

"With a cat?"

"Yes, her parents' cat often goes into the cherry tree to catch the birds, and…"

"And you watch the cat while you're working?"

I am still calm and amused. I answer with a smile:

"It's quite normal when people work together. We each have our own work to do."

My smile was enough to prevent my father from being able to accuse me of impertinence.

The phone rings. My mother answers. "I'm very pleased… - Of course - Yes - Yes - Oh, really? - But… It'll do him good - Yes - And you're sure it doesn't - Oh that's really very… - Yes - Yes - Well!... - Well!... Yes, I… We really must get together." An invitation to lunch next Sunday follows. "With your daughter, of course, we'll be delighted, my husband and I…"

"It was your friend's parents", my mother announces.

My father was already aware of the fact, my mother having whispered it to him at the beginning of the conversation.

"You forgot to thank them", says my father to my mother.

"What do you mean? Of course I thanked them!"

Short argument.

So I'm going to go with Aphrodite.

What are her cousins like? And her grandparents?

This evening, after school, I'm at Aphrodite's again. I have thanked her mother. She said that we would definitely have great fun in the country, with the cousins who are really nice. I said I was sure we would. After tea, we go up to her room.

Aphrodite has sat down on the bed. She looks at me forcefully; her lips move but make no sound. Suddenly she cries, almost in a low voice:

"I don't want you to be Moon!"

I don't take my eyes off her. She goes on in the same voice:

"You are not a rag doll. You do not exist in someone else's thoughts, anyone else's."

I am… perhaps, a little frightened. I… reassure her:

"Don't be afraid, I don't feel as though I…"

Has she been listening? She breaks in avidly:

"I don't want…"

She catches her breath and says:

"When they talk… at school… my parents… it's like a copy, like a copy of what… I don't know. Who told them to… to repeat…?"

She moves towards Moon and starts again:

"If I sit Moon up, she'll stay sat up. When people speak, is it them that speak or does someone else talk in their place? I want to hear you, you, and not…"

She has sat down on the bed, fallen on the bed, as though she were exhausted. She says nothing.

I am no longer frightened. I am concerned. I murmur:

"It is me who's talking to you."

She slowly lifts her eyes to look at me, gives me a sad smile and says in a dull voice:

"Have you got the right?"

I don't know. I don't know what rights I have. I answer:

"Have I even got the right to live?"

My answer seems awkward. And yet she looks at me seriously enough. Then, briskly:

"I've wondered that, too."

She goes on in a bitter voice:

"Nobody's singing alleluia because I exist."

I attempt irony:

"You'd have to sing alleluia for everyone!"

"Not for everyone, but because they exist."

"If I speak to you, and if it's me speaking, it's because I exist. But what can I say that hasn't been suggested to me… or ordered? At school, I learn, at home…"

"If you learn things, like how to open a window, it's not you that's at issue…"

"Yes, yes, you mean thinking… what we're supposed to think, what we're supposed to do because it's right…"

I have broken off because Aphrodite has come over to me and quickly pressed her lips on mine.

Then she goes over to sit on the bed, picks up Moon and says:

"It's wrong for some, right for others. What about us? Are we going to decide for ourselves?"

I want to sit in the armchair, near the bookshelves. I was amazed. I was amazed. I was amazed not to have felt anything… amazing. What Aphrodite had done was natural. In my thoughts, it had already happened a long, long time ago. It was ours, ours and nobody else's. I had not refused. We had therefore decided for ourselves.

"We have…"

My voice was hoarse. I began again, in a clearer voice:

"We have decided."

Aphrodite did not answer. She was looking at Moon and nodded her head slowly three or four times.

I cannot sleep that night. Sleep seems like a stranger, a stranger who would stop me from living. Moon… Moon exists only because we give her life. Sleep is there so that I cannot always live as I would like. As I want.

Is sleeping good, is it bad? If I do not sleep, I will be punished by death. Aphrodite, me; is it good, is it bad? Will we be punished by another death, that of our life, that of our own life, the two of us, our own life together? Who has decided that I should sleep? Perhaps no-one. Who decides what we should do, Aphrodite and I? Again, perhaps no-one. And if no-one tells me to sleep - it would be pointless anyway, why should anyone tell us what we should do? And what we should think?

We didn't have much time for thinking round about then. First we had to make sure that what we had learnt at school was still stuck in our mind, or at least our memory, then prove to our teachers that we had no life other than the one they had intended for us. Yet those long days of exams were still shot through with visions of holidays, holidays that were due to start shortly afterwards.

This morning I wake up in a large bedroom. The air is keen. I go to the window. The countryside is covered in snow. The snow is white. Yes, the snow is white, but snow isn't white where I come from. On the edges of the river the water has stopped, hardened. It's not cold in the bedroom but it doesn't have the dry heat of my room at home, in the city. It must be cold outside, but it's a cold that attracts me, makes me feel like running.

"Up already!"

Aphrodite's cousin's exclamation puts an end to my run. I turn round; he is stretching in his bed and doesn't seem to want to get up.

"The girls'll still be asleep in their room", he grumbles.

"Did I wake you up?"

"No, the light did."

"We should've shut…"

"It doesn't matter; it's better to get up early. In the country…"

He makes a face.

"Don't you like the countryside?" I ask.

"Yes. No. It upsets my routine."

"Upsets your routine?"

He's a year older than me. Will I have to have a routine in a year's time? His answer has an acid edge.

"Here you have to do what the grandparents want."

"They didn't seem…"

"You're not their grandson. For me and my sister it's not the same. It's all right for her, she's three years younger than me. She's still a child. I'm not, I'm capable of doing what I want. I always get good marks at school. I don't need people telling me what to do."

"Your teachers…"

He interrupts me with a shrug of his shoulders:

"Teachers say what they have to say and I do what I… what gets me good marks."

"And does your sister think the same as you?"

"My sister never says anything."

Perhaps it's difficult to say anything in front of Mr. Swot. I can't find anything to say.

Everyone is there for breakfast. The grandparents, who we hadn't seen much of the previous evening when we arrived, ask the usual questions that… parents ask. I, of course, am treated differently. I'll have to be shown the countryside, the house; it'll be more fun for the children with me there; do I like it here? Did I sleep well? And other things that there was no room for in my head full of the snow I'm looking at out of the window.

"Do you want to have a snowball fight?"

Snowball fight… Ah! Swot's sister. Does she have snowball fights at school instead of getting good marks? It's such a silly idea that I laugh to myself and say at the same time:

"I'll run and you can try and hit me!"

Snowball bursts into peals of laughter.

"Oh yes, yes!"

She gets up to go out. Grandma stops her: got to put on warm clothes…

Snowball fight. It's good, is snow. It's cold. It's cold. At last I can run.

Swot says we've got to go back to tidy up.

It's warm inside the house.

At lunch the grandparents talk to us about the countryside. "It's beautiful, it's peaceful." Aren't there any wild beasts, then?

After lunch we go sledging on the hill behind the house. It doesn't take long to go down, but going up… perhaps it's even better than going down? Last one's a cissy - going down, of course!

We're pretty tired come evening. Dinner warms us up. The grandparents listen to our tales of valour.

The evening's entertainment is a film. Everyone is in the sitting room. The parents leave us half-way through - it was more of a children's film. "Good night, don't stay up too late." The film is funny. We laugh. The end. The cousins go up to bed.

Aphrodite and I have stayed downstairs.

The sitting room is rather large and dark. We're sitting on a sofa, next to each other. There's not a sound to be heard. The sitting room is big and silent.

We haven't moved or spoken for… I don't know how long.

I can hear Aphrodite's breathing. She says softly and slowly:

"We're together."

I have taken her hand. And I have stayed in the silence, squeezing her hand. But her hand wasn't in mine. My arm hadn't moved. Why? I didn't want to know why.

We stayed for a long time in the silence.

I hear a chime. I had fallen asleep. The clock has struck. Once, twice, three times? I don't know. Aphrodite is asleep. Her head is on my chest. My arm is over her shoulders. I wait. Then I have to breathe. My chest has risen sharply. Aphrodite has woken up. She has moved her head, is looking at me. Her eyes are damp. She enfolds me in her arms, hugs me tightly, sits up, looks around. I can hardly hear her voice:

"It's three o'clock."

We stay there, not moving. My arm is still around her, weightless.

"We should…" murmurs Aphrodite.

She has broken off and laughs silently. She goes on, smiling at me:

"Go to sleep? We were asleep. But we should go to our rooms."

I don't feel like sleeping.

"I don't feel like sleeping!" she exclaims softly.

She stands up, pulls a face that is half scowl and half grin and adds with a resigned shrug:

"Let's go."

The gentle winter sun wakes me gently. It's light. So it must be late. In the city, only my watch tells me the time. Here, the light tells me everything. I am slightly surprised because I am not used to the countryside. Why do I see the light here when I don't see it in the city? Does that mean it's something that can't be learnt? So much the better, otherwise Swot would have yet another lesson to learn! So where is he, Swot? Of course, it's late, he must have got up before me.

The grandparents greet me kindly. "Having a lie-in?" says Grandpa with an open smile. Grandma defends me: "Leave him be, he needs his sleep, the air here isn't the same as in town!" It's true, the air…

"It's true, the air here doesn't jostle you the way it does at home."

Breakfast is informal. Aphrodite had come down not long before and was waiting for me.

The grandparents have offered to drive us round and show us the countryside. I have understood that it was mostly for my sake and thanked them. "I think it's the first time I'll be seeing real countryside", I have told them.

"Haven't you ever been out with your parents?" asked Grandma.

"Oh yes, but as we didn't have any particular reason to go to any particular place I never really paid any attention. Here…"

I didn't know how to finish and made a sweeping gesture with my arms. Grandma understood.

"I'm glad you like it here", she said.

I went up to my bedroom to put on some warm clothes. Swot came in.

"I didn't tell the grandparents about last night and my sister was asleep, she didn't notice anything", he declared.

By the time I had understood, or perhaps not understood, he had gone. I found myself sitting on my bed, not knowing how to get up. But I had to all the same, they were waiting for me downstairs. I got up and went down slowly.

"All ready then?" exclaimed Grandpa jovially.

We got into the rather spacious car, children in the back, grandparents in the front.

Aphrodite, who had been watching me for a while, gently squeezed my hand.

The snow accompanies us during the drive. The fields - "No, they're meadows", whispers Aphrodite - take their rest, unattended. "It's too cold for the cows, they're in the cowshed; we'll go and see them, but not today", Aphrodite whispers to me again.

The road climbs over the hills, drops down towards the streams. Trees, everywhere, seem to watch over familiar landscapes. The snow has spread out over the ground - "To protect it from the cold", explains Aphrodite. Animals and humans alike are sheltering. But no, the animals are there, they are in the snow; they probably have shelter, too, but not all of them. And then, they're outdoors, like us, though without a car. "Their cars are themselves, well-heated, too", Aphrodite tells me softly. I look again; life is there, somewhere where I cannot see it. I feel frightened, frightened by this life that exists without my knowing, without having any need of me.

"Look, children…"

Grandpa comments, describes what we see. He points out a village, over there, where the people… I can see the village, but I don't see the same one as Grandpa. Perhaps mine doesn't exist. It is full of people I have known for a very long time, though I have never seen them. I know that they live; like the animals live in the snow. But Grandpa knows what they do, these people in the village, he knows what they say.

Back home. Lunch.

"How did you like our countryside? Is it real countryside?" asked Grandma with a smile.

I don't have a ready answer.

"The snow…" I stammer.

I don't know how to go on. Grandma comes to my rescue:

"Is it pretty, the snow?"

Yes… doubtless…

"Oh yes, very pretty!" I exclaim.

Aphrodite looks at me, slightly astonished. Has she remembered what I whispered to her in the car: "It looks like a present wrapped in snow"? She had replied: "Under the snow, when it's melted, you can find things to eat everywhere."

But Grandma isn't surprised at all. She congratulates me:

"You appreciate beautiful things. That's good."

Grandpa is not to be left out.

"You must come back next holidays, when the weather's fine. You'll see how different the countryside is in fine weather!"

Swot intervenes:

"The difference is that there won't be any snow!"

"That's right", confirms Grandpa.

"And we won't be able to have snowball fights", adds Snowball innocently.

Swot glares at her and snaps:

"If you haven't got anything sensible to say…"

Grandma protests:

"You were out snowball-fighting yesterday and you didn't seem to mind!"

"Yes, but that's not all I think about!"

"Oh, what a studious young man!" cries Grandpa.

"Someone has to be", retorts Swot with a disagreeable smile.

Silence. Swot adds, with a note of embarrassment:

"It's normal, since I'm the oldest."

We spend the afternoon in the sitting room. There are a few games, a bit old-fashioned, that the grandparents have left. Pastimes. We play. When we have finished we stay there, doing nothing.

"And there's no-one to tell us to get on with our work!" exclaims Snowball gaily.

"And you'll soon be bored", sneers Swot.

"I'm never bored", answers Snowball with a pout.

Swot shrugs and says nothing but his whole attitude displays condescension.

Snowball turns to Aphrodite:

"Do you ever get bored?"

"No. I've never thought about it, but I don't think I ever do."

Swot intervenes:

"Ha! At least you're not lazy like my sister."

"Yes I am. And anyway your sister's not lazy. She helped Grandma this morning. You didn't".

"That's for girls…"

"It's for girls because they can. And I don't get bored when I laze around, either. I dream."

Swot winces, says nothing and turns to me:

"What class are you in?"

I can hear little giggles coming from the girls. Swot hasn't waited for me to answer and is telling me about his school - he is top of his class. Full of enthusiasm:

"I like anything technical. I like making things that work, that work properly. Difficult things. What about you?"

"Yes, if it serves a purpose…"

"Oh, that's not important! What matters is that it should be well-made. Better than the others."

"But if it doesn't serve a purpose?"

"Everything can always be used for something. Once you've made something, you can always find a use for it."

I ponder. Tentatively:

"And what if it's harmful?"

He gives a derisive laugh.

"Once you start thinking you never get anything done", he declares pompously.

Snowball comments ironically:

"It's a good job there's others to think for you; all you have to do is sit down at table, dinner's always ready."

"God, you're so stupid."

"But you still sit down at table!"

Swot lapses into an offended silence. Snowball is talking with Aphrodite… I didn't catch the subject because Swot is bending my ear:

"You're lucky not to have a sister. She's too young, anyway; she doesn't even understand what she says."

I answer calmly, as if it were absolutely obvious and commonplace:

"She will when she's your age."

He gives me an approving and grateful look.

"Well, it's nice to see there are still some intelligent people about!" he says emphatically.

And if I hadn't been in agreement with him, I would of course have been stupid.

I can hear Snowball talking enthusiastically about how she's arranged her room. Aphrodite encourages her by showing admiration. Swot, having come to the conclusion that I was intelligent, tells me about his plans for the future.

"I'm going to be someone important. I…"

Images of important men parade before his eyes that look into the distance. He gathers himself again.

"You can't have weaknesses when you're important."

He straightens up a little and dismisses any such temptation. His voice becomes more assertive.

"People will admire me, of course, but they will envy me as well. But I know how to look after myself."

He turns to me and rages:

"I will not accept people copying from me in class! Why should someone else be equal with me if I'm better than him?"

And he brushes the impostor aside. Reassured, he stretches out in his chair and adds in a serene tone of voice:

"When you're the best, you have rights. And the right to defend them."

I can't help myself. I venture, peaceably:

"Would you defend those who are not as good as you?"

He says nothing for a moment. Then:

"What do you mean? They're my enemies. It's my rights I want to defend!"

Am I still as intelligent as I was a moment ago? Swot doubtless wants to make sure.

"When you've done a good piece of work, do you think it's right to get a good mark?" he asks me severely.

"I reckon."

"So you can see that a good mark is your right!"

He has underlined this piece of common sense with a significant look. And yet on occasion I have done a good piece of work, as even my teacher has admitted, but not got the mark I had hoped for, the teacher having preferred his judgment about an author to mine. The teacher was probably right. In any case, his right, being inherent in his position, undoubtedly took precedence over mine.

My silence has troubled Swot. He asks, a little anxiously:

"What are you thinking about?"

I answer with a vague smile:

"I was just thinking. I was wondering what the rights were that my right gave me."

Swot looks at me, bothered. My words must have worried him. He studies me. Heads or tails? Am I very clever or very stupid? The only problem is, he has to decide on his own, without his books, without his teachers. And who will tell him if he's right or wrong? I feel like asking him "Won't you ever do anything unless you expect it to be marked?"

Snowball saves the day, insofar as the day needed saving.

"I'm hungry. Grandma must've made tea by now", she exclaims.

Tea-time is good. There are always good things to eat, jam and biscuits and cake. Snowball stuffs herself.

"Holidays should last for ever!" she declares.

A large spoonful of jam punctuates her declaration.

Swot mutters:

"I suppose you'll grow up one day…"

Snowball interrupts:

"There are grown-ups who are always on holiday, those that don't have to work."

"And can't people work because they like it?"

"Animals are always on holiday."

"You're not an animal, though, are you?"

Snowball sulks; Swot seems satisfied. I hear Aphrodite murmur:

"Wild animals have to find things to eat. Domestic animals are eaten."

The evening is spent watching a comedy show on TV. The grandparents go up to bed immediately afterwards. We stay downstairs, chatting. The cousins soon start to feel sleepy. They retire, Swot calling as he leaves:

"See you…"

Was there a question mark at the end? I feel slightly annoyed.

"Your cousin seems…"

I don't know how to finish. Aphrodite looks at me thoughtfully.

"You remember", she says softly. "We decided."

Yes, I remember. I don't even…

"I don't even need to remember, I think about it all the time."

I'm not being very precise. I add:

"I don't mean that I think about it but that it's there in my mind, all the time. I…"

She breaks in gently:

"I understand."

She pauses for a moment, then says:

"Me too."

She smiles:

"'Me too' isn't very clear either, but we're not at school now."

"Yes, I know. Understanding isn't only a school thing."

We say nothing. I want to explain what I feel but I can't find the right words… or perhaps I find it difficult to express what I feel. Aphrodite is clearer:

"So he reckons it's not right."

So he reckons it's not right.

"So he reckons it's not right."

I have spoken almost without opening my mouth.

Have I repeated what Aphrodite said, have I said what I was thinking? I don't know. I can't really get my mind round it. It's as though…

"It's as though someone told me - he told me, perhaps - to go… there, and I don't know where there is."

Aphrodite has listened attentively. She doesn't take her eyes off me. Her voice is calm, firm:

"It's his there, his or others'. It's not ours."

We say nothing.

This morning, the snow coats the window in greeting to me when I wake. It is dark outside. In the distance, a lightness beckons to me. It seems like a call, a call to go. Where? I don't know, there's nowhere I have to go. I feel slightly troubled, though there's no reason to. But it makes me leave the bedroom, to go… I find myself in the sitting room, that I left… not long ago at all, because I am still really sleepy. Did I make a noise going downstairs? Aphrodite arrives.

"Already up?" she says.

"I saw the day break and… and I… I'm not sleepy."

She laughs softly:

"You look it, though. But I'm like you, half asleep but not sleepy."

No-one else seems to be awake. The day is breaking, but slowly.

"Are you hungry?" asks Aphrodite.

Can one be hungry and asleep at the same time? And yet…

"Yes, I am, I'm hungry. You were right to think of it. But…"

"Don't worry, I know where everything is. We'll make ourselves a good breakfast. No-one will be up for a while yet. Only animals get up to wait for the sun."

She starts to bustle about, preparing the feast. I try and help her but she shoos me away.

"No, you'll just break everything. Boys are clumsy."

"How do you know?"

"All I have to do is look at my dad."

She adds seamlessly:

"Put out the mugs."

I laugh:

"You're not worried I might break them?"

She laughs back:

"No, I'm keeping an eye on you!"

Now we're partaking of the feast. I ask:

"Do the animals eat before seeing the sun as well?"

"The sun's already up. Look."

It's true, the light has changed. But I can't see the sun.

Aphrodite explains:

"It's behind the mist. It's often misty in winter. You'll see it in an hour's time, when it's further up."

Breakfast is coming to an end. We seem to be thoroughly awake now.

Aphrodite suddenly exclaims:

"Why don't we go and see the cows in the cowshed? Do you remember? I promised you we would, yesterday."

So we set off.

It is warm in the cowshed. The cows are lying down. "They're on straw", Aphrodite tells me. It's quite dark but we can see clearly enough. There are a dozen of them. The smell surprises me; strong but… reassuring. Aphrodite smiles when I tell her.

"I'm glad you like the smell."

She has spoken softly, with a sort of smoothness. We go from one cow to another; Aphrodite says a few simple words to them, they seem happy to listen, and some even answer her in a low voice. Little heaps of hay - I know now that it is hay - are scattered around.

"Is it their milk we drink?"

"Yes, the farmers know us and let us have some of their produce."

"It's strange…"

She looks at me with surprise. I continue:

"No, it's me, I get a strange impression. In the city, you go into a shop, you buy things from people who… don't have a cow, their own cow. And they sell… a liquid… it's milk, of course, but…"

I don't know how to go on. Aphrodite's surprise has given way to a smile, a caressing smile.

She finishes my thought for me:

"Their milk doesn't come from their life."

We have sat down on a stone, leaning back against the wall. The cows watch us from time to time, calmly. The penetrating smell of the hay they slowly chew gradually turns my head. Aphrodite's hand is in mine. The cowshed is at peace.

We make our way back through the fields. The snow goes silently with us. As we approach the house, we can see Snowball running towards us. Panting, she says:

"It's all right, they didn't notice you'd gone."

"Who?" says Aphrodite, surprised.

"The grandparents."

"The grandparents? But I told them."

"You told them?"

"Yes. On the way out. They'd just woken up."


Now it's Snowball's turn to seem surprised. I would just like to know…

"Why are you telling us this?" I ask.

"My brother told me not to tell them anything."


"I… I don't know… I suppose so they wouldn't be worried."

"Why on earth would they be worried?"

"I don't know. Because you weren't there."

"So what?"

"They might have been afraid something had happened to you."

"Happened to us?"

"That you'd got lost."

Aphrodite starts to laugh:

"I know this part of the world like the back of my hand, as well you know."

"Yes, I know… You could've caught cold… No; no, no. That's a really stupid thing to say… There was nothing for my brother to worry about. How silly of him!"

Snowball seems all sheepish. But straight away she cries out joyously:

"Did you have a good time? Where did you go? Oh, if only I'd been awake I'd have gone with you. Are you going to come sledging? No, we won't have time before lunch. After lunch, then? My brother doesn't want to, he's reading."

Yes, we'll go sledging.

Swot is indeed reading. A manual of car engines. Since he is reading I will not disturb him - or bring up the subject of our walk.

Lunch comes at just the right time. The walk has given me an appetite. Aphrodite too. After making sure that everyone has been served, Grandma turns to me and says:

"Did you like your visit to the farm? You must have found things there much different from life in the city."

I, of course, was keeping an eye on Swot. He, of course, looked alarmed. He glanced at me and saw, as well he might, that my lips were turned up in a slightly ironic smile which, as well it might, seemed clearly intended for him. But how could he be sure? So as to make it easier for him, I turned towards Grandma and answered, as natural as you like, in an easy tone of voice:

"We didn't get as far as the farm itself, we stopped at the cowshed."

"The cowshed?" exclaimed Grandma.

"We don't get many cows in town", I explained with a chuckle.

"And did you like it?" said Grandpa.

"Yes, very much. It was like being… in their home, as though they'd asked me over."

"And what did you talk about?"

"Don't tease him!" protested Grandma.

"No, no, it's true, we did talk. We didn't say anything, but we did talk."

I am lost in thought for a moment, then add:

"They told me they did what they knew how to do, made what they knew how to make. Milk, of course. Other things as well, probably. I don't know. They also asked… It's not easy for me to understand them, I'm not used to it… I think they asked for a good cowshed, a place where it's warm, with hay. Hay… yes, to eat… and to make milk from, milk for us."

No-one says anything. Aphrodite gives me a look that says thank you. I go on:

"I think they're happy in their cowshed."

Grandma gives me a kind smile:

"You'd make a good farmer", she says with conviction.

Swot has started muttering. We look at him. He breaks off, then says:

"I'd rather talk to people than to cows. You learn more. Cows are just stupid animals!"

"I don't see why you shouldn't talk to cows", Snowball says stoutly. "And anyway, cows are nice!"

"What can you talk to them about? Stupid stuff! And their vocabulary is somewhat limited", continues her brother.

"Not at all", Snowball frowns. "It's just that you can't understand them. And you don't know their vocabulary. They don't teach it to you at school, so you don't know what it is!"

Swot scowls impatiently:

"What can you learn from a cow?"

Snowball does not reply and drops her head. I hear Aphrodite's calm voice:

"To see things simply."

The sledge runs, leaving sprays of snow behind it. The quick cold stings the eyes. Swot, happy, distinguishes himself. His sister challenges him for victory, but in vain. Aphrodite executes figures. I have misgivings; my sledge has already finished the run before me on a couple of occasions. Swot chaffs me good-naturedly as we climb back to the top again, making us all laugh with his witty remarks. It's fun, running over the snow, it's pleasant. Swot, too, is pleasant; pleasant, even him! He sledges, he talks, so blithely… He is… And why shouldn't he be sure of himself? He can sledge better than the others, or at any rate better than us. At school, he's top of his class. What he does pleases. And he likes doing what he does…

The sledge runs again in the sprays of snow. The quick cold still stings the eyes. Snowball laughs as if she'd never stop…

The evening meal is lively. The grandparents have to be told everything and they listen, delighted with our happiness - and our appetite. After dinner, all our parents phone and everything has to be told again. They ring off, satisfied. We're in good health, we're having a good time, we're eating well, things are just great. Oh yes! The grandparents are very kind - which is true - and we, of course, are being good.

"What does that mean, to be good?"

I have asked the question pensively. The television is off. Everyone has gone to bed. Aphrodite and I have stayed down, as on the other evenings. Swot went calling "That way we won't bother you!" with a broad smile as he left. Snowball, surprised, cried "Do we really bother you?" Aphrodite reassured her with a laugh. Snowball said to her brother: "You see, they've got stuff to talk about, not like you!"

Silence has followed my question. Was it a question? But I go on:

"Your cousin says he's protecting us by not saying anything to your grandparents. That's good of him, really it is, it's good of him. But it means he thinks what we're doing is wrong."

Aphrodite purses her lips.

"It's good for some, but for others… Do you remember what we said?" she asks.

"Yes, I remember. So what did we choose? To accept that he or someone else may think that we know what we are doing is wrong?"

We sit in silence. I take her hand, squeeze it. She squeezes back.

"I will stay with you", she murmurs.

This morning, on the other side of the window, the landscape has disappeared. The snow has come to play catch-as-catch-can over the hills. Snowball, naturally, has great plans for snowball fights. The morning is spent disappearing in the white blanket. We come back, laughing and shouting and covered with all the snow in the world.

Lunch is an assault. Gradually, calm returns.

"It might be a good idea to have a rest this afternoon", says Grandma.

"You must be tired", adds Grandpa.

"I've got a book to read", says Swot, earnestly.

"I've got to write to a friend", says Snowball.

"So much to do!" exclaims Grandma.

"What about you two? What are you going to do?" asks Grandpa, turning to Aphrodite and me.

"I thought I might show him the attic", replies Aphrodite.

Grandpa lifts his eyebrows:

"The attic? I don't know what you'll …"

Grandma breaks in:

"Children love rummaging around amongst old things, as well you know!"

Grandpa looks sceptical, and says in a voice just as sceptical:

"Well, I've never seen anything…"

His sentence tails off, then he adds, looking at Aphrodite:

"It's just the two of you want to go up there?"

No-one says anything. After a moment, Swot says with a forced laugh:

"Oh, my sister and I, we know the attic well!"

"Aye… aye", mutters Grandpa.

Grandma, fork suspended in mid-air, is looking at Grandpa. Has she shot a glance at Aphrodite? We eat.

"What's for pudding?"

Snowball has asked the question, carelessly. Grandma answers quickly, with a big smile:

"Then you didn't see the chocolate cake?"

"Oh yes, I did, but I just can't wait to start eating it!"

The conversation picks up again. Grandpa talks to us about the countryside, tells us what the farmers do in winter…

The attic is vast. So many things have been waiting there for… "for centuries!" whispers Aphrodite.

"Do you think they were all waiting for us?" I say, smiling.

"They know me. It's you they were waiting for."

We rummage. I find a painting: a man in old-time costume.

"It's a great-great-grandfather", says Aphrodite.

"He looks nice. Why is he in the attic?"

"There's another picture of him downstairs. A bigger one."

"Yes, I remember now. But he looks more serious in that one."

"I suppose it must have been a portrait for general consumption. I prefer the one in the attic too."

She looks at it again and adds:

"I think he's happy to see us together."

"Yes, but the one downstairs isn't."

"So a man can be in two minds?"

Yes: his, and one… the serious one… for the others. Therefore, the others'.

We ponder. Steps sound on the staircase. We exchange a look and a nod. Grandma appears. She addresses Aphrodite, her voice full of smiles:

"Your grandfather found the key to the trunk where all the old dolls are."

"Oh yes, the locked trunk!" exclaims Aphrodite.

"That's the one. We thought the key had been lost."

"Yes, I know."

"Here it is."

Grandma turns to me and asks kindly:

"Don't you find all these old things too boring?"

"Oh no, it's like discovering a lost world."

Grandma studies me.

"You're a good boy", she says with a smile.

She goes back downstairs.

For a long moment we are silent. Aphrodite turns the key in her hands. She looks at me and says softly:

"Why, when everyone has the same opinion, is everyone's opinion different?"

"Perhaps because everyone is afraid of everyone else."

I have answered instinctively. Fear is an instinct. Aphrodite shakes her head.

"And how can we know what others think?"

Her question does not seem easy. I suggest:

"We suppose that others think something other than what we think ourselves."

"You reckon?"

"I don't know."

"Well. Let's go and look at the dolls, then."

"The dolls?"

Aphrodite waves the key, laughing:

"Yes, the dolls in…"

"Of course…" I continue her explanation:

"… in the trunk that your grandfather…"

She interrupts me, still laughing:

"… found in the attic!"

I nod and mutter:

"Him too…"

Aphrodite says, in a conciliatory tone of voice:

"No… and yet…."

And after a short silence, she says firmly:

"Everyone takes their own decisions!"

And adds immediately:

"The dolls!"

She opens the trunk. China dolls gleam like dried-out cake covered in icing sugar. Dead fish eyes…

"Fresh fish! Today's catch!"

My fishwife impression makes Aphrodite laugh.

"Are you going to tell that to Grandpa?" she teases me.

"Oh no, I wouldn't want to deprive you of the pleasure of telling him yourself."

We laugh. I think of Moon. I think of Moon out loud.

"I like Moon."

Aphrodite squeezes my arm. We say nothing.

The cold, this morning, had left earth and sky immobile and dumb. The animals were nowhere to be seen, the clouds had not dared to show themselves. The sun and the snow were a single glorious light.

We advanced with difficulty through the thick snow that had fallen during the night. Our goal was distant but unknown. "Why don't we go for a long walk tomorrow?" Swot had proposed before going to bed. Snowball had jumped for joy. After a quick breakfast we had wrapped up warm and headed out.

On foot is not the same as in a car. What a truism! I am used to walking in town. Going to school, for example, or to friends'. But I don't look round about me. I never look around. Except for what I need to tell my way. And what is there to see anyway? All the houses, all the shops look the same.

"How can you say that?" exclaims Swot.

Snowball joins in.

"A greengrocer's and a pastry shop don't look anything like the same!"

I try and explain:

"Yes, but they're still shops. Whereas here…"

"Whereas here a tree is so different from another tree!" sniggers Swot.

"Birds like cherries", says Aphrodite. "They wouldn't expect to find them in an oak tree."

"Any more than I would expect to find pastries at the greengrocer's", protests Snowball.

We continue to trudge through the snow. Swot breaks the silence:

"Snow is frozen water. To the left, to the right, it's all frozen water."

Frozen water, doubtless so. But why?

"So you suggested that we should go for a walk in frozen water?" I ask.

Swot is equal to the provocation.

"Water can be a beautiful sight. Sailors love the sea."

"Sailors become sailors to see the sea?"

My question bothers Swot.

"You're changing the subject", he complains. "We were talking about the country and the town."

Aphrodite exclaims with a laugh:

"It's a good job we aren't at school. Here we can change the subject without anyone saying anything… except you!"

"I like to know what I'm talking about", grumbles Swot again.

Snowball has called us. She is looking at something in the snow.

"Look, prints in the snow. I'd really like to know…" she begins.

"A rabbit", says her brother.

"Are you sure?" she insists.

"I don't know. Maybe a hare? What does it matter."

Snowball does not seem satisfied with her brother's answer but no-one has an alternative.

"At least there's no problem telling shops apart", I say ironically.

"And if you want a rabbit you can always buy one", retorts Swot.

We haven't gone very far but it seems a long way to me. There's no snow in the town where I live. Or if there is, it isn't so thick.

Swot is certainly right when he says that one tree looks very much like another. But here I look at everything. Although I didn't see the rabbit tracks, if that's what they were. What makes me look around? There's nothing I have to buy, not like in the shops. And even if I did, there isn't anything. Only snow - frozen water, as Swot said. And the animals: where do they go shopping?

Aphrodite has heard me. She answers:

"The animals are like you, they look at everything. Those who don't look are in the shed; the hay is close by them."

We carry on walking. I think of the walks I go on with my parents. Relaxing and fun - no, actually, rather boring. Here too I am going for a walk. But putting one foot in front of another requires an effort. I feel as though I have to… I don't know what… The gate will not close properly this summer.

"The farmer's daughter mended it last spring", Snowball informs me.

I answer, seriously because it seemed to me that the matter was important:

"She didn't do a very good job."

It seems to bother Snowball.

"She's the same age as me. It's not easy. Her father was busy with the cows."

She has spoken hesitantly.

"Is it her job to mend gates?" I say with surprise.

"I don't know. I don't think so. You know, on the farm, nobody has… when there's something to be done… it's the one who can who does it."

Snowball ponders for a moment, then adds:

"One or other, it doesn't matter."

Swot breaks in:

"But the person who does the job must be capable of doing it."

"Well, the gate has held until now!" answers Snowball vehemently.

Swot raises his eyebrows at his sister's outburst. The walk continues, one foot in front of the other. And now I look at the gates, the fences, the hedges. Of what interest could they be to me?

"You're looking at people's lives", says Aphrodite.

Swot is annoyed:

"People built the shops too! There's more than just cows on earth!"

"True", replies Aphrodite pensively. "There have to be shops to sell cows."

She goes on after a short silence:

"And if there aren't any cows, what are shops for?"

Swot is still annoyed:

"And if there weren't any shops, where would I buy my books?"

"Oh yes, it's a lovely shop!" Snowball exclaims with naïve admiration. "I get my books there too. And they haven't only got school books, they've got picture books too!"

She stops, catches her breath and goes on:

"The assistants are all really nice. They always give me good advice. Even if I don't have anything particular in mind they always find me something I like. Sometimes they even ask the owner. He must know an awful lot. He's a very important man", she ends, assuming an air of great consideration.

I can't help it.

"Is he the one who writes the books you like to read?"

Snowball looks at me in surprise. Swot looks at me as though he would really like to understand what I meant. Aphrodite has given the hint of a smile. Snowball pulls herself together and cries, laughing:

"You're so silly! It's not the milkman who feeds the cows!"

I feign laughter. Everyone laughs. The walk continues.

We're all beginning to feel tired. Snowball has mentioned going back. A good lunch would not be unwelcome. Aphrodite, who knows the area, has a plan:

"If we take the same way back we'll be very late. There's a village on the other side of the hill, it's not far. We can phone and Grandpa will come and pick us up."

"Oh yes, yes!" cries Snowball.

Swot agrees:

"It's a good idea, I don't think my sister is the only one to feel tired. Why don't we take the track on the other side of the field that goes up to the hill?"

He turns to Aphrodite.

"It does go to the village, doesn't it?"

"Yes, yes, it's the shortest way. Let's go!"

We march on with a bit of a spring in our step. Lunch has just got closer!

By car is not the same as on foot. A truism, again. We may go faster, but what happened to the gates, the fences, the rabbit tracks? Where did it go, the world that I no longer see?

Lunch, at last! And afterwards we collapse in the armchairs in the sitting room. Rest. Swot doesn't even read. Snowball has fallen asleep.

Gradually we start chatting. Books, films, school, theatre, music, parents, friends. Calm conversation, tranquil thoughts. Time stretches out.

"Will you be staying down after the film this evening?"

Swot has spoken peacefully. Did his question prick my conscience? I look at Aphrodite. She seems to have stiffened slightly. A moment goes by and she answers:

"It's the only time we can be together."

Swot does not react. Aphrodite goes on:

"We want to be together. We can't be, at school - we're not even in the same class. And elsewhere…"

She breaks off. Swot still does not say anything, but he is clearly waiting. The silence continues. I speak without really realising it:

"Elsewhere we may be being watched."

Swot has turned towards me.

"Do you mean the grandparents?" he asks without emotion.

"I don't know", I begin, not very sure of myself. "I did have an idea. But it's not just them…"

Aphrodite finishes my thought for me:

"It's anyone who might find that our being together is wrong."

Silence falls again. Swot is holding his head in his hands. After a moment, I hear him say in a low voice:

"It's not because you're together…"

He does not finish, then goes on:

"You're not… it's your age…"

"We're not old enough to live!" Aphrodite says icily.

The edge in her voice has woken Snowball, who says, yawning:

"I'm hungry!"

That, too, is life.

All things considered, we decide that a good tea would do us no harm. Grandma is very pleased with our appetite and encourages us:

"Have some more! It's the good country air that's making you hungry!"

"And the walk!" adds Swot.

After tea, Snowball leads us off into entertaining games.

"This evening", she tells us, "Grandpa wants us to watch a very good film. A film he knows very well."

She pulls a face and adds:

"We're going to get bored."

Gradually, we all start laughing. Swot makes a sly dig:

"It's probably a film for intelligent people. I'm not surprised you're worried about getting bored!"

"Hey, genius, you lost!"

We laugh at Swot's discomfort at losing a point in the game against Snowball. He tries to defend himself:

"It's a kid's game!"

But there's nothing to be done; Snowball has the last word:

"I did what I could to find a game you could play. And even then it's too hard for you!"

Everybody laughs, even Swot.

The film was indeed boring. Snowball was right. I couldn't work out what was going on. Something happened, then something else, and I couldn't see any link between them. One character talked about his friend; then he said that his friend had behaved badly and so wasn't his friend any more. Than he went off for a walk saying that it was very important. I never did find out what was so important.

The grandparents were happy. They told us the plot of the film. I was just as much in the dark as before.

"You should all go to bed", concluded Grandpa. "You must be tired out after your walk."

The grandparents got up to go upstairs to their bedroom. On his way out, Grandpa put his hand on Aphrodite's shoulder and added, affectionately but insistently:

"Go to bed. You're tired."


Aphrodite had clearly started to deny it, but she checked herself:

"Yes, Grandpa, you're right, I am tired."

Grandpa smiled kindly and gave her a kiss. Grandma did the same, wishing her a good night's rest.

Once the grandparents had gone, Swot looked at Aphrodite and me and remarked:

"You should get a good night's sleep."

"Oh yes! I'm really sleepy", yawned Snowball.

The cousins have gone upstairs. We do not know what to do.

"I said I was tired, not that I wanted to go to sleep", muttered Aphrodite.

I spread my hands to show that I am powerless. Aphrodite goes on in the same voice:

"So it is wrong. It is wrong."

I look at her very hard. I want to tell her… but she doesn't leave me time:

"I can hear what you're saying: we're together."

She takes my hand, squeezes it and says in a low voice:

"Tonight we go our separate ways. Tomorrow we'll stay, come what may."

Grandma had foreseen that we would be hungry, this morning. We devour.

"Are you going to go for a walk today", asks Grandpa, smiling with a hint of irony.

"Oh no!" says Swot, adding quickly: "You know how it is, Grandpa, in the city we're not used to walks in the snow. So we're tired."

"As I can see. And I reckon you've had a good night's sleep…"

Grandpa turns towards Aphrodite and ends:

"… haven't you?"

"Yes, very good", she answers calmly.

And, after taking a moment, she goes on:

"I always sleep well."

Grandpa hesitates for a second then goes back to his cup of tea.

The morning passes calmly. Grandma does things around the house, helped by Snowball. Grandpa talks about country life, asks us about our schoolwork.

"You're doing well", he says to his grandson, "I'm pleased with you."

"I get good marks too!" exclaims Snowball, who has just come in.

Grandpa gives her a warm smile and says kindly:

"That's really very good. I'm pleased with you too."

He hesitates for a moment, then says:

"Your brother sets great store by his studies."

He hesitates again:

"I can understand that at your age you want to have fun."

"Isn't it good to have fun?" reacts Snowball, surprised.

Grandpa hurries on:

"Oh yes, yes, that's not what I meant. I'm happy to see you having fun together!"

"I didn't have time for fun this morning", declares Snowball solemnly. "Grandma needed me to help her."

And she runs out.

Grandpa hands out a few more compliments on our schoolwork then goes out too.

"He was pretty nice to us, don't you think?" remarks Swot.

"To you, you mean", retorts Aphrodite.

"You reckon he didn't want to be nice to you, then?"

"No, but what I do bothers him."

"He doesn't really know what you do, but he must have heard you going up to bed very late."

I listened to them but said nothing. I was concerned. Not so much about displeasing the grandparents as about doing something abnormal.

"So it isn't normal to go to bed very late?"

Swot made a vague gesture and answered squarely:

"I've already told you: it's your age."

"No-one says anything when I go to bed late because I've got homework to finish!" I grumble.

Swot laughs softly:

"Grandpa must not have realised you were doing homework!"

I don't laugh. Nor does Aphrodite.

"How are we supposed to get to talk to each other?" she asks her cousin.

"Grandpa must suppose that people don't have to talk to each other in secret."

Aphrodite looks outraged. Swot continues:

"I'm not saying what I think, just what Grandpa does."

I break in:

"How do you know?"

"I don't. I just suppose so."

Aphrodite is still outraged:

"We can't talk at school, we can't talk here! Where are we supposed to talk?"

She does not move. Swot says nothing.

"Perhaps we're never allowed to talk", she continues.

At that, Swot protests:

"You're exaggerating. Everybody talks. You're talking now."

Aphrodite remains mute. He goes on:

"And it's not as if Grandpa had told you you were doing anything wrong. He's… he's just a bit worried."

"Worried? Am I such a worry, then?"

He hesitates before answering.

"You're a girl. Girls are always a worry."

"Lunch is ready!" cries Snowball.

The grandparents are in a good mood at lunch. Grandpa does not make any disagreeable allusions. Grandma has made good things to eat. Grandpa laughs and tells jokes. Everyone laughs. Me too. I had wondered… But no, after all, Swot is right. Grandpa hasn't told us we were doing anything wrong.

The phone rang almost as soon as lunch was over. Our parents are asking after us. My mother sounds calm and natural. So no-one has said anything to her. Aphrodite has spoken to her mother; nothing unusual. The cousins don't seem to be in any bother.

The afternoon has worn on. The phone conversations, scheduled for today, have taken time. All there is left for us to do is to play the games Snowball suggests.

For the grandparents the evening, after dinner, was short. Nothing interesting on TV. They soon went up to bed.

"What are we going to do tomorrow?" asks Snowball.

No-one has any particular ideas. We ponder all sorts of things to do.

"We'll see tomorrow", declares Snowball with authority.

No-one contradicts her. She goes on, looking at Aphrodite and me, still with authority:

"You went to bed early last night, because of Grandpa."

A short silence, then:

"Grandma doesn't mind you talking together."

She nods towards me and adds:

"You wouldn't have come if you didn't have anything to say to her."

And she concludes:

"You can stay up tonight."

"Thank you, Snowball, I'm glad you said that." I don't have time to say what I was thinking. Aphrodite gets in first:

"It's really sweet of you to think of us."

Snowball gives a little smile and answers, slightly sadly:

"Children always have to do as they're told."

She shakes her head and goes on more energetically:

"But you're older. You can… No, it's true, as far as the grandparents are concerned you're still children."

She turns towards her brother:

"But you're not a child, are you?"

Swot laughs, but it grates a little:

"I'm not a child when people need me."

"That's right!" exclaims Snowball. "It's the same with me. I've often noticed it."

She gestures expansively with her hands and adds, looking at Aphrodite:

"After all, you're entitled to be in love with someone!"

Swot is surprised:

"Why do you say that? Do people have to be in love to talk to each other?"

His sister has no hesitation:

"Of course. Otherwise what is there to talk about?"

"Every time you start talking…"

Snowball laughs at her brother's remark:

"Oh, but that's not talking!"

"What a load of codswallop!" says Swot disdainfully.

His sister has opened her mouth to reply but stops.

"Your sister is right", Aphrodite intervenes mildly. "We're always being asked to answer, not to talk. You say girls are a worry. Perhaps they talk more than boys."

"And when I talk too much, people tell me to shut up!" says Snowball indignantly.

Her brother gives her a soothing smile:

"Don't get upset. I just tell you that because…"

"… because I'm too young", cuts in his sister.

She pouts for a moment, then goes on energetically:

"You can only talk about what you're allowed to say. At school, we're always being told not to chatter…"

"But there's a reason for that: you disturb the class!"

Her brother's interruption does not put her off her stride:

"And when we're not in class, why do people say 'What are you whispering about?' or 'Have you got secrets?' Aren't I allowed to have secrets? And when people hear us they say: 'What a load of rubbish you talk!' They only call it rubbish because they don't like it!"

She stops, as though out of breath. No-one says anything. After a moment the conversation turns to our plans for tomorrow. Nothing is decided. The cousins go to bed.

The sitting room is quiet and still. Quiet most of all. We are sitting next to each other on the sofa. Were we allowed to stay down? Aphrodite says:

"One day at school, during break, I went onto a big staircase to look out of the window. I was bored. A teacher went by. He was surprised. 'Why aren't you in the yard?' he asked. I told him I just wanted to look out of the window. He looked at me for a moment without saying anything then walked away. He didn't tell me off or anything. But I didn't want to stay there any more. Perhaps because I had no reason for being there. Perhaps…"

She shakes her head pensively and says:

"I must have been allowed to be there because he didn't say anything. But from his point of view I wasn't supposed to be there. My normal place was in the yard."

Another moment goes by and she adds:

"Where is my normal place tonight? Yes, I know, in my bedroom."

"And me in mine", I remark in a disillusioned tone of voice.

Aphrodite gives me a sad smile. I add:

"Or even at home with my parents."

A nod of the head accompanies her answer:

"We wanted to be together. Our normal place is our business. That's what bothers Grandpa. If we decide for ourselves, the world depends only on us. And Grandpa can't get into that world. For the teacher at my school, for Grandpa, it's as though their world was coming to an end."

I try to inject a note of hope:

"Your grandmother trusts us."

"What is trust?"

She has suddenly lifted her head. Her voice is severe:

"I very often get the impression that trust consists in being sure of getting something out of me without having anything to give me back."

"Yes, I've often felt the same; but people go on to say that they trust in… my qualities…"

"Your good behaviour. The behaviour that suits them."

"Yes, it's true; it's true."

A moment's silence. Aphrodite mutters:

"What is there in us being together that doesn't suit them?"

"They're afraid that…"

"Why does that not suit them?"

We look at each other. For a long time. Aphrodite asks:

"Why does it suit us?"

We look at each other some more. I… answer:

"I often think about it. I can't say I don't know. But I can't say I know either."

I ponder… without thinking. I continue my… answer:

"We're together. That's part of it. I mean…"

"I understand. If we weren't together, we wouldn't talk about it."

"Yes. Grown-ups seem to know but they don't say anything. Nothing I can understand, anyway. I don't need to know - I'm a child."

Aphrodite has turned thoughtful:

"A child… It's true, we could have a child. Maybe that's what doesn't suit them."

"And yet they often seem happy enough…"

"Yes, but we're not capable of living on our own. They don't want to be disturbed."

I can't find an answer, but I feel there is something else. I hesitate a bit:

"Why do they say I mustn't think wrong? The wrong they mean isn't just children that disturb them."

"Oh no, I know!" exclaims Aphrodite. "As far as they're concerned, it's already wrong to think. I mustn't think about… about everything that's you, only about a part of you, the part…"

She breaks off for a second, then carries on feverishly:

"The part that can keep us apart, not leave us together."

We remain silent for a moment. I feel sad. My voice is weak:

"So we're only allowed to be together if others agree."

"Yes, and in order to agree they have to know."

"But why?"

"Probably because we have to live with everybody else."

Aphrodite is right. I nod.

"You're right. You're right. But when does someone think wrong? Since the wrong becomes a right if everyone agrees. So we shouldn't be together so as to please other people? And that isn't thinking wrong?"

"Yes. Yes. And if we don't want to please others, they will say that we want to please ourselves."

"And that, of course, is repugnant!"

Aphrodite gives a weak smile. Her voice is low, slightly husky:

"Why do we want to be together? Together."

Her voice strengthens:

"Really together. Are there words to explain it? Yes, I know, words, words. But real words? Words that need nothing else, no other explanation? Words without letters, without sounds."

She stops, as if tired, then goes on:

"I don't need words with you. I don't need to talk to you. I don't need to listen to you. I know I want to be in your arms. I know you want to take me in your arms. I know that's how people make babies. Without that want there wouldn't be any babies. So it's that want that babies come from, not from a piece of homework set in class!"

The window is covered in little white drawings this morning. The day hesitates to show its light, which the whiteness of the snow turns grey. I have not slept much and sleep has left me. I have got up and am watching the still water of the river gradually appear. My hands are clasped as if to… Yes, I am no longer alone. Aphrodite is in her room and I feel something like pain at not being with her. But she is there, and together we are watching the river… She is there, invisible.

Breakfast is jolly. Grandpa is as jolly as everyone else… We are invited to some of the grandparents' friends for lunch. "Don't be back too late", says Grandma as we go off sledging. Just now, at the breakfast table, I felt something disturbing. I couldn't say what. There were the children - yes, that's us - and there were the grandparents. And… it's as though there was a grown-up, an important person. And it was… yes, it was Aphrodite. But Aphrodite is… I don't know how to put it… The feeling that she was no longer a child. I…

We go up and down the hill. We laugh. We are having fun. A strange feeling stops me from laughing too loud…

The grandparents' friends make me welcome but are very reserved. Contrary to my usual experience, I am not subjected to a barrage of questions. Just a few remarks, intended to get answers from me that would… tell them about me. I answer clearly, with great calm. Mrs seems surprised, Mr often glances at me out of the corner of his eye. At table, I am seated next to a girl a little older than Swot. She calls Mr "Grandfather", Mrs "Grandmother" and Snowball "Baby". She treats Swot like a big sister who's seen it all before, Aphrodite like a long-suffering aunt. I don't think I am fortunate enough to meet with her approval.

Mrs asks Aphrodite about her holidays.

"Are you pleased with your holidays?"

"Yes", answers Aphrodite politely.

Mrs presses her lips together. Was the answer too short, then?

Mrs insists:

"Are you having a good time with your cousins?"

"Yes," just as politely.

The girl has assumed a pained expression and murmurs to Aphrodite:

"And with your boyfriend."

The guests eat. Aphrodite looks straight at the girl and says calmly:

"It's because he's my boyfriend that I asked my grandparents to invite him."

And she adds without a break:

"Wouldn't you have done the same?"

Has the girl blushed? She answers in a rush:

"At my age, I know what's the right thing to do."

After some clattering of forks Mr asks Grandpa if the roads weren't too bad:

"… with all the snow…"

"There was a lot of snow the day before yesterday", remarks Grandpa.

The conversations get caught up in the forks. The roast is delicious and you have to wrap up warm so as not to catch cold. But Aphrodite is a reasonable child, declares Mrs, and adds:

"I'm sure you never do anything you shouldn't."

Aphrodite answers her in slightly ironic tone of voice:

"Thank you for having so much confidence in me."

Mrs mumbles "Yes… I believe… I think", then finishes up:

"I think you can't have caught cold yet."

Mr weighs in:

"You don't catch cold at that age!"

Mrs starts to frown. The forks get caught up in the conversations.

Mr talks to me about studying… in general. Mrs tells me that my parents are very good… to have let me… the sentence remains unfinished.

More than anything else, I sense a refusal. Or perhaps… No, I cannot say a regret. Or if so, a regret at having to refuse. No, no… Why does Mr look at me as though I kept a secret? The secret of my life? The one he hasn't had, perhaps? The one he cannot admit that I might have? Why does Mrs extend her protection to Aphrodite? Is she afraid that I will reveal marvels to Aphrodite that she has never known?

Mr and Mrs are there to see the one who wants to be with Aphrodite. But it is wild animals that have been captured that people come to see in their cages. No-one comes to see cows.

What cage is being prepared for us?

Lunch ends. Mr has launched into a speech on the future of the world. Mrs and the grandparents listen. The girl asks if we would like to go into the sitting room.

"Don't you get bored in the country?" Swot asks the girl.

She looks surprised:

"Why should I get bored? I've got plenty of work to do, it's not as if I was in kindergarten. And I've got lots of friends who I often see."

The conversation stops. No-one says anything for a while. The girl gets up, moves something around, sits back down.

"There's no more reason to get bored in the country than in the city", she declares suddenly.

"In the city there may be more…"

Swot hesitates and does not finish his sentence. The girl goes on:

"There may be more… but we don't miss it in the country. You go to see a show, I go for a walk."

"But always in the same place. And it's not as if I don't walk in the city."

He purses his lips and adds:

"And the scenery's more varied."

The girl shakes her head:

"One field is not like another. The woods aren't the same in winter and in summer. It's just as attractive as the city."

"I prefer architecture…"

"And painters prefer landscapes."

"Which are your favourite fields?" asks Aphrodite.

The girl seems surprised:

"I don't have any favourite fields. One day it's one, another day it's another. I can remember a field I went to with a friend last summer where we sat and chatted… though I wouldn't go there today!" she finishes, laughing.

"And yet the field is the same", remarks Aphrodite softly, "and the cows will find the grass again in the spring."

The girl displays patience:

"The grass is the same in the field next door."

Aphrodite does not answer. Snowball takes advantage to ask the girl:

"Do you like sledging?"

The girl smiles condescendingly:

"I used to like it when I was little."

Snowball presses her lips together and says nothing. I feel slightly irritated.

"What changes when you get older? I'm sure you can still remember", I say sharply.

The girl gives me a look of disgust. She seems to think, then says severely:

"You realise what you've done. Children aren't capable of doing that."

"And that happens at what age?"

The girl gives an impatient scowl and answers disdainfully:

"At the age you no longer ask that kind of question."

"So people are no longer interested in the same things when they stop being children?"

This time she looks at me with a hint of irony and says:

"No, people are no longer interested in the same things, thank Heavens!"

After a moment's silence she adds, with emphasis:

"And they soon forget about the things that used to interest them."

"If you forget, it's as though you had never existed."

The girl gives me a sort of suspicious look and does not answer.

But I cannot forget. The people I have known are there, in my mind. What I have done. I was six, I can see the game I was playing, the friend who came over to play with me. The walks, the places, the people. All I have to do is think and it all comes back. I still suffer the way I did that day… I smile at… I was four… was it four? I can remember the house… my parents, their friends… my cousin… And how old was I, even before that… I can see a cat, I can see things that are indistinct but oh so real. How could I ever forget Aphrodite?

I did not notice the silence that had fallen until Aphrodite broke it by speaking to the girl.

"Why do you want to forget? Are you unhappy?"

"And you're happy, I suppose? Or you imagine that you are? You don't know what's in wait for you tomorrow!"

The girl turns to me and goes on:

"Was it you that told her she had to be happy because you're here?"

Stung, I retort:

"Is it so unpleasant to see…"

I do not end my sentence. I don't know how to continue it. Aphrodite finishes it for me:

"… that I'm happy because he's here?"

She adds, slowly:

"It's true, I am a child and I'm just not able to realise…"

The girl breaks in:

"Do what you want, but it's not you who'll decide…"

Silence has fallen. Swot has looked down and does not move. Snowball stares at the girl then says with an air of desperation:

"I don't want anyone to stop them seeing each other!"

"What does it matter to you!" snaps the girl.

"People often stop me from… I'm still young but they're older. If people stop them from… then no-one is ever allowed!"

The girl seems satisfied:

"You see, you can understand that you're still little and that people can tell you not to do certain things. Why can't…"

Snowball interrupts:

"Yes, but they're stopping them from thinking! Even I'm allowed to think!"

"If you do something wrong, you get punished."

"Is it wrong to think?"

The girl shakes her head with vexation and answers sharply:

"That's really stupid, Baby! No-one ever said it was wrong to think…"

"You just mustn't think wrong."

My interruption must have irked the girl. She looks at me - is that the kind of look you give the rabbit you want to kill? - then says, underlining each word:

"You really do like deciding for everyone else, don't you?"

"Yes", I answer, too quickly.

The girl takes advantage of my clumsiness:

"It's a good job not everyone thinks they have to abide by your decisions!"

As no-one says anything, I take advantage of the silence to get my wits back and say:

"If it's my life, I'll decide…"

My mind has got stuck. Everyone is looking at me, except Aphrodite who has lowered her gaze and seems to be waiting. I try to go on:

"I will decide…"

I have blushed. I have bitten my lips, they hurt. I have got up, taken Aphrodite's hand and I finish:

"… with her."

"Bravo!" exclaims Snowball.

The girl does not. Is that a threat in her eye? No, it can't be. But everything I sense in her seems threatening to me. Why is it in her? Did she do it all by herself or is it a gift she has been given? She is speaking:

"And yet you need permission…"

"Do feelings need permission?"

My interruption was to Snowball's liking, since she nods enthusiastically. The girl starts to speak again:

"Yes, if they're bad."

I look at her squarely and ask:

"What is a bad feeling, then?"

She doesn't answer? I ask again:

"Is it you who decides what's bad?"


She has broken off. I finish off for her:

"It's stupid, I know. It always is when people don't like it."

The girl protests:

"I didn't say that… what you said! But… but… someone has to decide…"

"Yes. Me."

"You can't. You're… You want to change…"

"Yes, I know, and the world doesn't want me to change it. It will fight back. It would rather kill me."

"Just now it was you deciding with her, now you're deciding on your own", says the girl ironically.

"I agree with him!"

Aphrodite has almost shouted. Snowball claps her hands:

"Me too, me too!"

No-one says anything for a long moment. Swot breaks the silence.

"Are there any reasons for preventing two people from being together?"

"Of course", I grate. "Choosing to be together is just refusing to be with everyone else."

The girl says, still ironically:

"So the two of you don't want to be with anyone else!"

That gets to me.

"Everyone else isn't the same as anyone else."

"Better and better! And what you say isn't what you say!"

"No, that's not what I mean. Let me explain."

"I'm listening, oracle!" sneers the girl.

I don't let her put me off.

"Everyone else means all those who are around me…"


"No, not you. Well, I suppose you too, really. But I mean parents, teachers, all those who want to… construct what I think."

"And didn't you ever think you were being helped? After all, you don't know everything."

"If they cut off my leg and replace it with a wooden one, I won't walk the same way."

"They'll only replace it if you lose it in the first place."

"I really don't want to lose my mind!"

"Your comparisons are…"

"Yes, stupid, I know."

No-one had interrupted our sparring match, but now Aphrodite intervenes:

"Children always have to think the way they're told. But it can't be just anyone that does the telling. It's got to be… everyone, I mean parents, teachers… "

She looks at me and concludes:

"… everyone you were just talking about."

She takes a moment, then adds:

"And only those, not the others; the others are bad, they give bad advice, since they're not part of… everyone else."

Silence has fallen. Aphrodite carries on:

"Children have no power, they can't defend themselves…"

"That's why others protect them", says the girl.

"They don't protect them against those who aren't… everyone else", replies Aphrodite.

"Oh, you two and your 'everyone else'! It doesn't mean anything!" snaps the girl with a gesture of irritation.

I am irritated in my turn:

"Then why do people keep banging on with their: 'Everyone else does that, everyone else agrees'?"

The girl has not answered.

"And then they say: 'Why can't you be like everyone else?'" I add dully.

The girl still doesn't answer. Silence has settled. Snowball is sleepy. Swot starts to talk about the holidays, the snow…

At dinner, Grandpa asks Aphrodite how the conversation with the girl went. She is serious and has good judgment, he says. Aphrodite looks at him with an inquisitorial eye and utters platitudes. Grandma refuses to get involved. Grandpa pushes the subject, along the lines of "What did you talk about?" Aphrodite answers slowly, not straying beyond general remarks. Snowball seems anxious. Swot has assumed an air of indifference. Grandpa's efforts gradually crumble, worn away by Aphrodite's resistance. The talk turns once more to snow…

"Bedtime", Grandpa has said, getting up after the film. He and Grandma have gone up to their room. The four of us have stayed down, without talking.

Swot breaks the silence.

"I'm sure she said something to Grandpa."

Snowball gives him an anxious look.

"Do you think he'll…?"

She leaves her sentence hanging.

"No, I don't think so. He would've said something by now."

"He wanted to know what we said", Snowball insists.

"No, he wanted to know what we would say we said."

After a moment's thought Swot adds, looking at Aphrodite:

"I shouldn't have let you answer on your own. I wanted to help you, really I did, but I was afraid… You did very well, you know - gave all the right answers."

He gives an ironic smile, then says:

"All the right non-answers, I should say!"

His smile fails to raise a laugh.

"It's sad", Snowball sighs. "We get on so well together. Do you think we won't be able to have fun any more like we did before?"

Her brother gives her a reassuring smile and answers easily:

"There's no reason why we shouldn't do just the same as before."

"Are you sure?"

"We'll have to be careful, though…"

"Careful about what?" Aphrodite almost shouts.

"Careful to make sure no-one sees me living?" she goes on in a lower voice.

Swot is silent.

"I shouldn't have come", I say softly.

"Why?" Aphrodite growls. "I wanted you to. You wanted to. And anyway it's my mother who asked you to come."

Yes, that's true. I had forgotten.

Swot is surprised:

"Your mother? You mean she knew?"

"Knew what?" Aphrodite scowls. "What is there to know?"

Swot pulls a face.

"True. It wasn't your house he was spending the night in."

Snowball breaks in:

"But your mother knew we'd be together the whole time."

Her brother finishes off:

"So she must have talked about it to our grandparents."

After a moment's thought he adds:

"So she can't be worried. Unless Grandpa's said something to her."

"My mother would have spoken to me about it", Aphrodite remarks. "Especially if she was cross."

"Your mother might not want me to see you any more", I worry.

"Too bad for her!" says Aphrodite savagely.

Swot gapes at her. Snowball looks startled.

"What will you do?" she asks Aphrodite.

"I don't know what I'll do, but…"

Aphrodite turns towards me and goes on without pausing:

"… we'll see."

Her eyes do not leave me.

"Yes, I'll see you."

I have spoken gravely. Snowball has tears in her eyes. Swot tries to soothe us:

"Nobody's said anything to you yet, and perhaps they never will."

"But it's you who said we'd have to be careful", replies Aphrodite.

Swot hesitates, then says:

"I may have been wrong to say it, but you may have got the wrong end of the stick. I was just thinking about not being too obvious…"

"So now we have to hide", breaks in Aphrodite. "Like when the enemy comes!"

"Nobody's declared war on you!"

"I don't know about that."

"What do you mean?"

"I don't know… I… I don't know what to think. It's not easy. Maybe you're right. I just can't… I just don't know what I'm supposed to say, what I'm supposed to think. You're right, I am too young."

Aphrodite has fallen silent. No-one says anything. After a long pause I decide to speak:

"And if war is declared, we don't have anything to fight with."

The cousins have gone to bed. We are sitting on the sofa. From time to time we look at each other without saying anything. And yet I am talking, just in silence. Has Aphrodite been doing the same? Because I have heard her voice, very low:

"I want you to stay."

Now the words leave my mouth:

"I will stay. Even if there are enemies."

I have the impression of creating a drama which does not exist. I take back what I have just said:

"Your cousin's right. Nobody has declared war on us."

Aphrodite gives a sad smile. Her voice is still low:

"Nobody has declared peace on us."

"So what the hell do they want?" I flare.

"You know perfectly well. They want us to find them more important than ourselves."

"You mean more to me than…"

"That's what bothers them. How are we supposed to be part of… everyone else, as we were saying this afternoon?"

"I am with you, I am not with everyone else. That's what I want. I want to prefer you to everyone else."

I continue to fulminate:

"Then everyone else will want nothing to do with me. They will be my enemy. Our enemy."

Aphrodite has shivered. I have encased her shoulders in my arms, kissed her cheek. Hard. Very hard. She too…

I am not hungry this morning. And yet the meal is very good - to look at.

"You're not ill, are you?" Grandma worries.

"No, no, I'm fine", I reply, without really knowing what I am saying.

I am aware that the tone of my voice gives the lie to my answer, but I don't feel the least bit ill.

Grandma has sensed my reticence.

"Are you tired, perhaps? Did you sleep well?"

A moment of embarrassment. Swot busily butters his bread. Aphrodite stiffens. Only Snowball seems not to have noticed anything. I answer as well as I can:

"I slept well."

I add, without knowing why:

"I didn't go to bed late."

"Were you sleepy, then? That's not like you", remarks Grandpa.

I don't know what to say. Aphrodite comes to my rescue:

"We like to talk. There's no-one to disturb us in the evening."

She adds quickly:

"I don't mean that my cousins bother us or anything…"

A short pause, then she goes on:

"Or you, or Grandma."

Another pause.

"We're happy to be here with you, with all of you."

She stops again, then carries on:

"We like each other, we enjoy being together. It's important for us."

She has got up. Standing right next to Grandpa she adds:

"You talk to Grandma, don't you?"

She gives him a kiss and an affectionate grin:

"Well, we talk to each other too!"

Then she goes over to Grandma, gives her a kiss too and says with a soft laugh:

"I love you. You're nice."

Grandma kisses her back and Grandpa growls:

"Oh, what a pair of brainboxes!"

Everyone laughs. I think I laughed too.

My good humour has restored my appetite. Grandma is delighted. Snowball chatters about sledging, of course. The morning passes cheerfully. Until lunchtime, when it starts all over again. I mean we have another meal. Why does that thought strike me? I am very happy to eat, and I'm hungry, what with the sledging and the snowball fights.

After lunch, the grandparents go off to visit friends in the nearby village. We settle down in the sitting room. Swot suggests a game of cards. His proposal is accepted. I play, but my mind is elsewhere. I don't know where. It irritates me a little. Is it this morning's conversation at breakfast? But everything… everything what? Everything went off well. What does that mean, "Everything went off well?" Should anything not have gone off well? If so, what?

"Concentrate, for heaven's sake!"

Swot has called me to order. He's right. I've said I would play, so play I must. I concentrate… on playing well. Swot congratulates me. It's nice of him. He says nice things. He says I play well. Just now, he thought I played badly. He called me to order. Quite right. Quite right. Just so… Just so…

The game of cards has finished. Aphrodite and Snowball have made tea. We relax. Snowball is busy with whatever it is that occupies her. It's good not to do anything, not to think. And I'm not thinking, of course, now am I?

"What are you muttering?" inquires Swot.

"I was just thinking that I wasn't thinking."

"Very interesting. I think you don't think you think. What do you think?"

"I don't know what to think."

"How daft can you get!" cries Snowball, laughing.

Not to be left out, Aphrodite says:

"Boys always think superior thoughts…"

"So give us a sight of yours!" exclaims Swot.

"We were making the tea while you were thinking", declares Snowball seriously.

I give her a smile:

"That's true. And it was very good of you."

"Right. And we're very happy", adds Swot affectionately.

Snowball assumes a comic air:

"My brother is happy with me. Write it in your diaries!"

"I'm always happy with you when you do something good."

Snowball pouts.

I feel like pouting too. I ask Swot:

"Something good, it's…"

I hesitate.

"Well?" he asks.

I carry on, still hesitantly:

"You say 'It's good', but…"

I hesitate again. Swot is irked:

"But what? You ain't half complicated!"

I carry on:

"Someone has to say 'It's good' for something to be good."

"I don't get what you mean…"

Aphrodite breaks in:

"At school, it's the teacher who says 'It's good' or 'It's bad'."

Her cousin shrugs:

"Who else is supposed to? Not you, I hope!"

Snowball sighs:

"If the teacher isn't happy, there's nothing to be done…"

Her brother shrugs again:

"You can always work harder."

Snowball looks sulky:

"Even if I do work harder, they can still not be happy."

"Then you must have got it wrong. You can't have worked harder. And in any case, it's their opinion that counts. Otherwise they wouldn't be teachers. That's what they're there for."

Snowball does not seem convinced.

I intervene:

"If I understand rightly, it's for the person who knows to tell the person who doesn't know whether something is good or bad."

"Obviously", cuts in Swot.

"I would agree with that when there's a job to be done, like making a car. But…"

I do not know how to go on. Aphrodite picks up where I left off.

"If it's something you feel, who knows and who doesn't?"

"It's not the same thing", her cousin protests. "You can feel what you want."

"Even if the feeling has consequences?"

"A feeling can't have consequences."

"What you do might depend on it."

"In that case, it's what you do that's judged, not what you feel."

Snowball is listening attentively.

"So it's better to hide your feelings", I say.

"In some cases, yes, it is", replies Swot.

He continues:

"But you don't have to…"

"Just as long as they don't bother anyone", I say.

He looks at me closely then pronounces:


Silence falls. It is broken by Aphrodite.

"When someone can run fast, especially if they can run faster than others, people say they run well."

"Oh yes!" exclaims Snowball. "That's what my gym teacher says. I can run really fast!"

"But you haven't done anything to be able to run fast. That's just the way you're made."

"I've made an effort!" replies his little sister.

"If you were made differently, your efforts wouldn't have helped."

Snowball looks downcast.

"So it's bad to run well."

We can't help laughing.

"It must be", she insists, "because what's good is what takes work."

"Really, you do say the daftest things", scolds her brother.

"They're not daft!"

"They are."


Aphrodite and I start laughing. It calms the row.

Car noises. The grandparents are back. They've brought a nice pudding for dinner. A film ends the evening. The grandparents and cousins go up to bed. We stay down.

Aphrodite seems to be continuing a conversation with herself.

"People tell us to improve ourselves, whether at school or at home. But what's the point, if we don't need to?"

I try and find a reason.

"To know more…"

"No, no", she interrupts. "Not learn. Improve. To run faster, for example. You don't learn how to run, you train in order to run faster. You may change your physical movements but you don't learn them. As soon as little children are strong enough, they run as well as a trained athlete."

"But when a runner gets faster and faster, he improves his speed."

"You're right. I may have got the wrong word. I don't know how…"

She breaks off. I wait. She goes on again:

"For example, people tell us we're not supposed to do certain things, but we are supposed to do others."

"Jump instead of run?"

"Yes. Or read one thing instead of another."

"Or prefer one schoolmate to another."

"Yes, yes."

"There may be good reasons."


She thinks for a moment, then says:

"But they're other people's reasons, not ours."

"As we are children…"

Aphrodite scowls:

"I wonder if it won't be just the same when we're grown up."

"Right. I've often heard people say about grown-ups: 'Did you see what he did?' or "Did you hear that…'"

"There's character too, the way people are."

That brings back memories:

"You have to comb your hair this way, dress that way."

"Think this way, not think that way", Aphrodite spits.

"For us, that's education."

"And what is it for grown-ups?"

"That depends on whether you share the same opinion or not."

We are silent for a moment. I am a bit irritated too. Without any particular reason. Aphrodite goes on:

"So if you want to know whether something's good or bad you have to ask somebody's opinion."

"Yes, somebody. Somebody else."

Aphrodite gives a little laugh:

"And the somebody else will tell us that something's good or bad but can't tell themselves the same thing."

"Yes, yes. Since they have to ask somebody else too!"

"And you mustn't get the wrong somebody. So you have to ask somebody else which somebody you should ask!"

It's too much for us and we burst out laughing. All my irritation has evaporated. Aphrodite's too, apparently.

A moment passes. We do not try to explore the subject any further. The night advances. Aphrodite looks at the time.

"We should… soon be going to bed."

"Yes, yes, we should…" I answer vaguely.

Aphrodite breaks in suddenly:

"But in that case we can never even know whether we are… like this or like that."

She stops, then adds heatedly:

"We can know nothing about what we do or what we think or what we are without somebody telling us."

Another silence, then she finishes:

"So in that case we exist only if somebody tells us so."

Snow is falling this morning, occasional and lazy. I hesitate to wake up; the night, though over, will not leave me. The hill in the distance hides behind the snowflakes. Who told those strolling flakes to come over my way? Why do they dance so merrily, as if fearless that a breath of warm wind might make them faint away? Do they think they're up there on the tops where cold is king? And yet shouldn't they sense that the air has become warm, even though the chill hasn't left us yet?

Breakfast is peaceful. Snowball has not yet brought up the subject of sledging. Swot cracks jokes. Aphrodite smiles. Grandma makes sure we have all we need. Grandpa looks serene, asks with simplicity what we talked about last night, Aphrodite and I. I tell him in equal simplicity that we talked about what people think. He seems satisfied and declares: "I was right when I said you were a pair of brainboxes!" Grandma has been listening attentively and I can see a happy smile on her lips. Grandpa launches off into a speech about people, children… He ends by telling me that it was a very good idea to take an interest in serious subjects and that it showed I was a serious and trustworthy young man. Grandma offers jam - "I made it myself!" We have been eating her jam for a week.

No sledging today, but a long walk instead. The snowflakes tease us, pinching our cheeks. Snowball tries to catch them but her hands remain empty. It makes her laugh. "They're playing hide-and-seek, but I'll get one in the end!" Swot has made a visible effort not to grunt his usual: "Oh, shut up with your rubbish!" Snowball throws invisible snowflakes at him. Swot ends up by laughing too. Aphrodite and I echo his laughter.

Snowball has good eyesight. She has seen a fox in the distance, between two thickets that couldn't be bothered to dress up warm despite the cold. The fox has disappeared. Did he want to make sure we couldn't tell him what he was? "He knows very well, and that's why he's run for it", says Aphrodite ironically. Snowball showers us with questions: "Who is he? What does he know? What do you mean?" Swot supports his sister: "How are you supposed to know what they mean? They're brainboxes, aren't they?"

Aphrodite decides to give her cousin an explanation.

"The fox knows we are his enemies."

"Why?" asks Snowball.

"People think that what foxes do is wrong. They eat hens…"

"So do we. Is that wrong?"

"People think that the hens belong to them. They only give them to those who live with them. If foxes were tame, they'd be given hens too."

Snowball does not answer, remains lost in thought. Aphrodite goes on:

"Foxes are wild animals, they don't live near people. If you capture one and tell it it's tame…"

"It would understand?" queries Snowball with astonishment.

"It would be given food, and then it would understand."

"It would be given hens?"

"It would be given hens."

"And eating hens would be right?"

"Yes, it would. As long as the fox stayed tame and didn't go back to the woods."

"And if it did, then it wouldn't be right for it to eat hens again."

"No, it wouldn't. That's what people say."

Aphrodite has said the last sentence sadly. Snowball has no more questions. In the middle of the silence that has settled, I suddenly say:

"Grandpa told me I was a serious young man. If I want hens, I'll have to stay a serious young man."

"If you want a hen I'll always give you one. I know where to find them!" cries Snowball, laughing.

"Well, that's all right then!" I reply.

Everyone laughs, Aphrodite a little less loudly than the others.

"And do you intend to stay a serious young man?" teases Swot.

"I'll never manage to be as serious as you!" I retort, smiling.

"So you mustn't be yourself", complains Aphrodite. "You have to correspond to something that doesn't exist."

"What do you mean, doesn't exist?" says Swot with surprise. "You mean a serious person doesn't exist?"

"A person exists, but what does serious mean?" mutters Aphrodite.

Swot lifts his arms to the heavens. Snowball takes advantage of the opportunity to say in a mocking tone of voice:

"Why don't you tell her to shut up with her rubbish?"

Swot pretends to look outraged and does not answer.

The snowflakes still swirl around us. Aimlessly, like us. The wind blows them where it will. What is it that makes us walk through piled-up snowflakes? Nothing, and yet we advance. Snowball is on the look-out for another fox. There aren't any. What will she do when she finds one? Will she ask him who he is? The fox will say: "I'm a fox." But does he know he's a fox? And what that means to humans? So there are two animals: the fox and him, the fox without a name. He is what humans have decided he was: the enemy fox that has to be killed. But he doesn't know that. Because nobody has told him. I must keep on being a serious young man. I will know that I am a serious young man because people will tell me so.

And if I were alone, what could I know?

The snowflakes fall gently, then whirl away. Snowball is looking for her fox.

"Are the woods his home?"

Swot is surprised by his sister's question.

"Why should they be his home?" he asks.

"Nobody'll give him hens if he goes back into the woods."

Her voice changes:

"Let's go and pay him a visit!"

The woods are thick but transparent.

"His home isn't very well protected", comments Snowball. "What does he do if he wants to hide?"

Swot explains that the fox isn't the only inhabitant of the wood. He talks to her about lairs…

"Does the fox invite his friends to his lair?" she asks.

Her brother laughs:

"Wild animals don't ask each other round. They live alone in their lairs."

"He must be sad, then."

Aphrodite says:

"If another animal came to visit the fox, the fox would eat it."

"Then he's horrid!" says Snowball crossly.

"Then you shouldn't ask a chicken round", remarks Aphrodite blithely.

Snowball is indignant:

"I don't eat all the chickens I see!"

"You should tell the fox to go and get his chickens from a shop!" sneers Swot.

"When there aren't any shops, do people eat each other too?" asks Snowball after a moment's thought.

No-one answers.

"It's not right to eat people", she goes on.

A pause, then:

"Unless you're tame."

It's hard, walking in the woods. The branches whip us as we go past; the hollows, the humps, the stumps, the chopped-down trunks twist our feet. Snowball slips easily between the trees.

"Look!" she exclaims, "a hole in the earth! Is that where the fox lives?"

Aphrodite goes over to see.

"No, it's too small", she explains. "But there are other creatures smaller than foxes that may live there."

Snowball ponders.

"So thousands of animals live here and we don't see them…"

"When you're in town you don't see what's in the houses."

"It'd be nice to see everything."

Swot butts into the cousins' discussion:

"Why do you want to see everything?"

Snowball opens her eyes wide, looks all around her and says very fast:

"Perhaps I'll find a friend."

Walking gets harder and harder. We are starting to get tired and Aphrodite suggests we go home.

"Oh yes! I'm cold!" cries Snowball.

The walk gets easier, first across the fields, then along the paths. Snowball entertains deep thoughts:

"Why do we get cold? The wild animals don't need clothes. Don't they ever get cold?"

"Wild animals live only in climates that suit them", explains Aphrodite.

"What about us?"

"No; we have wanted to live differently from wild animals, so we have had to do things they don't."

"Like going to school", says Snowball with regret in her voice.

We all laugh. She goes on:

"Wild animals don't learn anything, and yet they live well enough. Why should we live differently?"

This time Swot answers:

"People who are stupid live like animals. Do you want to be like them?"

"Yes I know, you're so clever and I say stupid things… But when you're an animal you're neither clever nor stupid. And how come stupid people still live even so?"

Swot is stuck for an answer. His sister takes advantage:

"And if you tell me that animals live less well than us…"

She looks for the right words, then says:

"They live the way it seems normal for them to live…"

Again, she looks for the right words:

"We live the way we want to, too. Why should animals do any differently?"

She takes a deep breath, then adds in dreamy voice:

"It would be lovely… No school, no need to get up early and hurry to get dressed…"

"Wild animals can sometimes die of cold", says Aphrodite slowly.

Lunch warms us up. Living as a human does have some compensations. The grandparents are delighted to see our "rosy cheeks". Snowball tells them about the fox. "Foxes are dangerous creatures", says Grandpa. Snowball embarks on an explanation. "Dangerous creatures, foxes", says Grandpa. We are congratulated on our courage: "It's good to have gone for such a long walk in the snow. It's not easy", says Grandma. "Have a good rest this afternoon", she adds.

She's right, we need a rest. The tiredness is still in our legs and we settle down comfortably in armchairs in the sitting-room. "We're better off here than in a foxhole", murmurs Snowball, half asleep. So much half asleep that she does not even respond to her brother's mocking defence of the life of wild animals.

Telephone. It's Aphrodite's mother. Why do I feel nervous? The conversation is not very long. Aphrodite comes back to tell me that her mother wants to speak to me. I take the telephone and immediately start gabbling: "Hello, thank you very much for asking me to come here it's really lovely I love the snow your parents are really nice the cousins are really nice too and I'm really happy I hope I haven't been too much of a bother to your parents…"

I run out of breath. I hear a short very long silence, then Aphrodite's mother says very calmly and kindly:

"I'm glad you like it at my parent's house and that you get on well with the cousins. They've both told me they thought you were very nice too. And my daughter is delighted and has told me that you're looking after her."

After a moment she adds:

"My parents have told me they find you very serious. So it's I who should be thanking you. My daughter is a rather solitary child and doesn't have many friends. Thanks you to she is less alone and she seems happier…"

She stops. I get the impression she wanted to say more. She goes on almost immediately, talking to me about the snow…

I feel a little… strange, after this conversation. Aphrodite has studied me carefully and I have replied with a grimace to show that I didn't know what to say to her and that we would talk about it this evening.

The afternoon passes idly, no-one really wanting to do anything. We start a few games but soon give up. Swot ruminates. I ask him what he's thinking about.

"About school", he answers. "My sister doesn't want to go to school…"

Suddenly his sister's voice is to be heard, muttering:

"You only want to go to school because you're clever. If you didn't go, nobody could congratulate you."

Indignantly, Swot growls:

"I don't go to school so that people can congratulate me. And when you get a good mark, that's all we hear about. Just as well as it doesn't happen very often!"

Snowball reacts:

"That's not true! I don't often get bad marks!"

"So if your marks are as good as that", says Swot, "it means you have to go to school, like me, to learn."

"I don't always learn what doesn't interest me."

"So you're better qualified than your teachers to decide what you should learn and what you shouldn't…"

"When people wanted to do things differently from animals, weren't there other people to tell them they weren't qualified to do it?"

"That's really…"

"… really stupid, yes, I know."

"Of course. Your teachers are people, not animals."

"If I learn what my teachers tell me, I'll become like them…"

"If you can!"

"Yes, if I can. Well, you who's so clever, you can! And then you'll be like them…"

"The would suit me fine."

"Yes, but you'll only be like them."

"So what?"

"So if animals learn what other animals tell them, they will always be animals. They'll never become people."

Swot scowls but does not reply.

At dinner, Grandpa tells us that the girl we saw the other day is coming to lunch tomorrow:

"I though you'd like it if I invited her. You seemed to get on well last time."

There is a moment of embarrassed silence. Grandpa looks at us, rather surprised. Aphrodite rescues the situation:

"We'd like it very much. We just weren't expecting it."

"We spent a good afternoon talking with her", adds Swot. "She's got ideas…"

An imperceptible pause, then he continues:

"… interesting ideas."

Grandpa has not noticed the pause. He is glad:

"So I did the right thing, then. She's a very serious young lady. She works hard at school. Very serious, she is. She's a bit older than you lot and I reckon she can give you some good advice."

We show our agreement. Suddenly Snowball pipes up:

"What about?"

Silence. Grandpa has looked at her with astonishment.

"What do you mean, what about?" he asks.

Snowball hesitates, blushes and says nothing.

"At your age, you need advice about everything", comments Grandpa.

Snowball has looked down. Aphrodite changes the subject.

"I'm sure we'll have a lovely day."

"She's not exactly a bundle of laughs", says Grandma suddenly. "You have to have fun, it's only right at your age."

She stops for a moment, then goes on:

"After all, you are on holiday. Make the most of it!"

Television. The grandparents go upstairs to bed.

"Well, that's going to be fun!" exclaims Swot.

We all pull a face… in agreement. Snowball says with gentle irony:

"I'm too little to stay with her. She'll get bored with me. And I have letters to write…"

"Hypocrite!" exclaims Swot, laughing.

The cousins go upstairs to bed.

We are sitting on the sofa, pressed up against each other. I have the feeling that only now is the day beginning.

"It's true", says Aphrodite, "when I'm not with you the world around me doesn't seem real. It's as though as I was just passing by. Passing by without stopping. When I am with you the world is far off and I'm not looking for a way to get there."

We stayed like that, pressed against each other, not saying anything.

At breakfast this morning we are glum. The holidays are coming to an end, we are leaving tomorrow. Grandpa and Grandma do what they can to cheer us up. We are invited back as soon as school allows. "Spring is coming", says Grandpa with a smile. "You'll see how lovely it is when the meadows are covered in flowers." Spring is still a long way off, and the weeks of school crawl by. Grandma talks about the jam she's prepared for us to take home with us. "It's nice when you're here", she adds. "The house is so cheerful!" Grandpa urges us to work hard at school so as to deserve the holidays. Swot argues: "I work hard at school because I like what they teach me." Grandma protests too: "The children are on holiday. There's time enough for them to think about school when they get back." Grandpa makes amends. Snowball claims she wants to burrow into the snow so she can't be found. "That way I won't have to go to school!" We laugh; even Grandpa laughs. The morning is spent sledging, of course, and throwing snowballs. The snow is light. It whirls in front of us. Does it too want to come with us to school? No, it has nothing to learn, it knows everything already. And it doesn't travel, though it's everywhere.

Lunch does not last long. The conversation isn't one. The grandparents pay compliments to the girl. The girl accepts them. After lunch, we follow her into the sitting-room. Snowball does not run away, despite everything.

"Well", says the girl, "the holidays are over! I go back to school on Monday, I suppose you do too."

"Yes, we do", sighs Snowball.

"Don't you want to go back to school, Baby?" asks the girl in a tone of voice that may be harsh.

"No, I'd rather stay here. It's much more fun."

"But if you never learn anything…"

"I'll never know anything."

The girl is a little disconcerted. We laugh up our sleeves, having fully understood that Snowball was mocking the girl. Prudently Aphrodite changes the subject.

"Will you be here next holidays?"

"Is that all you ever think about, holidays?" replied the girl sharply.

So much for prudence.

"You know, people go on at me for thinking about work all the time", says Swot, as serious as anything. "So I've changed and now I think about holidays all the time. But I was wrong, because now you're criticising us…"

"That's a really stupid thing to say!"

Swot looked contrite.

"You're right."

Then, after a moment, he went on:

"And in your opinion how much school should we have and how much holiday?"

The girl coloured:

"That's for your teachers or your parents to decide."

"If that's the case we'll never have holidays any more…"

"You really do say some stupid things."

She paused a moment, then went on:

"If children are allowed to decide they'll do the same as Baby and will never want to go to school any more."

"Why must we always assume that children behave badly?" interjected Aphrodite. "Do you mean it's in their nature?"

"It's in the nature of everyone who hasn't taken the trouble to think. And children think less than adults."

Silence has fallen. I feel slightly irritated. But how can you have a conversation with someone who's so sure they're right? I turn to the girl and say steadily:

"It's just as well a child doesn't have to wait long to become an adult, if you're anything to go by."

She looks at me accusingly but does not answer. I insist:

"When children become adults, are they the same or someone else?"

She hesitates a moment then, with the weariness you show to someone incapable of understanding, she says:

"What do you mean, someone else? They're the same but they've grown up."

She adds mockingly:

"And done some thinking."

I insist again:

"But if it's their nature to behave badly and they decide to behave well, they're no longer acting according to their nature."

"Of course. And the worse you were before, the better you are for becoming good."

"So being better means not being yourself."

The girl does not change her mind:

"If being yourself is being bad…"

"So we should behave as though we were someone else."

"Yes, someone better."

"So we should live a lie."

She gives a start:

"Being better isn't lying."

"Yes it is. Because you're showing other people someone who isn't yourself. And that someone is only an image that has been manufactured arbitrarily."

"There's nothing arbitrary about it, since the point is to be better", says the girl indignantly.

My smile is very ironic.

"Better in other people's eyes", I answer calmly. "In everyone's eyes, as we were saying last time. An everyone that is never the same."

The girl looks at me with a trace of anxiety. She says nothing. I carry on, as though I had no choice.

"So we have to show as many different, lying images as there are everyones."

I pause. The girl has looked away. I continue:

"The only thing you shouldn't show is yourself. All yourselves. I can't take my clothes off because people would see me and not my clothes, which are the only thing they want to see of me."

I can't stop myself.

"Clothes and false feelings, that's what I have to be in everyone else's eyes. I myself must not exist."

"Unless someone tells you to", finishes off Aphrodite.

The girl stares at her dumbfounded. But she cannot know what Aphrodite is referring to. I say nothing. I don't know what to say.

Yes, I do:

"And everyone, to ensure that I will not show myself as I am, tells me they're ashamed of me."

This evening, the sitting-room shelters us affectionately. It's the last evening. Time has slowed its pace so as not to bother us, Aphrodite and me.

"Tomorrow, we'll no longer be able to be alone together, in the evening", says Aphrodite softly.

"What will we do?" I reply, downcast and concerned. "How will we be able not to see each other like we are now? I won't be able to spend the evening at your house."

"You won't be able to… I want you to be able to. We'll have to… I don't know what, but I want…"

I say, even more downcast:

"That's what I want too. We'll have to…"

I don't finish either. What is there to say?

"I don't know what to say."

I don't know what to answer.

Silence. We are in each other's arms. My lips are on her cheek. Her lips are on my cheek. Silence. Time watches us, dreaming.

"It's because we're children…" murmurs Aphrodite.

I answer angrily:

"Moon has her life…"


"Yes, Moon has her life. I don't know what her life is but I don't want to destroy it."

Aphrodite looks at me, motionless. I go on:

"I'm not going to throw Moon away if her dress gets torn. She won't be able to look after herself and I won't take advantage of that to throw her away."

Aphrodite presses even more tightly against me.

"No one's going to throw us away…"

I would like to answer… I don't know what to say. An image passes before me: the snow has melted and the flowers appear. I have thought my image out aloud. Aphrodite smiles at the flowers:

"They're beautiful. The snow doesn't regret going away so as to let them come out of the ground. The wind caresses them, people look at them and the bees will soon come to kiss them."

She goes on after a pause:

"And those flowers will produce other flowers. And if the plants, which live in their homes, under the ground, didn't show them, there would never be any other flowers."

I feel suddenly indignant:

"That's how I live, under ground, when I'm wearing clothes!"

Aphrodite has a trace of bitterness in her voice:

"Yes, but you know full well that you've got to be ashamed of yourself. Or else you have to ask someone else's permission, the someone else we were talking about the day before yesterday."

"Oh yes", I snarl, "and of course you mustn't forget to ask them what my feelings for you are!"

Aphrodite ponders for a moment, then says:

"Feelings… what can they know about them… I don't know why I want to be with you. Even if I ask myself I don't know. How can they know what I don't know myself?"

She pauses, then goes on:

"Of course, someone can know what I don't know. Like how to do a sum or write without making spelling mistakes. But they'll explain, give me their reasons…"

She breaks off.

"They can give us reasons why we shouldn't see each other", I propose. "I stop you from working or something like that."

"That's true. Yes, that's true. But we could accept those reasons or reject them."

"And they'll tell us that we're good or bad."

"Yes, they will. But they can be right or wrong. In maths, we don't have the means to contradict them. Though they can still be wrong. But what can they explain about feelings? I can't say whether it's right or not to be with you. I want to be with you. No, it's something else. Something stronger than me which pushes me towards you."

Her words seemed serious to me. She presses against me very hard. I feel troubled. I don't understand… I feel the same thing; yes, the same thing, but I don't know what thing. I try and express myself:

"Something stronger than me. Me too. But what?"

I hug her more tightly for a moment. Then I carry on:

"My feelings? My feelings for you? What I feel?"

I give a little laugh of incomprehension:

"Then my feelings are stronger than me. Then my feelings are not me."

She looks at me very hard before answering:

"If feelings are stronger than us, where do they come from? And who are we for those feelings?"

"Or what are we?" she adds after a pause, emphasising the 'what'.

"We exist", I mutter. "It's us has that have feelings, us."

"Why are they stronger than us?"

"It's not the feelings that are stronger than us. It's something else. The feeling is that I like being with you, talking with you, thinking with you… When I hug you it's something else. That's what's stronger than me. That's how people make babies. You told me so. So that's what's stronger than me."

"Yes", she says slowly. "Than me too. But only if it's with you."

I am troubled again.

"And if it's not with me…?" I ask.

She interrupts me quickly:

"We can defend ourselves!"

"Defend ourselves?"

"Yes, against something that's stronger than us. If I don't truly care for you, nothing will be stronger than me. Nothing… no one."

Aphrodite has fallen silent. I feel something disagreeable. Disgusting. Surprised, I say:

"Why is it like that? Why? I don't want anything to be stronger than me either. Except you. But this force… It's frightening. I don't want to accept that it exists. Why do I have to? If the teacher tells me to do an exercise, I know why. And I know it's him that's set it. But this…"

"We have to refuse", says Aphrodite vehemently. "Even if we haven't the strength. We have to want it ourselves. Like we already did when we decided to be together."

"Refuse what? Refuse who? Ourselves?"

"No, refuse what wants to be stronger than us."

"Even when we're together?"

"No, not when we're together. No. No."

I have taken Aphrodite in my arms and we have stayed without moving, her cheek against mine, as if we were afraid of a danger if we were separated.

The city is wet. It's not cold but I'm cold. Aphrodite is cold too. We walk down a street, a snowless street. We're going back to school. The first day of school. The first time we've been together since… since the snow, the fox, the cows - and the sledge, the cousins, the grandparents… Since the sitting-room. Since Aphrodite's warmth against me. We walk holding hands. In a little while I'll politely say "Good evening" to Aphrodite's mother and go on home. There isn't any homework on the first day back.

At dinner I don't say anything. Or almost nothing. Like every day since I've been back. I don't feel like talking. Or I don't know what to say. Or I have nothing to say. Or… or Aphrodite isn't there for me to talk to.

My mother has asked worried questions about my silence. My father has explained that I was missing the holidays and didn't want to go back to school. I think he has added something about school. I have answered with a long sentence…

The cousins rang yesterday. I enjoyed talking to them. Snowball said she missed me and that I was better at sledging than her brother. Swot said he couldn't wait to get back to school - "get bored otherwise" - but that he had really enjoyed his stay, thanks to me - "It meant we could talk about something other than girls' stuff."

I sleep badly. I don't feel like sleeping at night and in the morning I don't want to… No, that's not right, I do want to wake up but… The sitting-room, back there, lets the light in, the light of the snow… In the evening it will be… what does it matter, since we won't be there.

We come back from school. There is still no homework.

" I want you to come over this evening."

"Your mother…" I say hesitantly.

She interrupts me:

"We've talked about the holidays, my mother and I. I told her we stayed up together in the evenings, late, when everyone else had gone to bed. I think she knew. Grandpa probably told her."

She pauses, then says:

"Grandpa never said anything against us. He was concerned. We're a boy and a girl. But in the end he was reassured. We never hid anything."

"You even told him we liked each other and it was important for us to be together."

"Yes. So he didn't say anything bad about us to my mother."

I feel reassured. She goes on:

"My mother hasn't told me off. She didn't seem to think there was anything wrong in what we were doing."

"Wrong!" I exclaim, irritated. "There's always…"

I choke.

"Each time we're together, do we have to ask ourselves whether it's wrong?"

"We won't ask", laughs Aphrodite bitterly, "but they'll tell us."

She attempts a smile but it doesn't happen.

"Come on. My mother won't say anything."

Her mother didn't. She asked me if I had enjoyed my stay with her parents. I replied with the same speech I gave her on the telephone the day after I got back. She seemed satisfied. She added that her parents had been very happy with me and that they hoped they would see me again next holidays. She thought for a moment and said softly, her gaze on me: "The holidays are a long way off." After another silence she suddenly exclaimed: "I think a nice tea would do you good!" Then, after a barely perceptible pause, she added: "And help you to work."


Yes. What else could I say? I said what I didn't think. My duty was to be serious. Was I serious? I didn't even know what the word meant. But I knew I had to pretend. I felt eaten into. A piece of myself had gone.

Breakfast awaits me. I have to go to school. Not that I don't want to, quite the opposite. I'm not like Swot but I like going to school too. I'm not on my own there. I learn things. Sometimes it's interesting. But today something else seems more important. My life. At school, it's just an object in the teachers' hands. They're supposed to educate me. There, I know what the word means. My teacher told me. They want to lead me. That's what.

Yesterday evening we hardly said a word, Aphrodite and I. My life is with her. We will lead our lives together. Ourselves.

There is homework to do today. We talk about it at tea. Aphrodite's mother offers us books from her library. "You take your work so seriously you need books to find out more about the subject." She worries whether I might be wasting my time doing homework at a level that is not mine. "No, finding out more about the subject will help me in my class too." I have the impression we have already spoken about something similar.

Once the books have been chosen we go up to her room. Moon is waiting for us, a bit down in the mouth; we didn't say anything to her yesterday. We tell her that we have work to do. That doesn't seem to satisfy her. "So what do you want?" I ask. She points to Aphrodite. I turn to Aphrodite and squeeze her tightly in my arms. We stay like that. Moon smiles.

We have to work.

"We have to work", murmurs Aphrodite, "or else my mother…"

"If that's the only reason why we have to work", I mutter.

Aphrodite shakes her head:

"No, of course not. There's school; and of course we learn things. It's useful."


I hesitated as I spoke. Aphrodite answers slowly:

"Are you afraid?"


"Are you afraid of dissolving?"

"Yes. Yes. Like in a test tube."

She laughs softly:

"You see: learning can be useful."

I nod.

"Yes. Learning to defend yourself. That must be what they call growing up."

"And becoming serious."

"To be like… everyone else."

Moon has given me a knowing look. I carry on heatedly:

"But those who do what everyone else does do what those who are not like everyone else have told them to."

Aphrodite gives a sad smile:

"Do you think we'll get any work done this evening?"

She pauses, then goes on:

"And then it means you're wasting your time. You've got your own homework."

"It won't take long. What I have to do isn't difficult."

"You're as much a swot as my cousin!" Aphrodite teases me.

"Not by a long chalk!" I protest. "But I do enough to get by. So my time is my own. Just as well", I add, laughing, "otherwise how would we get to see each other?"

Aphrodite does not laugh. She has taken my arm and says in a sarcastic tone of voice:

"Yes, they leave us together, but only to do what we have to; according to… everyone else", she finishes with a grating laugh.

We fall silent. We ought to be doing homework. But I know well enough that she's good at school too. She doesn't need my help. I say nothing. Aphrodite goes on in a harsh voice:

"D'you remember the cows we went to see? When the snow's melted the farmers will put them in a field. With a bull they've chosen. So that they make calves."

That evening, my mother tells me she's invited Aphrodite and her parents to dinner the next day.

"Perhaps your young friend will tell us about your holidays," says my father in a slightly reproachful tone of voice.

I don't understand… Yes I do.

"I meant…" I start up.

My words hang in the air. I do not know how to go on. My father and mother keep on looking at me…

"It's b.. b..." I stammer.

I probably meant to say: it's because of this or that or something else. My parents are looking at me. I try again:

"We went for walks… There was lots of snow… It was very cold…"

I stop. I feel stupid. My parents are still looking at me. I try yet again:

"I… I don't know…"

My voice becomes more assured:

"We didn't really do anything. That's why…"

I hesitate, then plunge on:

"I could tell you about our walks… but they were always the same. And we saw a fox. Cows. We went sledging a lot. But there's nothing… specific to say. What we did just isn't interesting."

I add heatedly:

"But I really enjoyed my holidays!"

After a moment my mother says, smiling:

"I'm glad you enjoyed them. Your father and I were wondering if you didn't want to say anything because… you know… if something had happened…"

She stops, embarrassed.

"Was everything all right?" my father asks.

He hesitates for a moment, then says:

"Your friend's grandparents told us that you... that they were very satisfied… So everything was all right!"

My father and mother have exchanged a glance and a quick smile. Did I see a look of relief?

And with that I felt calm again. I talked about the cold, the snow, the fox… with all the details. I was surprised to talk so much. My parents seemed happy to listen.

They also seemed happy to have Aphrodite's parents to dinner this evening. And they seemed just as happy to have come. Everyone was happy. I watched Aphrodite with a trace of anxiety. But she was calm and… determined. Her look, intractable but masked with a sort of nonchalance, made a wall in front of… in front of, I think, "everyone else", the everyone else we had so often talked about.

The conversation at dinner was utterly banal. The grandparents were happy, the cousins too. So were the parents. Aphrodite was doing well at school and so was I. Yes, because I was helping Aphrodite a lot, and as she was getting very good marks… My parents' son - "My son…" - wasn't he too much of a bother? No, not at all, it's so good for my daughter - perhaps our daughter, I don't know - to have a friend. She's a bit of a loner. Her cousins are a long way away. My son is a bit of a loner too. He doesn't have many friends. The most important thing is that they're both working hard. I hope he behaves himself, he can be a bit unruly at home. Boys are so difficult. My daughter - probably is very well-behaved, or something like that.

We're good, we're well-behaved, we work hard, we get good marks…

Will we ever get out of the field?

In the meantime, we leave the dining room for the sitting room.

The conversations change. They cover every subject under the sun. It's as though everyone was reciting the lessons they had learned in front of a strict teacher. I'm bored. Aphrodite's bored. We would like to go up to my room but we daren't. Aha! I think they're talking about us. "They're still so young." Aphrodite has heard too. She seems cross. And yet it's true, we are young. "Why 'so'?" she whispers. Yes, why? The recitation continues. What marks are given? What's the point of them?

"Do you enjoy working together?"

Who has asked the question? Aphrodite's father.

"Yes", I answer.

I feel ready to stammer something else but Aphrodite interrupts, even though I wasn't saying much.

"We like each other, so of course we enjoy working together too."

She has spoken abruptly, almost provocatively. It works. My father says, perhaps in a slightly flat tone of voice:

"I hope you don't spend all your time playing."

The slightest hesitation after 'time'. It hasn't escaped Aphrodite.

"No, we don't play", she says curtly.

The parents look down.

Slowly the conversations pick up again. The women talk about women's things, the men about men's. I've got my things to talk about too. Suddenly I get up and say to Aphrodite:

"Come on, let's go up to my room."


"Run along then", says Aphrodite's mother smoothly. "You're good children."

We are by the window. We look at the beautiful trees.

"Yes, it's true, they are very beautiful. But you don't get cherries from them."

Aphrodite has spoken in a low voice.

"Perhaps that's why they're very beautiful", I answer.

"And perhaps that's why we admire them."

We continue looking in silence.

"They don't bother anyone", Aphrodite adds. "Nobody has to go and pick the cherries. And no birds will eat the cherries, singing at the tops of their voices for joy. No noise; everything's quiet."

After another moment's silence she goes on:

"We're not beautiful trees, we're cherry trees."

"But people think we're beautiful trees", I comment. "And as long as people think we're beautiful trees they'll leave us alone. But we mustn't let a single cherry blossom show, otherwise they'll put us in the field."

The conversations in the sitting room have finished. Aphrodite's parents are talking about how happy - … we're very happy… - they are to have met my parents. My parents are talking about how happy… Your daughter is so nice. Your son is so serious. They are even talking about the next holidays at the grandparents' - but it's a long way off; there's school first…

At school, this morning, during break, we decide not to see each other this evening. What will our parents have to say to us after the previous evening? We want to find out. See you tomorrow, then.

After school I have my homework to do. My father isn't back yet. We'll see at dinner time.

"They're really nice, your friend's parents", comments my mother.

"And very patient, having you round so often", adds my father.

They go on to develop these profound insights. A good piece of work.

After a moment they get on to the subject of me. "Haec decies repetita placebit", says the poet. Yes, placebit especially to the speaker… So I am still… a good boy. Yes, insinuates my father, you're well-behaved when you're a guest at someone else's house, especially with - my father hesitates somewhat - with your little friend. Little silence. I'm sure, he adds.

I'm on the point of retorting "She's not a little friend, she's a woman!" But I don't. Why? I consider all the usual reasons. That's not it. It's something else. Something serious. What?

I can't sleep. Aphrodite is a woman. Aphrodite… I remember, she told me she could have children. I can have children too. Aphrodite is a woman. Aphrodite is my woman. We can have children… together. Then… we are no longer children. I am well-behaved with… my little friend, my father said. It's with my woman that I behave… as I… as we want, Aphrodite and I. No one tells my father how he ought to behave with my mother - his woman, his wife. Aphrodite is my woman, my wife. No one should be telling me either. The only people who have the right to say anything are my mother to my father and Aphrodite to me.

Sleep has gone for good. I get up, go to the window. I'm not a beautiful tree. My parents owe me… Yes, it's true, my parents owe me something… anything. But they have to do everything they can to give it to me. Being parents… just being parents means you have to give something…

I go back and sit on my bed. Until I am capable of giving that something… Yes, yes. It's true. Yes, yes, that must be the sort of thing my father is thinking about. Yes, yes. Yes, yes. But that's not what Swot was talking about. He didn't tell the grandparents anything. About the night I spent with Aphrodite in the sitting room. He didn't say there was anything wrong with it, he talked about our age. Who said, yesterday, "They're still so young"? We're too young to be able to give… But if staying together for the night is wrong… it's because of something else.

I can't stay still. I go back to the window. There is no cherry tree. Aphrodite is far away. What did her parents say to her?

When you make a mistake in arithmetic, it's an error, with all its consequences, but it isn't wrong. If you make a mistake by staying together for the night, it's no longer an error, it's wrong. Nobody told us so, but that's because they trust us. So they know we're not doing anything wrong. It's not the error that's at issue, with all its consequences, it's the wrong. Why is it wrong? What does wrong mean?

I go back to bed without realising it.

That evening, Aphrodite's mother greets me kindly. "Your parents are very nice…". Tea, with something I like a lot but I can't remember what.

Moon is waiting for us, anxious to find out what has been going on. We had decided not to talk about… all that stuff during break and on the way home. Better to be undisturbed. Too bad for homework! And anyway, there wasn't anything important.

We are by the window. The cherry tree is waiting for spring.

"Does it know that the flowers will come?" Aphrodite murmurs dreamily.

Then, without a transition:

"My mother said lots of nice things about your parents… and about you."

A pause, then:

"As for me, I can be trusted. It hasn't changed. It's like beautiful trees; you can trust them, they will always be beautiful. And if they become less beautiful, people will no longer call them beautiful trees and there'll no longer be any need to trust them. My mother trusts me, trusts you. As long as we can be trusted, according to the laws that are… hers, and therefore everyone else's - always everyone else."

We stay there, looking at the cherry tree.

"O cherry tree", Aphrodite declaims, "can we trust you? Three years ago, you didn't give me any cherries!"

It was supposed to be funny but neither of us laugh.

"If it didn't give any cherries, is it natural, is it an error or is it wrong?" I mutter.

Aphrodite stares at me:

"Wrong? Why do you say wrong?"

"I was thinking about it last night. People trust us because they think we're not doing anything wrong. What does wrong mean? Swot didn't tell the grandparents we stayed together all night. He said it was a matter of age. Your parents or mine, I don't remember which, said: 'They're still so young'. Is it wrong to be young and together all night?"

We look at each other. Aphrodite pulls a face and goes over to the bed. She takes Moon in her arms and says:

"I spend all my nights with you and no-one ever says anything."

Moon gives her a sad smile.

"Yes, I know, you'll never have children", finishes Aphrodite.


"They're afraid we'll have children."

"Yes, that's for sure", Aphrodite replies calmly.

"But having children isn't wrong. It might be a mistake, with all its consequences, like not being able to feed them. But when you can feed them, everyone's happy. Yes, people are happy when there's a child; they celebrate, congratulate the parents. So it's not having children that's wrong, even if it's a mistake. No, wrong is something else."

I catch my breath and start again:

"It's wanting to have children that's wrong. Wanting to do… what you do to have them that's wrong. It's wanting in itself that's wrong. Wanting on its own. When I want to take you in my arms it's wrong if there's no justification for it. The wanting comes of its own accord, without reason, without decision."

I stop, out of breath. Aphrodite has listened to me without stirring, her eyes never leaving me. As I have stopped talking, she remarks:

"Wanting… Children are a way for that wanting to have a purpose."

"Yes, but why should we need to have a purpose? What makes us feel that need about which we know nothing?"

I add, after a moment's silence:

"And we can't stop ourselves from feeling the need."

"Yes, it's true", Aphrodite breaks in. "I can't stop myself from wanting… us to be together."

She turns to Moon and says:

"I'm glad you're here, but it's not enough for me."

She looks at me and adds:

"And yet it's not wrong. Why should other people think it is?"

"Perhaps because they don't want to have to do something that doesn't depend on them. They can feel a force they can't do anything about. They don't want to accept it. They're afraid of it. They call it wrong, Wrong with a great big capital W."

"So wanting is wrong", murmurs Aphrodite.

After a short silence she asks urgently:

"Aren't you afraid?"

"No, I'm not afraid, because you're here with me."

"Then take me in your arms. I'm not afraid."


T H E    E N D




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