I could see her in the mirror. She was sitting at her desk, an open geography book to her left. Homework, I suppose.
I was writing too. Maths homework. From time to time I watched her hand running over the paper; I watched without surprise. From my viewpoint she was sitting opposite me, so I couldn't read anything except a few indistinct words traced by her pen.
I had left the door of my room open; my mother had looked in to tell me that dinner would soon be ready. I glanced at the mirror; I saw only the reflection of my face and my room empty behind me.
Had the hot sun of the fine early June morning made me doze off? I was at school, I knew; I knew, because the sky was on the other side of the window. Likewise, I knew that I was in an English lesson; I knew because from time to time the teacher would say the word 'poetry' and also the word 'dream'. But it was just a piece of knowledge, not something I was aware of.
Dream. What can you do with a dream shut up in a thought? You can tell it, you can live it; but then it becomes real. What I could see in the mirror was real; I can tell it - after all, that's what I'm doing now. But how can I live it?
I was living the real every day. At school I learnt, I answered; with my friends I spoke, I played.
The ball I played with was real, and what the ball did was real too. Why did everything disappear after the game? The poem I had just recited had stopped being after the last word, carefully tidied away in my memory. I could start the game again, start the poem again, then forget once more. And start again. And again. Like a hamster on its wheel.
I could not know her, through the mirror; I was a prisoner of the real. How could I escape?
I had gone home after school, with a classmate. I had not taken out the mirror, which I leave in my wardrobe when I'm not there. My friend is top of the class, primus inter pares, he's preparing his future.
- Don't bore me with your tales. The future is tomorrow; and tomorrow you'll have to go school.
I had answered him with a sort of bitterness:
- The future is now, I've got to breathe.
He gave a laugh:
- You don't need to learn how to breathe; what you learn at school can change your future.
- You don't need to learn how to live either. My future is the life that will lie before me; good or bad, it will always be life.
- What else can we know?
This morning I had gone to my desk in front of the window, piled high with my school books and exercise books, on which I had left the mirror the previous evening. Her house must be the same size as mine because her bedroom, like mine, was separate. All the mirror showed me was her neat and tidy desk, furniture that I could only vaguely see, and three walls on which I could make out pictures and shelves full of books. But these objects were not always in the same place, and they weren't always the same either, although nobody seemed to move them. My eye only had to shift from one to the other for the picture to change into a tapestry or for the books lining the shelves to become ornaments. Three walls, I said; so she was sitting at the window. Did she have a garden, like me?
I left for school without having seen her. She was doubtless gone too. I pondered the question for a moment. "Definitely!" I concluded, to reassure myself.
To reassure myself? What about?
Maths. Reasonings don't bother with questions; they unwind the thread from the spool you're given.
Sunday. I had gone to see Primus after lunch. He was concerned:
- You seem a bit distracted recently. Is anything the matter?
I didn't dare tell him about the mirror. I said something about maths.
- You know that...
I broke in:
- No, there's nothing the matter.
He looked at me doubtfully. I insisted:
- No, really!
I went on without waiting:
- I was thinking that... You know the rules of mathematics haven't always been the same
He cut me short:
- Yes I know that; Euclid, Riemann. But why are you talking about
It was my turn to cut him off:
- Do we live the same way if we follow one or other of the two theories?
He looked at me, slightly surprised:
- I guess only Riemann's is right; we know now that the other is wrong.
- That's as may be, but we live very well with the error.
- We live an illusion.
I said nothing, staring, my gaze fixed. On what? I wasn't sure. Was the mirror an illusion?
Primus was concerned again:
- Is it something worse, then?
I didn't answer the question:
- Is the mark you get for your homework an illusion too?
He made a gesture of protest:
- It's real enough, but what it relates to is only an illusion.
- It's with that mark that we live.
- That's what we think, but it's not necessarily true.
I couldn't find an answer. Primus seemed less worried, though. Doubtless for him the conversation remained in the domain of the real.
School is reassuring. People speak about what they know - not us, of course, the teachers - people speak about what they think - we too, in this case - people speak about that whereof they may speak - naturally.
May I speak about the mirror?
A white ball of vague shape floats in the blue of the sky. I would gladly take it in my hand. And why not, with a hop and a jump, find myself sitting on it? Anything can be imagined, since I do not know what it is and have no means of knowing. Gradually, as I look on, the ball disappears. It is no longer there. If Primus were to arrive now, what would I tell him?
The teacher was talking about the ball. "The humidity contained in the cloud
" Primus, sitting beside me, was calculating the temperature at which the cloud would no longer be visible. What can I tell him? "The cloud doesn't exactly seem to have caught your interest!" he whispers to me, glancing at my empty page.
The physics lesson over, I ambled back home. There was no white ball floating in my empty room. The cloud was waiting impatiently on my still empty page.
I really didn't feel like doing sums. And there would be time enough tomorrow; it's not as though the exercise was difficult.
I got the mirror out of the cupboard where I had left it that morning before leaving for school and put it in front of me on the desk. She was sitting in the angle of a little sofa, reading. I could not see her book clearly, could not make out what she was reading. Was it a school book, a novel, a thriller? "It's a novel!" No, nobody had spoken and I had not engaged in any conjecture. The certainty was inside me, like something self-evident.
One of today's lessons concerned a foreign language. Foreign, of course, on account of its not being the language of the country where I live. The name of the country where it is spoken was also mentioned. But it was foreign above all. A language is made up of words; some words refer to objects you can see, others awaken thoughts you can't see. What is a tree for a city-dweller and for someone whose home is in the depths of a tropical forest? What does cold mean for an inhabitant of the icy far north and one who lives in an arid desert? Feeling. What can you do with a feeling shut up in a word?
How can I say mirror in the language I am writing in?
Wednesday. Primus had come over to do the maths homework with me; more for the pleasure of chatting together than for the homework, which held no secrets.
- QED! he concluded.
As I did not react, he said:
- Wake up, the homework's done!
- It doesn't mean anything, A plus B equals C!
He gave me a mocking look:
- A bit esoteric, your awakenings! Will you reveal your teaching to me?
I gave a weak smile:
- A, B and C are letters...
- Yes, Master!
My voice strengthened:
- Disciple, do not trouble the hour of initiation!
The disciple bowed his head in a sign of contrition. I continued professorially:
- These letters represent numbers...
- Yes, venerable Master!
I broke off and went on anxiously:
- Do you realise? We look at a letter and we see a number!
He gave a slight movement of his head:
- I don't think a cat sees 3 when it looks at A, but I'm sure it has no trouble seeing dinner when it looks at a mouse!
- Well spoken, disciple! And if the cat didn't see dinner, it'd starve!
- Now I have been initiated into your teaching, Master! Our life depends on what we see, not only on what we look at!
He added after a short pause:
- Thanks to which we have solved our mathematical problem!
- We had to think, which the cat certainly didn't.
- So the cat has achieved perfection.
- And perfection was not enough for us.
A silence, broken by Primus:
- The ritual question is: "What else are we looking for?"
- The other ritual question is: "Why are we looking?"
- And the ritual answer to both questions is: "We don't know!"
A silence, which I broke in my turn:
- There again, the cat doesn't need to think in order to know it wants dinner.
- Well, if it's only a matter of dinner!...
I ignored the joke:
- Can the cat see dinner if it's hungry?
- What do you mean, 'see'?
- I meant, if there is no dinner to be seen?
He seemed disconcerted for a moment, then commented calmly:
- You mean what it will imagine?
I had answered without really realising it. He seemed satisfied, the subject of conversation changed. Tomorrow, Thursday, no school. We will go and spend the afternoon with one of Primus' friends.
What can I see in the mirror if nothing is visible?
At breakfast, this morning, my mother seemed preoccupied. She watched me covertly. I started to talk about school, told her what I would be doing during the day, ate heartily albeit perhaps without being very hungry, made jokes
What was I trying to avoid?
After breakfast I went to my room and took out the mirror again. She was sitting at her desk, tidy piles of paper in front of her, and an open physics textbook. She wasn't writing, or looking at the book either. She was gazing straight ahead; her gaze was attentive, slightly surprised
no, that's not right. There was no surprise at all in her eyes, which were filled with an intense curiosity. As she was at her window, she must have been observing something unexpected happening in her garden. Unintentionally, I made a clumsy movement that knocked my slide-rule off my desk; I bent down to pick it up. When I looked in the mirror again, I saw that she was writing.
That afternoon, Primus and I went to his friend's house. She was singing when we got there. Her singing was bright and lively, like a lark. She greeted us with her customary good humour. As it was a sunny day we took advantage of the sunshine to sit out in her large garden, among the flowers and fruit trees. Some cherries had ripened and she had prepared them for us in a pretty wicker basket.
- What are you looking at? she asked me suddenly.
I say suddenly, but I think it was only sudden for me because Primus remarked:
- He's been pretty distracted for a while now; he keeps talking to me about Euclid...
I broke in:
- It was you who brought up Euclid!
- It was you who started talking about changing the rules of mathematics!
Lark smiled brightly at me:
- Did you screw up your homework?
I cried again:
- It's not just maths!
- You want to change the laws of nature?
I said nothing. Primus said wryly:
- He's certainly capable of it!
Lark proffered me the basket:
- Have a cherry; it's always a cherry!
- Oh no, last year's didn't taste the same.
She didn't answer immediately:
- Maybe, but it's still always a cherry.
After a silence, Primus went on:
- The holidays are coming up soon, you know, but I think he's already gone!
I didn't contradict him.
- And why not? There's not much to do at school now.
We stayed out sunning ourselves a while longer, thinking about nothing, probably. And yet I seemed to be hearing a muffled conversation. I could see the flowers, the fruit trees. I was happy to see them. Soon there will be other cherries
- What are you looking at? asked Lark.
A schoolday. You can only think about what exists. Does that mean only about what exists for those other than myself? Several cases arise. For the teachers; for the people in the world I live in; for everybody. Doesn't the cat only think about what exists for itself and no other? What about me?
These considerations brought me a telling-off. I wasn't listening, I was told.
A morning at school. I have listened as I ought. I had no reason not to, this morning.
Lunch. My father talked about things in the news. I am wrong not to take an interest in them; my everyday life depends on them. Or at least that's what my father said:
- You can't live alone; you have to know what other people are doing.
His words did not seem logical to me:
- You can live alone and know what other people are doing as well.
My father nodded:
- I don't know. But you don't live alone; you go to school, and what you learn doesn't come from inside yourself.
And yet the cat
Whereas I always need
- Can one know nothing for oneself?
My father looked surprised:
- What would school be for in that case?
He went on, after nodding again:
- Even after you leave school, you learn how to do your job with someone more experienced.
- And if there's nothing you can do with their experience?
My mother chips in:
- When you like my cake, do you think I came up with the recipe all by myself?
What recipe does the cat use for mouse?
After lunch I went to my room to do some work. A book stuck out from among the untidy piles - the mess, I should say -lying around, my geography book. I picked it up mechanically and leafed through it; the world was there. I stopped at some country or other. Where was she?
I took out the mirror and put it on my desk. She was at the piano. I couldn't hear anything and she didn't have any music in front of her. She seemed to know the piece pretty well because she played with hardly any hesitation. Sometimes she went back over a passage or played it more slowly, probably showing that she was still learning the piece. She didn't make any sudden movements, even when it was plain she was playing a note more forcefully. She had the slight sway of musicians who live what they play. I tried to guess what the piece was by looking at her fingers on the keyboard.
Sunday. Primus and I had met up again at Lark's. She was in her big garden with one of her friends, who had come over for the afternoon with her brother.
- We haven't seen you for a while! exclaimed Primus.
- You know what it's like, I've only just finished my exams.
- So you'll soon be an engineer?
- As long as I've passed!
The Engineer's sister pursed her lips:
- He's bound to pass. You can't get a word out of him, he's working night and day!
Primus slipped in, inconsequentially:
- So what do you do the rest of the time?
The Engineer answered, inconsequentially:
- I teach my sister maths.
We laughed. The sister protested:
- Drowning in a sea of figures really isn't my thing! And I can manage perfectly well on my own, even if I'm not quite up to your standard!
The Engineer smiled kindly:
- My sister always puts poetry into her maths!
She pursed her lips again:
- I suppose our life would be more difficult without maths
- It would be impossible!
- Cro-Magnon man did very well without it
- Hang on a moment! interjected Primus. Do you think his life would have suited you now, in 1961?
I went on in the same vein:
- Cro-Magnon man had no future.
- Oh, he only produced the founders of our civilisation, objected Lark.
The mathematical Poetess backed her up with ardour:
- When the Greeks spoke about the Ancients, they always called them the wise!
Her brother concluded triumphantly:
- And the Greeks were great mathematicians!
He had no time to savour his triumph; Lark had already found a riposte:
- But not great poets, as everyone knows!
The Engineer nodded several times, indicating that he appreciated the merits of the argument.
After a silence, Primus said:
- The ritual question is "Can one live on poetry alone?"
I carried on our customary game:
- The other ritual question is: "Can one live on maths alone?"
- And the ritual answer to both questions is: "We don't know!"
The Poetess, quick on the draw:
- I'll live on poetry alone!
Her brother, just as quick:
- And I'll have that for pudding!
A burst of laughter calmed everyone down. Lark took advantage of the lull to offer tea.
- Mum's made a chocolate cake...
Knowing her mother's talents in the kitchen department, we hurried off to demonstrate our enthusiasm.
English. A novel. Characters. A note told me that the subject was an adaptation of what had happened in real life. "What do you think
?" asked the teacher. I knew what I was supposed to say; I was used to it. The author was describing a character's feelings. How did he know what they were? Had the real character, the one in real life, talked to him about them? And if so, had he told the author the truth? And had the author understood or had he simply imagined the feelings in question? And if that were the case, whose feelings were they? I knew what I was supposed to say; I was used to it. But who was I supposed to talk about? The real character or the one who had pretended to be real when describing it to the author? Or the one the author had imagined? And how did that imagined character live? Did he exist? Or not? He existed, because the author had described him. He existed for the author, otherwise he would not have been able to describe him. But for me, the reader, who did not know him, there was nothing at all about his existence that I could verify. Should I trust in an existence without being able to verify anything about it? "No choice, mate, or you'll get a bad mark!" is what Primus would certainly have told me.
But he didn't tell me anything because I hadn't told him anything. Why hadn't I? What should I have told him about?
I put it on my desk, this evening. She wasn't there. Her room seemed small, narrow, squeezed; like a casket that shuts when nobody looks at it.
Four o'clock. Not much to do. Primus had dragged me off to his house to play chess. As the weather was still fine, we had decided to sit out in his garden, a bit smaller than mine and Lark's but full of elegant trees and bushes. Ah, the laden walnut tree!
A high tea gave us the necessary strength to push our warring pieces around.
- Oh!... Nice one!... I'm going to have trouble beating you if you keep playing like that. Shame you're not so distracted today! cried Primus after a move he hadn't been expecting.
- I look at the pieces, I wonder what they're thinking about
He gave a snort of laughter:
- That's one way of playing, I suppose! More likely you spent Sunday with your nose in chess books!
- I'm not surprised you're losing if your memory's that bad! On Sunday we spent the day together at Lark's, remember?
He laughed again:
- OK, OK, you win!
He turned back to the board; just as he was about to make his move he asked me, with an amused little smile:
- Your knight looks a bit downcast, contemplating my faithful pawn who's about to unhorse him. So tell me, what's he thinking?
- That's an easy one. He's happy to see that his sacrifice will enable his side to win.
- And that's another easy one! Your knight thinks what you think he would think if he thought what you think he ought to!
Unlike my knight, I did not allow myself to be unhorsed:
- You think so? You're wrong to think that kind of thing
I broke off suddenly, then, in a less assured voice, said:
- I can see him
but can he see me?
- Go on, keep thinking, and while you're at it I'll sweep on to victory!
History. The teacher read us a passage from a novel he's written. He has imagined a great battle between innumerable hordes. The dead pile up, crushing the wheat. Next page. Those who could, have fled; nobody has come to help the wounded who, unable to get up, utter horrible groans and soak the earth with their blood.
Imagination has its good side and its bad; you don't have to suffer, but there's nothing to rejoice about either. We didn't see what happened. And in any case nothing happened, since it's all in the imagination.
The lesson is over. Next week, the teacher will question us about all these events. "What are you on about? It's not a novel, it's the famous battle of
!" said Primus, shrugging.
This evening, I took out the mirror. She was doing a geometry exercise. She was going about it the wrong way. I followed her thoughts by watching the hesitations of her pen. To complete the proof, she needed to draw a parallel line
No, not from that point! No, no
The other point
Yes, that one! That one!... No, you won't find anything there
Just look at the angle
Yes, the angle
Yes, yes!... Yes, that's it! Yes, you've got it
Yes, that way! Draw the parallel line
Yes, you've got it! I took a deep breath. She has found it, I can see her pen running over the paper.
Thursday. At Lark's. The afternoon slid lazily by. We chatted, played some music. Lark sang, Primus accompanied her on the piano; then I took his place for a trio, with the Poetess on violin and the Engineer on cello.
It was time for tea.
- I could eat an elephant! announced Primus.
- Why an elephant? asked the Poetess.
- Because it's a nice, herbivorous animal that does nobody any harm.
- Why choose a nice animal and not a fierce animal? asked the Engineer.
- Because fierce animals are carnivorous, they kill other animals.
I teased him:
- Are you afraid it'll get up out of your plate and eat you?
- Who knows?
Lark gave him a little shove:
- Get away with you!
- So let us move on to serious things. Herbivores generally taste good when you eat them whereas carnivores don't. And we eat what is good, not what is not. Vae elephantis.
A foreign language lesson. A foreign language is an unknown language as long as you don't know it. "Yes Master!" Primus would certainly say. A foreign language exists, and yet only for those who know it. "Yes Master!"
After school we go back to my house to do a translation the teacher had asked us for.
- How do you translate 'tea'? asked Primus when we arrived.
- I'm worried about you. As I'm not sure of getting the right word, we'll skip tea.
- Let's ask the teacher!
- He'll eat everything so as to be sure we've understood properly!
- Too bad! We'll just have to use trial and error.
We tried and erred conscientiously.
- We still don't know any more than when we started, commented Primus, but it was good alright!
I was lost in my thoughts and didn't say anything.
- There you go! You're off again! What's going on, then?
I wasn't off again:
- Given that we have been unable to translate, someone who doesn't know our language cannot know what tea is if he doesn't see it for himself.
Primus was visibly waiting for the next part. I was still pensive:
- And if he can see it, he doesn't need a translation.
- Master, do you have other revelations of that sort to make to your disciple?
- Yes. Just being able to see your tea isn't enough either, you have to be able to touch it, take it, eat it.
Primus looked at me closely:
- Just what kind of tea are you short of, then?
I looked down without answering. He waited. I looked up again:
- I can assure you I have no idea.
Lunch. My father talked about stuff. Work, play, what such and such said, what my father replied, everyday bother, the news - always the news - the neighbour's troubles, we must go and see auntie, they don't realise, the game of bridge, lovely piece of meat, must cut the hedge, work, play
No, it is not ridiculous. No, my father doesn't get on my nerves. You cannot agree to be part of life and reject the things that make life what it is. And there are so many other things my father could talk about but doesn't because they're not things you talk about as a rule. I went downstairs, I put on my jacket, I turned right at the corner, I put my foot on the step up to the shop, I raised my hand to take down a book, I unclasped the same hand to put the book on the table, I put my right foot forward when I left my room, I opened my mouth to put an apple in it
I was doing my homework; the mirror was on my desk. She was there, that's all.
Sunday. On the tennis court at the bottom of Lark's garden, Primus had just sent a rocket the Engineer's way; the rocket came back, still a rocket. The Engineer had won the point. Other points followed, for one or the other.
Can you see a point? I can't. And yet it exists, since in a little while one of the players will get the ascendancy over the other.
These thoughts were still turning around in my head when tea was served. A hot day, it wasn't getting any cooler and the adversaries of a moment ago were thirsty. Where had the points gone? Where was the victory? In the combatants' mouths, for a little while yet, as they chatted idly while drinking.
Should the invisible rule my life?
Suddenly I heard the Poetess ask:
- Aren't you playing today?
I answered mechanically:
- Yes, later.
Lark handed me a cup of tea.
Geometry lesson. Was the problem the same as the one she had been doing last Wednesday? Yes and no. No, because the form we were studying was different; yes, because it was still a geometrical form. A form is something you look at. What do you see? The form itself, of course. And what else? What you see or don't. Behind a line is the life that animates it. The invisible parallel line that my thought had drawn had given birth to a new form that could not have been supposed from anything beforehand and that gave the solution to the problem. So I had to have seen the invisible. What had I seen in the mirror?
End of year exams. Everything has gone well for the five of us.
Yesterday, the exams had put spring to flight; today, the English lesson has brought summer to bud.
The teacher was describing the scene; the teacher was bringing the characters to life. I looked and listened. The scene I was looking at did not exist; the characters I was listening to did not exist.
- They still don't exist, declared Primus; imagination doesn't create them, it shows you things you have already known and that agree with what the teacher says.
- And if they didn't agree?
- There would be a mistake in the equation!
He added after a moment's thought:
- Or else the solutions would be impossible in real life.
We said nothing for a moment, and with good reason: we were concentrating on our tea. After a substantial piece of cake, I went on in an easy tone of voice:
- What is the definition of impossible?
- Easy: I can't have any more cake.
I didn't react immediately:
- Why not?
- Because we've eaten it all!
I sketched a smile but became pensive again. He joshed:
- Don't make such a face, there'll be more cake another day!
And, with the voice of the Pythoness speaking an oracle:
I paid no attention to the joke:
- So the impossible is not eternal.
- As long as someone makes another cake.
I was still lost in thought:
- So the impossible depends only on ourselves.
Primus said again, though without his Pythoness voice:
I took out the mirror before going to bed. She was standing still and looking attentively out of the window. After what seemed like a very long time she turned, took a few steps, stopped, looked down as though thinking, then marched firmly off towards her bedroom.
Thursday. No school. The sky was grey; showers spattered the garden. "It's a bit sad today", said Lark's mother.
We were in the sitting room talking about
life, stuff, but our life and our stuff. School, music, the approaching holidays, future trips. "I hope it won't keep raining", said the Engineer. If little children had been there, what would they have thought of our conversations?
History. Bygone days; distant times. People believed
things we no longer believe nowadays. Will people believe those things again one day? Perhaps nowadays we believe things that people will no longer believe in times to come. And then
in those times to come, will there be agreement between people about all those things? What agreement? And will we believe
The sky was still grey this afternoon. We were with the Poetess and her brother at their house. Our talk was desultory. Our minds weren't on thought
Who knows, the sentence may mean something
The holidays were the main subject of conversation. What were we going to do?
- How is it that we always want to do something else on holiday than during the rest of the year? exclaimed the Engineer with a sweeping gesture that clearly showed his rather irritated astonishment.
"Why? Were you planning to do nothing but maths all summer?" replied Primus sarcastically.
The Engineer did not give up:
- Joking apart, however funny, I can't see why we should stop doing what we like just because it's the holidays.
- Not everybody likes maths! protested his sister.
- I thought I heard you say one day that you would live on poetry alone!
Lark came to her friend's rescue:
- Poetry isn't something you do, it's something you feel, and feeling doesn't leave us the day we leave school.
Primus sketched a vague gesture:
- We were told at school that poetry was the art of making verse. Making isn't feeling.
- I don't think you'd listen to me for long if all I did was make - make, note! - my bow slide over the strings, retorted the Poetess.
- So when we make music, it isn't the sounds we listen to?
What do I see when I look into the mirror?
Sunday. Next Sunday I'll be on holiday. That's what my father and mother said at lunch. They were happy with my exam results. I had the impression of something coming to an end, like the end of a tennis match. I had won; I had to leave the course. Oops, a Freudian slip! I meant court, of course.
Physics. As the exams were over, the teacher said he would talk about any subject we liked. The atom! The whole class clamoured for the atom! "Why the atom?" he asked. "To know who we are", replied one girl. The teacher sighed. "You can't know who you are." Too bad. We listened all the same.
"A hydrogen atom consists of a nucleus and an electron. As a thought experiment, let us enlarge it; the nucleus is the size of an orange, the electron a pinhead. The distance between them, two hundred yards. The nearest atom is a mile and a half away."
How distant the time when electrum was just an alloy of gold and silver, or just amber, used to make jewellery for decoration.
What would they say today if they saw a power station? That it's not as pretty, perhaps, just that. Now, electricity brings us a life the Ancients knew nothing about. Would they have wanted it? Or would they have been afraid of it, to the extent of destroying the power station? We can do anything with electricity. "When I do my homework, electricity leaves me to my own devices!" complained someone else in the class, approved by the rest.
Your mind can get lost in electrons. We are made of electrons, the teacher said. It's small, an electron, it's invisible; and it's all alone, a long way from the others. So how am I able to see? Am I capable of seeing what cannot be seen?
English. "Explain why the character said
" How should I know? I am not familiar with the character. It's the writer of the novel talking, not the character. How can I get to see him out of the author's sight?
Well, I managed! We talked. What did he say? He said he didn't agree with the author; which pleased me, because I thought it was ridiculous to say that he had said
what the author had made him say. We had a good laugh, the pair of us. And just as we were parting he said with a conspiratorial smile: "And don't worry, your teacher isn't giving marks any more now that the exams are over!"
Last lesson of the year. Natural Science. The science of nature. Nature doesn't need our science. And after the day before yesterday, I'm afraid it must be rather difficult to know a nature made up of electrons.
On waking up on the last Thursday in June, I was on holiday!
It's disturbing to wake up and have nothing to do. It's as if, on a sailing boat, you were to find yourself without rudder or sail on a sea untroubled by any wind.
Once I had come to, I found myself prey to a dull anxiety. The holidays
Would she still be there? I hurried to get the mirror. Her room was empty. I looked carefully; the desk at which she normally worked wasn't there. The furniture
I had got used to seeing it change place, or even shape, and was no longer surprised. But this furniture wasn't hers. I knew. How did I know? It was ridiculous to think I could, but I knew nonetheless. Her piano, one of the few things that never changed, was no longer in the room. The room
I could still see the three walls but they were further apart; the room was bigger.
I stayed in front of the mirror for a long time
Get-together with the Poetess and her brother at their house. The sun had returned after an absence regretted by all except the Engineer, who hadn't even noticed. It was hot and we were sitting in the cool shade of the arbour in the garden.
What did we talk about?
The same things as the previous week, in the same place; the holidays. What were we going to do?
- You don't even need to give it any thought, your maths will keep you company! declared the Poetess to her brother, mock-seriously.
- Your maths will keep me company? responded her brother, mock-innocently; how many hours a day are you expecting to do?
The Poetess threw up her hands in horror, shaking her head, and everyone laughed.
As for what to do, we decided to start with a long bicycle ride in the countryside around our little town.
After this morning's breakfast I decided to tidy the text books and exercise books that had been piling up on my desk since the previous September. "Yes, I know, but I know where everything is!" I would say to my mother when she cast a despairing look at my desk. I wasn't expecting to do hours of mathematics every day either, but after all a little bit of work doesn't do anybody any harm.
I had long hesitated to take the mirror out of the wardrobe. Now it was in front of me. She wasn't in her room
But was it her room? I anxiously scanned every item of furniture, every corner, hoping to find some sign that would show me it really was hers. As in the past, like the day before yesterday, when my eyes settled on a place I had just seen, the place no longer looked the same. I was used to that. But a room someone lives in always has a character that depends on the person who lives there. I suddenly understood. The character had changed.
Sunday. Lunchtime. My father talked to me about the future. When you have prepared your future properly, you have no problem following the career path you have mapped out. The future depends only on you. You shouldn't leave anything to chance. You know where you're going when everything has been properly planned. You know what you'll find in your life if you've taken all the right precautions. That way you don't get any unpleasant surprises. You have to stick with your decisions. You have to make sure what you do will last.
That evening, I didn't have the courage to take out the mirror.
She was there. I had taken the mirror as soon as I had woken up. She was there. She didn't stay long and left the room with a brisk gait I hadn't seen before.
As soon as you leave our little town you're out in the country. I've been to the nearby city a few times. You just can't get out of it! The streets and houses stick to you like bramble bushes surrounding a spinney.
We were riding along a road that peacefully wound through wheatfields dotted with thatched cottages. Pedalling was no effort now and from the surrounding hills the eye could see as far as the distant horizon.
Our destination was an old graveyard overgrown by bushes and ivy where we liked to sit and picnic in the shade of the trees growing around the abandoned chapel that was slowly falling down under the assault of the wind and rain.
It wasn't very far and we weren't going very fast. Conversations that petered out mingled with wool-gatherings that left us silent, in a noiseless dialogue with the countryside.
Now we were going through the sleepy village from which a path half-hidden by brush led up the little hill on the side of which nestled the chapel and graveyard.
Sitting on the tombstones, blind mirrors of the past, to which we had long been the only visitors, we abandoned ourselves peaceably to the unhurried passing of time. We talked about the school year that had just ended, the things we hoped to learn in our new classes, the friends who had shared our life at school, our parents and their lives which we did not always find easy to understand, and the next pieces we would play together.
Her hands running over the piano keys came back to me; would I hear her one day? Why was she in a hurry this morning? Where was she?
- The pâté's for eating!
The pâté... Why was the Poetess talking to me about pâté? Oh! I had put the pâté in question on my knife to spread it on my bread and I was sitting there with my knife in mid-air
- Yes, of course...
I had spoken without really realising what I was saying... I pulled myself together:
- I was looking at the graves and wondering how long they had been there.
- You can still see the dates on some of them, you've already looked, pointed out the Engineer.
- That's true, centuries old... But I was just thinking, they're still there...
- Where else would they be
? Primus started to say.
Lark broke in:
- Time is their way.
I cannot see the past. No, I cannot!
This afternoon found us at our music at Lark's house. Lark was singing an operatic aria. We had arranged the orchestra parts as well as we could for our instruments; Primus was playing viola, I had replaced him at the piano. While I was warming up I found myself trying to imitate the movements I had seen her make. "That's nice, what is it?" asked the Poetess. I had no idea.
After lunch, we had gone to see the Poetess who was going to recite a poem she had written over the last few days. The poem was full of dreaming; even the Engineer liked it.
- You've always been a sensitive soul, he declared, giving his sister an affectionate hug.
He added, with a teasing smile:
- Though I ought to protest; dreaming is harmful to the real life we should be living.
Clearly everyone was away looking for an answer. Tea, served under the arbour with a redcurrant tart - the first redcurrants of the year - was greeted with an enthusiasm that got the better of philosophical thought.
- The redcurrants are good this year, Primus informed us.
Everyone nodded approvingly. The conversation faltered. Lark launched in:
- So why do we play music then?
- Singing doesn't stop the birds from living real life.
The Engineer nodded:
- I love music; but birdsong has a purpose, or that's what we've all been told.
- You mean a purpose other than
dreaming? asked Primus.
- Yes, a practical purpose. Birdsong is their speech. They know why they sing.
- Do people know why they speak? said the Poetess pensively.
- There you have it! exclaimed her brother brightly; poets venture where
- You have to explain everything to people who do maths. Our poetess meant the reasons that make people seek a purpose.
Everyone thought. As far as birds were concerned, it seemed easy enough to define:
- For birds the purpose is easy: food, without which they couldn't live
Lark broke in, laughing:
- For people the purpose is passing exams!
- And who gives them that purpose?
The Poetess's question left us silent. Primus finally declared:
- All the same, our future engineer is right to say that with dreaming
He stopped and, grinning, said:
- Which brings us back to the ritual question...
- We know, we know! cried Lark; "Can one live on whatever it is alone?"
The conversation continued peacefully. The redcurrants got the better of philosophical thought.
I read one day that animals can unceasingly seek a goal that is impossible to reach. But they don't know that.
Thursday. Market day. In term time, we sometimes liked to take advantage of our day off to wander among the stalls full of produce from local farms and market gardens. We would often meet up with friends and spend the morning walking around and conversing about this and that.
All along the high street that stretched from one church to the other, the stallholders waited for customers. A day came back to me when I had gone through the market in the nearby city. It was a hive of activity, as they say. Sellers did their best to attract buyers by crying their wares; the quality of their produce was asserted unambiguously - everyone had the best carrots. No strollers, just a bustle of people in a hurry. Here, in my little town, peace and quiet paced slowly through the market, as did the shoppers, moving from stall to stall and chatting with the stallholders they had known since the year dot. "Carrots, come and get my lovely carrots!" The cry from the city echoed in my memory. Here, at the top of the high street, it was the carrot itself that did the calling. It didn't have to raise its voice, its call could be smelt from afar; yes, smelt, because the intoxicating aroma wafted down to the bottom of the high street, five hundred yards away from where the carrot was extending its long fronds.
This morning, getting up, I went to the mirror. She was at her window. I saw her press her lips together. Her look seemed to waver between displeasure and denial. She suddenly went and sat on her couch, but not in the corner. No, she sat upright, in the middle of the cushion; she got up, took a book from the side table, sat down again, threw a keen glance at the window, studied the book for a moment without opening it, then got up quickly and left the room after putting the book back on the table.
In the afternoon I met up with my friends at Lark's. We were working on a quintet; the Poetess played first violin, Lark second, Primus viola, the Engineer cello and I was on piano.
Was it a mixture of reality and dream? In the meantime, the difficulties of the piano part were real enough; and my companions' looks of concentration suggested that it was the same for them. And the dream?
- The sound a string makes is just a noise, like a door squeaking, declared the Engineer, holding a cup of tea.
- A quintet with door; the very thing! exclaimed Primus. I'll play the door, it's bound to be easier than the viola part!
This interesting prospect caused me to intervene:
- Animals don't play instruments, all they can do is sing.
- What about crickets? pointed out Lark.
- That's right, said the Poetess in support; they're like me with my violin, they rub a string with a bow.
- And they have an advantage over your violin: their string and bow are interchangeable, since they're the same elytra!
- What a lot you girls know! exclaimed Primus, though I didn't know whether he was joking or serious.
The girls, after exchanging condescending smiles, carelessly pointed out that the literature curriculum also included natural sciences.
- Be that as it may, cut in the Engineer, the fact remains that what we call music is only noise.
Seriousness returned. But wasn't it fear of the question that had sent us off to seek refuge in the more accessible sphere of jest?
- The Engineer told us that song is the birds' speech; when we speak we also hear a song, even if it's only a simple one.
- And what's more, said the Poetess, backing me up, the song becomes more refined as the thought becomes more subtle. A child asking its mother for sweets she won't give him: some recital!
We couldn't help laughing at the picture she conjured up.
- So, said Lark, while we play our instruments we hear words that no-one speaks.
I woke up long after the sun had risen. The mirror showed me her empty room.
At breakfast, my mother asked me if I was enjoying my holidays. Surprised by the question, I replied that there was no reason why, yes, I was enjoying them. My mother hesitated to push the question any further. I went on, talking about how much work I had to do on my music. It did not seem to satisfy my mother, but she didn't say anything more. Actually, that's not quite true. She offered me jam which was already in front of me. My father complimented me on my musical progress and added: "How nice it is to make music!"
I went back to my room. The mirror still showed me her empty room. I stayed looking at
Suddenly, she came in. She entered with an easy, unhurried tread. I don't know why, but I noticed her clothes. There was nothing remarkable about them, she was wearing the same sort of clothes as usual. And yet
Yesterday, and the time before perhaps, her clothes didn't have the same character. I remembered the previous Saturday, when I had thought the same thing about her room. I looked more closely. The furniture was hers. How so, hers? I couldn't understand how such an idea had come to me. I looked for an explanation; it came of its own accord. The first day of the holidays, seeing the furniture in her empty room, I had thought: "This isn't her furniture." Today, the furniture was indeed hers. I recognised it. The desk she usually worked at. Her piano. She was at her window. She was smiling.
Sunday. My mother was ecstatic. My father was surprised. I was cheerful for the whole of breakfast. I might almost have burst into song.
Monday. "Let's take the train!" Primus had said.
We were wondering where to go and, of course, where we could find a nice picnic spot in the surrounding countryside.
Everyone agreed to his proposal; but the station we would be making for was no ordinary station, and the train no ordinary train
The July heat, still in the first flush of summer, was made more bearable by a light breeze. We moved placidly through the wheatfields, the golden haystacks gradually disappearing as the local farmers took them away. The countryside could seem monotonous to visitors from hillier parts, as those we had sometimes met had no qualms about telling us. "It's flat!" was the ultimate put-down used to denigrate our part of the world. But we, who were not merely passing through and were under no obligation to give exaggerated reports of what we had seen on our return to civilisation, we loved those broad fields which never hurt us with spurs and peaks. And the gentle undulations that embellished our countryside encouraged us to reveries untroubled by any fear of vertical drops or terrifying rockfalls.
We were approaching our destination. Far ahead of us, right in the middle of the fields, a single carriage, resting peacefully after so many distant travels, pointed us, as if we were old acquaintances, towards the station hidden in a clump of trees.
Sitting comfortably on the edge of the platform, legs stretched out lazily, feet propped against the rails, we gorged on crisps, tomatoes and hard-boiled eggs - ah! those twists of salt in blue greaseproof paper! - and cherries picked that morning from the tree in Lark's garden.
- Mind the train, it'll run over your feet! cried the Poetess, who had got up to go and get us something to drink.
Instinctively, we all jumped, then dissolved into a mixture of protest and stifled laughter. And with good reason! The rails
it would not have been easy for a train to run on those rails. Were they so rusty that no train could pass? They were indeed rusty, very much so. But with care and going slowly
But no way! There was another problem. Between the old sleepers, their wood eaten away by the rain and snow, grew a forest! I exaggerate
It was only grass and saplings. Yes, I do mean saplings, some of them even head high, stretching away into the distance, covering a railway line on which no train had run for
for how long was it now?
Here it is, now, the train. It travels noiselessly through the fields. I can see it getting bigger as it comes nearer. I watch it without moving, fascinated. It's coming quickly, now it's flashing past without slowing, past the platform empty of passengers. Are there faces behind the window-panes? I can't see them but there are some, yes, there are some. The carriages pass in front of me, I hardly have time to glimpse them. The train has passed; the last carriage is getting smaller and smaller and finally disappears into the green distance.
Yes, I know, it was all in the imagination, the kind of thing you conjure up for yourself to bring the past back to life. There's nothing unusual about it. It could have taken the form of a simple remark: "Just think! Express trains used to come this way, but they didn't stop because it's not a very important station!" It could have been a geography lesson: "This line linked this place to that place, carried this many passengers, was used to transport that much freight, worth so much a year", and so on.
This evening, I saw on the keyboard the music that I had seen her playing before. Certain phrases had changed. I listened to the silent music for a long time. When she had left, after gently closing the lid, I played the melody back. What did I see in the music?
We were on Lark's lawn. Not all of us; the Engineer wasn't there. "He's finishing off some maths problem; he said he'd be down soon", the Poetess had explained when we arrived. We talked about this and that, not making any particular effort to find intellectual subjects.
- Do we think when we're not thinking? asked Primus nonetheless, after munching a few cherries.
- If that's the ritual question, teased the Poetess, the ritual answer is: "You can't know if you're not thinking without thinking about it first!"
The weighty silence of thought - or perhaps the weighty silence of our minds dulled by the heat - was broken by the Engineer, who had just come into the garden and had apparently heard the end of this interesting dialectic.
- Sounds like you're missing school!
- You can't be serious! retorted Primus, in a voice that sounded like a worn-out gramophone.
I broke in:
- What are we when we are not thinking?
- You mean "Who", Lark corrected me.
I don't know
As nobody said anything, I went on:
- Does life around us go on in the same way when we are not thinking as when we are?
- Do you think life depends on you? joked Primus.
No, course not
of course not
The conversation turned back to ordinary things.
The little white clouds that occasionally drifted over Lark's garden were welcome; it may have been nearly mid-July, but the sun still rose high above our heads. We met up with a few school-friends for an afternoon
I was going to say lazing around, but that wouldn't be accurate because we danced with all the appropriate energy - by we I mean the girls mostly, the boys being less headstrong.
We were merry, and chattered away brightly; there's nothing wrong with chattering; the birds don't think twice about singing
Song is the birds' speech; who had said that? Oh yes, the Engineer. So don't the birds ever chatter? When we speak, we think
or at least I hope so. Do we think when we chatter, when we dance? Pah! So much for the birds! I think chattering is nice; it's not tiring, and who would argue that the gaps between the chatterers are not filled with life? The birds? Life is still there when we are not thinking. Still and always. Whatever it is.
The dancers had stopped. Tired? Maybe. But not certain. Tea was being served! My partner gave me a kind but slightly embarrassed smile. I did not realise until a little later that I had been particularly absent-minded. It was a glance from Primus that told me.
- Yes, it's a thriller, there's lots of action, I didn't get bored
- Could you pass me glass of orange juice
- I didn't go in the end
- Come round tomorrow, I've been practising it
- I was reading, I completely lost track of time
- Aren't you thirsty?...
- I've had a look at the sonata
- No, I'm fine thanks
- I can't tomorrow
- Where did you get that
- They couldn't lose
- I gave up, the vivace was too hard...
- ... and I had to repair the puncture, that was a load of fun
- Honest, it's true...
And I spoke too; and I listened; and I answered.
And I saw.
I saw Lark talking with another girl, all the while keeping an eye on the table to make sure we weren't short of anything; I saw the Engineer making signs that showed he hadn't understood what someone had just said to him; I saw Primus standing at the piano showing a phrase to a friend and the friend showing him another phrase in turn; I saw the Poetess smile at a boy who seemed to be explaining something to her.
I also heard everything anyone said to me and everything that was being said.
It was all real, every bit of it.
This morning, she was at the piano. The piano had moved, now standing where her desk usually was. The keyboard was right next to me and I could follow her playing all the more easily because she kept stopping to repeat the same passage. She played it over, taking her time, as if she was waiting
what could she be waiting for? After a moment, I decided to go to the piano myself and repeat what she was doing. First, I heard my fingers playing the music I already knew. But the tune went on. I tried to follow. Fortunately, when I got into difficulty she would stop, then play the passage again, slowly because it was difficult. But seeing how easily she executed the passages, I was not tempted for a moment to suppose that she experienced the same difficulties as I in her playing.
Friday. The road our bicycles took led us towards a little village tucked away in the few nearby hills. We had left early so as to have lunch around noon and reach the little village in good time. The fields now all looked alike, despite the few haystacks that still basked in the rays of a sun that would be starting to lose some of its strength before too long.
The lunch was our usual picnic fare: ham, eggs, tomatoes
But this time with a surprise. Just as we were cursing ourselves for forgetting the pudding, Lark triumphantly produced from her saddle-bag
a cheesecake that her mother had made for us!
We arrived at around one o'clock. On the usually empty market square stood a gaggle of stalls overflowing with trinkets: dolls with eyes wide open in astonishment, teddy bears and rabbits and other soft toys, plastic tea sets, balloons ready to fly off into the blue yonder, glittering glass beads
But the square was empty. Empty because there was nobody around. The reason was simple: a fair was going to be held in the market square, but it wasn't yet time for it to start.
And yet the square I had thought empty was not entirely so. On the step of a little carousel whose horses, cars and aeroplanes would soon be setting off on their unceasing round sat a tiny girl, motionless, her eyes locked on a wide-necked, brightly coloured horse whose tender and inquisitive gaze seemed a response to the little girl's dream. The merry-go-round had started to turn; it turned for her alone.
This afternoon we were heading towards a farm. The farmer sometimes gave us delicious free-range chickens, better than anything you could get anywhere else. He hadn't been able to make his morning delivery so we had offered to go and get them ourselves. It was a pleasant ride.
The winding road passed between fields where we could see sheep huddled up against each other, doubtless to protect themselves from marauding packs of wolves, though no wolf had been seen in those parts since time out of mind.
The road was not deserted; farmers strode off to their fields, a grandfather and his grandson, hand in hand, walked with the same measured step, a grandmother leaning on her cane was heading slowly for the village, a carthorse was pulling a cart full of straw, and two grey geese waddled side by side down the middle of the road.
Soon we saw the first low brick houses that heralded the village where the good chicken farm was. The ducks, leaving their pond, refreshingly cool in the heat, watched us go by with interest, their heads on one side, the better to see us.
The farmer's wife was resting on a chair in the middle of the farmyard where the good chickens were pecking at the ground. She got up without haste and asked us to wait inside.
We went into the big room that served as both kitchen and dining room. The farmer's elderly uncle was sitting by the table, motionless, looking into an undefinable distance at something that wasn't there, that didn't seem to be anywhere. In front of him, two portraits looked at each other from either side of the mantelpiece; a little boy and a little girl. Perhaps the old man was looking at time?
Sunday. Lunch with my parents and some friends who had come over to see them.
- What are you doing during the holidays? he asked.
- How's the quintet going? she asked, without waiting for my answer to the first question.
I answered both at once:
- We play a lot between bike rides.
- Where do you go? he asked.
- Are you going to give a concert? she asked, without waiting for my answer to the first question.
I answered both at once:
- We sing opera when we're out in the countryside; it's a great concert hall.
He nodded approvingly; she smiled encouragingly.
After lunch I went up to my room. She wasn't there. The piano was back in its usual place, or very close to it. It was definitely her furniture. It had the real character, I knew; it wasn't the other, the one that had bothered me.
I took up a book I had already started reading. The author was studying a character's thought. I had never really understood and had abandoned the book several times. But I didn't want to give up on it.
I settled myself comfortably into my armchair and started reading. The subject was as complicated as ever, but after a moment I realised that when I had been reading before, I had slid over this word or that phrase
I started again. Reading more closely had been the right thing to do; the sense of the argument suddenly seemed clearer to me, more understandable.
I put the book down. She was there; she must have been at her window, because she was opposite me and looking straight ahead.
We had spent the afternoon working on the quintet. Now we were having a break and a cup of tea in Lark's garden. "You can't really hear the viola!" remarked Primus. The Poetess protested:
- Not a bit of it!
- The viola isn't the first violin, commented the Engineer.
Primus looked doubtful:
- I know the viola doesn't have the tune, but you've still got to hear it!
I spoke without really realising it:
- Are you sure?
He turned to me with surprise:
- If you can't hear it, it might as well not be there.
Slightly taken aback, I didn't know what to say. The Poetess interposed:
- Lark said the other day that while we played we heard words that no-one spoke.
- Do you mean someone can listen to my viola without hearing it?
- It's not your viola we listen to, it's your music.
We said nothing for a while, eating biscuits. The birdsong around us made me think of our instruments:
- The birds are giving us a concert; where's the viola?
- I think there's more than just one, remarked the Engineer.
The Poetess nodded:
- And maybe it's the one we can't hear that we're listening to.
The Engineer liked to read railway magazines that the station master of our little town was quite happy to lend him. It gave us a good excuse for a stroll, in the afternoon that could still remember the noonday heat.
The streets, which had been empty until then, were beginning to fill up. A woman with a bucket in her hand had stopped at an open window and was quietly talking with her neighbour. The butcher's boy in his apron had parked his bicycle against the wall and was engaged in lively conversation with another apprentice. The ironmonger was taking the sun, sitting on a milestone next to the stoop and reading a newspaper. Passers-by passed by; others, not passing, leant casually against their door or against the wall or against nothing at all and watched the passers-by pass by. Little groups had congregated on the pavement and were chatting, or holding serious conversations. The sleepy shops were slowly raising their shutters. The grocer in a grey smock had just come out onto the step, one hand on his hip, and was offering his wares to a customer, though whether the customer bought anything or not didn't seem terribly important. Our little town was full of peace and quiet. One day, a city-dweller had said in a stifled voice: "What a dump!"
We had reached the station. The station master was around, but nobody knew where. On the main platform, in the shade of tall plane trees, a dozen passengers were waiting for the train that was due in soon. No station master. Right at the end of the platform, a railwayman told us that he was out by the goods wagons, a bit further on.
The goods wagons were in the middle of the countryside. Well, not really in the middle, but when you left the platform you left the town; and as the station was in town, we left the station
We walked alongside a rusty line, on a narrow path bordered with bushes and thickets. In the shade of a plane tree that had decided to move to the country slept a wagon; but the station master had probably not wanted to disturb it because he wasn't there. On another track, which was not rusty, fortunately, arrived a shriek of brakes fit to shatter the station windows. It was the stopper that the passengers on the main platform were patiently waiting for. A hundred yards further on a train was waiting; it could hardly do anything else, as there was no engine. But there was a station master! There he was, with a railwayman, checking
I couldn't say what really.
Back at the station, having collected the magazine, we sauntered home. The place had come alive. We ran into some friends, stopped to chat
"There's going to be a storm tomorrow!" one of them told us. We had already seen the gathering of tight little pink clouds that herald the heavens' wrath. And the weather had started to turn heavy.
This morning, we had all come over to Lark's to rehearse our quintet. When we got there, she was singing a cantata and accompanying herself on the piano.
- Lovely! commented the Engineer with simplicity.
- It would be better with organ, she remarked, smiling.
- An organ! Why not? exclaimed Primus.
- Because you've forgotten to bring one, of course! joked the Poetess.
- Not at all, I haven't forgotten anything, he replied with a sly smile.
We tried to work out his meaning. I got there first:
- Let's go to the church!
Surprise among the others, an amused smile for Primus. A moment later, Lark clapped her hands:
- The church! Of course! The harmonium!
- The harmonium! cried the Poetess; why on earth didn't I think of that?
It had been a long time since we had last visited the instrument. It was in a tiny old church that no-one went to now that the roof had lost a few tiles and the worshippers were splashed with water blessed only by the heavens. The harmonium too was no longer in the first flush of youth; one note was missing and another was a bit temperamental. The bellows leaked, so you had to pedal hard. But we loved the simple, tender sound that emerged from the dark wooden case polished by time.
It was already hot and heavy despite the early hour, but we hoped that we would be safe from the expected storm until we got back.
The road was busy; the farmers were bringing in the last of the corn and the rest of the straw from the harvested fields before everything got soaked by the rain. Ah, someone with a rod and tackle. Not many of them round here. Good fishing, sir!
We rode at an easy pace as usual, talking about everything and nothing. From time to time I left the conversation without realising to - until someone, usually Primus, said "Wool-gathering again!" During my absences - relatively short, it is true - I didn't think about anything in particular, or anything not in particular either. I watched a farmer leaving a field, I gazed at the straw dancing on a cart, I tracked a crow as it took off heavily from the ground. What can you think about such things? Suddenly, a power line attracted my attention; it was a line carried by innumerable giants that I could see marching off to the ends of the earth, a high-tension line. My thought came back. I had known the line since my childhood; it had never inspired profound thoughts in me. I caught myself imagining the electricity that came from this place to go to that place to be used by people
I hesitated to entertain the rest of my thought. Thought told me that I could never meet those people or live with them. So what? How many people would I never meet? I cut off my thought and plunged back into the conversation, a bit "off the point", as one would say at school. But I soon caught up - it was easy!...
Lark was singing, Primus was accompanying her; the harmonium played the sounds it could. The composer of the cantata spoke to us. I had never seen him, he had been and gone at least two hundred years before. I could hear his words, but it wasn't him speaking them. Who could I see? Lark, Primus. I could also see what was around them, the half-empty stained-glass windows, the rickety pews, the harmonium with its black and white keys. How could I know the composer except through what I saw and heard?
We were quicker on the way back; a wide band of fat white clouds had taken advantage of our absence to fill the sky to an impressive height. Our bicycles flew. Alas! A sudden gust of wind blew away all our hopes of reaching our destination in time.
Fortunately not far away, near a pond, stood a large barn that we knew well. It was not the first time it had given us shelter in similar conditions. "Pedal harder!" shouted the Engineer. Following his advice, everyone accelerated. Squalls come quickly after the initial gusts of wind.
But the first fat drops did not have time to soak us. We blew into the barn. "We're not the only ones here!" announced the Poetess. The barn had indeed been invaded. The hens, which had taken shelter there without waiting for the rain, peacefully sitting around, looked at us pityingly: "Ah, humans are not very wise, they think nature will obey them!" The ducks strutted around like people who have long been safe from the calamities of this world. "No need to tell us you like water!" grunted Primus. As our saddle-bags were never empty, we were able to feast at leisure, sitting comfortably on the bales of straw the farmer had brought in over the last few days. "Moo!" Three muzzles had appeared; three muzzles dripping with the thick and heavy rain that had not yet stopped. "I'd rather be in the barn!" Lark told the cows.
That evening, after dinner, when the sky had already taken on the colours of night, I took out the mirror. She was at her desk, writing; a fine, quick hand. I tried to read her words, the same way I had wanted to follow her hands when she was playing the piano, but although the letters were clearly drawn I could not understand them. It's not that they were unclear; it was their form that was inconstant. Between the moment the letter was written and the moment it reached my consciousness it disappeared, and then reappeared almost immediately under her pen. Suddenly, in the middle of a word, she glanced up at the window. She remained motionless, staring, then got up quickly, and I thought she was going to move over to her piano. Her piano was there in front of me, where her desk had been just a moment before. She was playing. I had never
seen the piece before. I went over to my piano. As she repeated the same passage, I had no trouble imitating her. Something was bothering me, something I hadn't realised before; the keys of her piano were as inconstant as the letters I hadn't been able to understand a little while earlier. But I went on playing. It was a sad piece
Thursday. The weather was fine again. The sun was no longer as hot as at the beginning of July, which made the heat more bearable. We were at the top of one of the few hills in the area. The storm had cleared the air, making it transparent and giving me the impression that distances were nearer.
- And yet if you had taken measurements the day before yesterday and you took them now, you would find the same distance, argued the Engineer, unconvinced by my findings.
- Can't you forget about your mathematics? his sister lectured him.
- We look with our minds, spoke up Lark in her support.
- Minds have never changed distances, retorted the Engineer.
I chipped in:
- When I look and I say "lovely"...
A phrase from the previous day came back to me:
- Yesterday, you said yourself: "Lovely!" listening to Lark; were you thinking of measuring the number of vibrations of the strings?
- I wasn't listening to the vibrations.
- It's the haze that floods the landscape on a very hot day that I was seeing yesterday before seeing the distances.
The Engineer pondered:
- OK; but you saw all those things with your eyes, not with your mind.
- It's his mind that told him the distances seemed close, not his eyes.
I carried on, rather stiffly:
- What I saw the day before yesterday and what I see now both exist, I saw them with my own eyes.
Surprised, my friends turned towards me.
- No-one said you didn't, declared Primus with a hint of anxiety.
The Poetess asked me hesitantly:
- Why do you say that?
I didn't know what to answer, I didn't really understand what I had said. There was a silence, broken by Lark:
- You look put out.
The Engineer sought an explanation:
- Do you think that if one exists, the other doesn't?
I answered, still rather stiffly:
- No, no! The only difference is that the haze has gone, that's all. It's only something quite ordinary.
I added, in a voice that had recovered its even tone:
- When it rains, you can't see the sky.
That afternoon, Lark's garden was full of people. Neighbours, school friends. There was dancing and singing, gossip about our little town, games of tennis. These afternoons always turned out the same, but each time we had the feeling that the one about to start would be different. And the oddest thing was that when the time came to go our separate ways, we were sure that everything really had been different. And yet this conversation about the tennis match had already been heard a thousand times before, albeit with variations; I won, I lost, it was a good shot
Come and dance, I love this tango
And then others, and others
But the tango was not the same, the ball had not bounced the same way
It was true, even though it was always the same ball, the same tango.
And when the sun rises in the morning, is it really another day?
Saturday. We had left very early to go on a long bike ride. Going any old where, though that was easier said than done since we knew the area like our
saddle bags! But each new bike ride
We reached a crossroads; which road should we take?
- What do you mean, which road should we take? exclaimed Primus; since we have decided to go any old where!
- Go any old where? That's just the problem! declared the Engineer, looking perplexed.
- Very funny! Your maths have completely addled your brain!
But the Engineer nodded:
- Whichever road we take, we're bound to be going somewhere, and never just anywhere.
- Well, I'm going to follow the sun! So now tell me where your somewhere is!
Saying which, Primus pedalled off down one of the roads, towards
Oh, please don't ask me where!
Most of the roads that idle around our little town look like
the other roads that idle around our little town. I drew a conclusion:
- On our roads, somewhere is anywhere; everything looks the same.
- I don't think the farmer going to his fields would agree with you, argued the Poetess.
- I hadn't thought of that; and what you say is just as true of the fields. People from the city think that all fields look the same; we've heard it often enough.
I thought of the sun that rises every morning
And of myself, to whom the English teacher had said that we shouldn't repeat ourselves. What will he say, my teacher, if I add that I too rise every morning? That everyone knows that, that such banal things are not worth talking about. Do the birds know, when they go to sleep, that the sun will rise in the morning? "Don't go on about it! You're not a bird!" It's true, the teacher is right, humans know.
What do I know of the mirror?
Sunday. At lunch, my father spoke about my schoolwork - he was happy with it. Why shouldn't he have been? I'm good at school; when everything is going well, we're always happy. My studies, he told me, were laying the foundations of my future. Nothing out of the ordinary there. But, he went on, you could never be sure of anything, because no-one could ever predict what would happen in life.
I remembered that at the start of the holidays, a good three weeks ago, he had told me that we knew what we would find in life, provided that we planned everything properly; and that that way we didn't get any unpleasant surprises.
I could remember all that very clearly. I had a reason. That day, I hadn't wanted to take out the mirror.
Today, we knew where to go. "Let's go to the fair!", the Poetess had suggested.
- We went last week...
The Engineer's attempt at dissuasion hadn't taken.
- That was last week, Lark had said placidly.
- It's not the same fair, his sister had hastened to reassure him.
The Engineer had put a good face on it; but he had not looked very reassured.
- Chin up! Primus had said; "we'll get the girls on the dodgems, just wait and see!"
The Engineer had made a face that was supposed to signal his agreement.
And now - the decision having been taken unanimously - we were riding on our roads, our roads that all looked so much alike
Going through a village, a thread of music caught my ear; I wasn't the only one to have heard it, because Lark cried out gaily: "The ice-cream van!"
We stopped on the wide pavement of the wide road that ran through the village. Yes, in our part of the world there is always plenty of room in the countryside. It's not like our little town with its narrow, twisting streets.
We tried to find where the music was coming from. A street, another, a little square with a little garden and there was a white van; that's where it was coming from. Yes, the ice-cream man didn't have a shop; he travelled the roads, visiting the farms, and passed through the villages, like this one, waiting mainly for the children, like those who had got there before us and were waiting patiently around the van, having run out from a long double row of low houses separated from each other by vegetable gardens that basked in the sunshine.
There was nothing extraordinary in the sight before my eyes except for a life that was not mine. I started thinking that all the lives I could see were not mine and that mine, the only one I really knew, I could not see.
We got back on the road; or at least the streets that took us out of the village. Not many people about; a man, wearing a hat and leaning on a stick, walked with a tranquil step. The fronts of the houses, clean as they usually are in our towns and villages, had pretty lace curtains in their windows; from behind the windows, little dolls of delicate china dressed in their best finery observed us with their big blue eyes.
The fair was in full swing. Noise, laughter, shouts; we went from stall to stall, returning as soon as we had lost at one, hoping to win at the other. The din of the dodgems could not cover the cries of victory or defeat from the drivers and their passengers. The fair was on the edge of the village. Two lads leant against the railing, following the battle with their eyes; behind them you could see cows passing in a meadow.
I thought of the little girl at the other fair, watching a merry-go-round that only she could see
A day of music. I was going to say a musical day; it's not the same thing at all. I don't think the dictionaries would agree with me, that's why I won't be checking in them. During a musical day you listen to music; the music someone else plays or the music you play yourself. This afternoon, while we were rehearsing our quintet, I don't think anyone was listening. We heard the quintet, which turned only for us.
Wednesday. We had decided to go for a ride in the sun, without really knowing where we were going, as usual.
The roads, which still looked like each other, took us to a stream that we liked. It was nearly noon and a little coolness was not to be sniffed at. We sat down under the trees that had planted their feet in the clear water all along the banks. It was not a bad idea, and we were soon paddling around, not worrying about getting splashed on such a fine day.
Hunger knows the time and noon soon struck - our stomachs!
- What good things have you brought today, girls? fretted Primus.
- There's the cheesecake you like so much
- I'll have it all! he broke in, as if in earnest.
- Fine, nodded the Poetess calmly, we'll keep the leek pie for ourselves.
We laughed at Primus' discomfiture.
- It'll soon be the end of July; almost a month of the holidays gone already
The Poetess had spoken with a touch of melancholy. Her brother frowned disapprovingly:
- Holidays are all very well, but we're always doing the same thing.
- What do you mean, always doing the same thing? Today we're by a stream, the day before yesterday we were at the fair.
- Yes, but we're not learning anything.
- What do you mean, not learning anything? repeated Lark; do you mean you haven't learnt any of your music in the last month?
- It's not the same thing; I already knew the quintet, all I've done is increase my ability to play it.
- That's what learning is, isn't it? returned his sister.
The Engineer pondered:
- True. But if all I'm learning is how to move my fingers better
- Moving your fingers better means we can hear you better, remarked Primus.
- As far as the quintet is concerned, you know that you can hear it by reading the score; and as far as hearing me is concerned, I know that you don't need much to know what I feel - or what I mean, if you prefer.
- Your leek pie won't be very good if you don't learn how to make it.
- I couldn't agree more. So it's the end result and not the learning that matters. But just learning gets boring in the long run. I want to know new things and that's what I get from school.
I chipped in pensively:
- Can you find new things if you look into yourself?
We were riding in the sun again, somewhere and anywhere, as we had said the previous Saturday. The fields, a barn full of lovely golden hay, the villages so close to one another, a fair - there are so many in our part of the world
- It's the cattle market today! exclaimed Primus suddenly.
The cattle market
the day when the livestock farmers buy and sell cows.
A tiny little village, an enormous market place. Venerable horse-chestnut trees framed the square, hiding the village from the eyes of anyone arriving on the road.
In the market place men came and went, stopping to exchange a few words, mysterious to the traveller. Here is a thickset man, solid on his feet; he has just said words of consequence, perhaps final; he is sure he has convinced the other man, lean and energetic, spying out his thoughts attentively while smiling easily at him. The other, who has been listening cautiously, retracts; which one will expose himself first? Here, a bit further on, is a short man, feigning an artlessness to which quick, piercing eyes give the lie; he is offering a bargain, a deal which cannot be anything but a bargain; I cannot see the listener, he has his back to me; but a third man is there, observing him with curiosity: will he allow himself to be tempted by the deal, which cannot be anything but a bargain?
In the market place, the cattle were attached to stout wooden bars laid on staves. Their heads are placed under the bars in such a way that they can neither raise nor lower them.
The men were preparing the future, the cows were awaiting fate.
At breakfast, my mother talked about the things of everyday life. The life which you wait for and which comes to tell you it exists. My mind was elsewhere. And yet I answered my mother's questions when they arose; I made the necessary comments when she finished what she was saying, a yes generally being quite sufficient. My mother did not notice that my mind was elsewhere. I cannot say that what my mother talked about did not interest me, rather the opposite in fact; everyday life is also my life, like it is hers. And yet I couldn't help my mind being elsewhere. In order for it not to be, you have to think of not letting it be; and when it is already, how are you supposed to do that? It isn't terribly meaningful, I know, but what is? I know that too; it's whatever keeps the connection with everyday life. Can you do otherwise and remain inside life itself?
Back in my room, I sank deep into my armchair. I had initially wanted to take the mirror out; was it because I usually placed it on my desk in front of the window that I didn't? The image of what I had seen the previous week came back to me: her piano, right next to me, and the keys that I couldn't make out clearly. I closed my eyes; I thought of the tune I had played, imitating her movements. I had never heard the tune before, and yet how much music did I not know?
Slightly irritated - but why, since I had no reason to be? - I got up abruptly, went and took out the mirror and set it on my desk.
She wasn't there. And again, as had happened in the first few days of the holidays, the character of her room had changed. The furniture wasn't hers, no desk, no piano; again, it wasn't her house.
The tune floated gently in my head
Suddenly the door opened. She came in, with the quick step I had already seen in the same circumstances, holding a book that she flicked through nervously. She sat down on her sofa, back straight, stayed still for a moment, then started reading. She seemed sad. From the irregular way her eyes scanned the page, I guessed that her mind was not entirely on what she was reading; there were moments when her gaze would settle, randomly it seemed to me, on an undefined point of a thick, dark rug I had never seen before. A halt came, longer than the others. She suddenly lifted her head and threw a penetrating look at the window.
Her face had become calm. Around her, among her usual furniture, the piano had returned to its place.
This afternoon, the Poetess's garden was full of people. Neighbours, school friends. We danced
In a nutshell, things happened the same way as the previous week, on another Friday.
- What do you think
? said the Engineer to a girl with forget-me-not eyes.
But his sister did not give him time to get any further:
- No, she doesn't think anything! Not today! Today isn't for thinking, it's for having fun!
And she went on, laughing:
- Dance with her; you're bound to get better some day!
The Engineer lifted his eyes heavenward and said:
- Goodness me, you must have something against her if you
- Not at all! broke in the girl with forget-me-not eyes, smiling. You dance very well; your sister's just poking fun at you!
The sister went off, still laughing.
So the Engineer danced; very badly, of course. But what did it matter? His partner was delighted; she hadn't come to make a study of dancing. And is dancing what we dance for anyway? When the dancers were all exhausted and food was preferred to physical exercise I made a remark on the subject. I expected protest. Not a bit of it!
- What's the point of doing something if you do it badly? declared the Engineer.
- To get a bad mark! replied a resolute boy.
- There we go! Back at school again! griped a languid-looking girl.
- Orange juice? proposed the Poetess.
Orange juice... It gave time to think
for those who wanted to
The girl with forget-me-not eyes had thought. She turned to me:
- You asked a while ago whether dancing is what we dance for
- Oh, it's mostly to please the girls! said the resolute boy, a twinkle in his eye.
- There you are! You've found the answer without even looking! cried the girl with forget-me-not eyes.
- Boys always find answers, announced the languid-looking girl calmly.
A moment later, she went on just as calmly:
- Answers sometimes have the advantage of stopping questions.
July had only three days left to run. The sun rose less high, the days ended earlier. The heat persisted and even threatened to become heavy again.
- What about a good long walk? Primus had asked that morning.
The proposal had met with everyone's favour. Where to? I suggested:
- We could take the train!
- Take the train? he exclaimed gaily; excellent idea, we have a specialist with us, he'll show us the way!
The Engineer smiled:
- You know the line as well as I do...
- Ah, but since you've been reading railway magazines...!
- That's right! cried the Poetess; my brother can spend the whole trip telling us about trains!
The prospect, though highly likely, had nevertheless not caused us undue alarm; the Engineer was a good talker.
Once we had divided the provisions between us, we left.
We did indeed know the line, and what we called taking the train was something we liked to do from time to time. All it involved was walking along the track for a few hours to a station where most trains stopped, and coming back as ordinary passengers.
You get into the countryside quicker by rail than by road; there are hardly any of those houses that straggle out at the end of a town. A few steps and we were in the middle of the fields.
- Each time I get the impression when we
take this line, remarked Lark pensively, that the fields aren't the same as the ones we know, that we're somewhere else.
She waved her hand, as if to show the surrounding landscape:
- And yet I know they are the same...
No-one could find anything to say. We travelled on... The Poetess, sitting next to the window, broke the silence:
- When I look out, I get the feeling I can never be out there, in those fields
She turned to Lark:
- That may be what you...
She left the sentence unfinished. The silence returned. We travelled on. I looked out of the window.
- When we're on our bikes we can stop, leave the road, go off into the fields
- We could here to, Lark interrupted; but we'd have to jump off the moving train.
- Or pull the emergency cord.
I had spoken with a slight choke in my voice. Primus looked at me attentively:
- Did you want to jump?
We had been travelling for a good hour when the high-pitched whistle of the locomotive announced that we would soon be crossing a dirt track beside which a solitary sign warned any hay-carts of the passing of our train. The Engineer put his whistle away and ordered:
- Close the gates!
Primus dashed over to the level crossing:
- Yes, sir!
And he started turning a handle which existed only in his mind but which we could all see quite clearly.
Our train continued peacefully on its way. Primus had gone back to his seat. The Poetess had turned round and was looking at the gate:
- You can get off a moving train; but if you want to get on again, you have stay on the track.
We arrived at a set of points not far from a station that was hiding behind a curve flanked by thick bushes.
The Engineer studied the points:
- It's a good job the station master saw we were an express on a long-haul route; otherwise it would have been the end of our journey - we would have been stuck in a wretched siding for ever after
Immediately we all assumed the look of people overjoyed at the idea of having escaped some terrible tragedy.
The station was not like the one in our little town. It was just a shelter for a few passengers, lost at one end of a long, overgrown platform. Hardly anybody came there any more; the nearby village was small and few trains stopped there.
- We can get off here, no problem, that's what stations are for, declared Primus with a touch of irony.
- When the train has left, we won't be able to get back on, warned Lark gently.
- We are the train, we don't have to worry about it leaving! remarked Primus gaily.
The short silence that followed did not seem to share either Primus's gaiety or his optimism.
The journey continued. Fields, woods, river, level crossings with and without gates, two stations barely any bigger than the first, four trains, one of which turned up its nose at a station evidently beneath its station
Lunchtime was approaching and in the distance appeared a wagon, a flat-bed wagon that must have been used for carrying logs and other long goods a long, long time ago, a wagon we knew well, a wagon stuck on some long-forgotten siding just for us. That was our dining room!
Lunch; and as we were very hungry, it couldn't help but be a sumptuous repast!
A home-made duck pâté I had brought soon had our mouths watering; and Primus's mother had made a dish worthy of the gods, a potato pie!
How do you make it? It's a secret, but I'll let you into it if you promise me not to tell anyone. Promise? Here we go then!
Line a large pie dish with pastry. Fill it with peeled and thinly sliced onions and potatoes. Dice bacon and put it on top. Season and cover with sour cream. Place a pastry lid over the dish, seal with beaten egg and pinch tightly to close. Make a little chimney and cook in the oven. Remove and serve.
A comment without importance: we would eat it cold.
For refreshment in the heat? Water of course, but also some fine cucumbers.
And to finish? Juicy apricots from the Poetess's garden.
And what about you? What are you having for lunch today
Our train went steadily on. Around us, the countryside still looked the same as this morning. Yes, our region is monotonous, or so say people who are not from here; maybe, I have no idea. But if those of us who are from here like our region, why should it be changeable?
Our train still went on as steadily as ever.
- What is the purpose of our trip?
Slightly surprised by Primus's unexpected question, we sought an answer that would not come. The Engineer was the first to react:
- The station where we take the train back.
- That's not a purpose, it's just a stage in the journey!
- Why do you ask anyway? enquired the Poetess.
- Last Wednesday your brother said the purpose was the only thing that mattered.
- I think our purpose is to go for a walk.
Primus shook his head:
- That's not a purpose, since we're not going anywhere.
- We're going to the station, protested the Engineer.
- The station is just as temporary as the place where my foot comes down when I'm walking.
- Then our real purpose is to go home.
I chipped in:
- In that case there was no point leaving!
- Each movement of the bow brings me a temporary note, but my purpose when I play is not to get to the last note.
I had the stray thought that when the piece was very hard I was happy enough to get to the last note. But that wasn't the point.
Silence reigned in our carriage.
Primus returned to our usual little game:
- The ritual question is: "Can we recognise a purpose?"
I followed on:
- The other ritual question is: "Do we have a purpose?"
- And the ritual answer to both questions is: "We don't know!"
Our train suddenly started to slow down. As the windows were open, we leaned out to see what was happening. It was easy enough; our station had appeared after a long curve.
- The engine needs water! gasped the locomotive as soon as it had stopped.
As our thirst had emptied the bottles we had brought with us, we went to fill them up.
- Well, at least I've discovered the purpose of our trip! cried Primus, seeing the Engineer fill up his boiler from the neck of a bottle.
Our timetable had been well calculated, because the train that would take us back was due to arrive soon along one of the two tracks that served the station.
Where did the tracks come from? I knew, of course; but when I looked at them, I got the impression of something unfamiliar from which I had something to expect. Was it baleful, was it benevolent? No, there was something else. What I wondered was not where the tracks were coming from but where they were going. I knew, of course; it was no great mystery, they were going where they were coming from! So? So nothing. But when I looked at the tracks, one leaving to the left, the other leaving to the right, I was unable to connect them to the places where they were really going. They seemed to be going to other places, places that had no connection with what I had always known, with what I knew.
Primus was staring at me. I knew what he was going to say. He did:
- Your mind is elsewhere.
No, it wasn't. But to explain I would have to
- I'm watching out for the train! I said brightly.
- Are you afraid it won't come?
The train came. We got on. From my window seat, I saw the fields I could not go into. Unless I jumped off the moving train. Or pulled the emergency cord.
Sunday. Lunch with my parents. One of my mother's friends was there.
The conversations were interesting, I liked the subjects, the ideas were varied; I took part. My mother's friends found my opinions very good for my age; I was not distracted by silly things, my judgment was not influenced by mere appearances and my reasonings were thoughtful. Altogether, she had added, I was a serious fellow, perhaps just a little lacking in imagination.
Oh, it wasn't all said the way I have just written it down, which is more a summary of things said on this or that occasion, today or another day. Also a summary of the various assessments of other friends of my parents, of what I heard elsewhere. My parents too were unstinting with their compliments. I was good at school and I never complained. With good reason: no-one stopped me from doing whatever I wanted. Or, to be more accurate, nobody noticed.
All that seemed absolutely normal. Why was Primus worried?
Back in my room, I asked myself the question again: why was Primus worried? I knew what it was, but what did he know? And what was there to know anyway?
She seemed very close to me; she must be leaning against her window. She was looking straight ahead without moving. Suddenly she backed away slightly, blinked two or three times and started staring at various points in her garden. One of them in particular attracted her gaze. I tried to guess what could be so captivating. From time to time she stopped moving again, looking straight ahead. As I was opposite her, her look went through me. She came back again to the point in her garden that she had fixed on before and stood stock still. Instinctively I turned round to follow her gaze. How silly of me! Of course I couldn't see what she could: she was at her house, I was at mine. And my piano, on which her gaze had fallen, was certainly not a flower growing in her garden! I turned to the mirror; she was no longer there.
The last day of July. A day of farniente. They are the busiest days of all. Primus had come over to shove the wood around. He lost everything he could. "Your mind is elsewhere!" I smiled. He looked at me for a long while before finally saying: "It's not always a good idea to wake a sleeping man." He added, looking down: "He may be dreaming."
After Primus had gone, I took out the mirror. She was sitting at her piano; her fingers seemed to be wandering idly over the keys. I tried to imitate her but no tune came. She had stopped, had turned towards the window and stayed like that, not moving. After a moment she turned back to the keyboard and played the same note several times over. I recognised the first note of the melody I had heard previously. I started to play it. She had broken off. A smile dawned on her lips. Finally she stood up gracefully and left her room.
This afternoon we were cycling towards the farm with the delicious free-range chickens, better than anything you could get anywhere else. August had spread calm over the countryside. The fields were resting after the effervescence of new life and the bustle of men's labour in the preceding months. The sun had become milder and the burning heat of July had diminished somewhat. The vivid and fresh colours of the leaves that covered the trees in spring had taken on a more majestic hue.
Not being on any errand, we had made a long detour to picnic near a shady river inhabited by a whole microcosm of darting fish, birds with different songs, dragonflies with transparent wings and those curious insects that scud across the surface of the water.
Shortly before reaching the river the track runs alongside gently sloping meadows; in the middle of the meadows, three or four humble stone dwellings remember the days when they were still tombs, before the cemetery was abandoned.
The first raspberries had arrived; they came from my garden to line the bottom of the pie we were sharing. The gentle rippling of the water made me think of a piece of music. Who had composed it?
The Poetess had thought of a piece that we knew better:
- What a shame the piano's so heavy, this would have made an ideal concert hall for our quintet; the birds would all have been there to listen to us!
- And perhaps to accompany us too! nodded Lark.
- Well, we'll just have to play a quintet with two cellos! exclaimed Primus.
And, turning to me:
- You've already done a bit of sawing on the Engineer's cello!
The Engineer said with a serious air:
- Especially as now we've got two cellos.
- What do you mean, two cellos? said his sister in surprise.
- Since mine has been sawn...
I broke in, with an equally serious air:
- We'd better stick it together; that way, we can play one cello with two bows.
The girls were already giggling. Primus, serious to the last, supported me:
- Especially as you've already played piano duets...
But he couldn't keep it up, overtaken by an irresistible urge to laugh. And with all our laughter, I think we even silenced the birds!
August was advancing; we had already reached the second day! The second day of farniente, too... Although we had nevertheless all made an early start on the quintet this morning.
The afternoon went by without us; we were far too busy doing nothing. A few friends came over to help us in our endeavours - or lack of them. The tennis court in Lark's garden remained empty of players. We just had enough courage to stretch out a hand for a cold drink or, for some, a nice cup of tea. Even eating biscuits seemed to require too much effort; left to their own devices, they were not doing anything either. Was it the heat that made us so sluggish? It was no hotter than it had been for the last few days. Or was it chance that no subject worthy of interest had come up? And as we were too busy doing nothing...
August was advancing; we had already reached the third day! Yes, but on that day we were far indeed, and no niente about it. And our bikes must have been sorry that we were not more sluggish, since they were given plenty of work to do. We went up hill and down dale - yes, that is how the saying goes, because there isn't much in the hill and dale line round where we live - to a tiny little township situated outside time. "Outside time? What do you mean, outside time?" I can hear you say. Be patient...
It was quite a long way, and although it was familiar I always get the impression of being far away; far from the place I come from, and from the one I'm going to. I don't get the same impression when I'm on the railway line; I don't get the same impression when I'm on the way to school. Those two roads know where they're going. If the railway line were to change, the train would leave the tracks; and nobody has taught it how to steer itself. If the school were to change, on what road would the pupils be supposed to lead their life? The way is long and I am far.
How did I manage to sustain a conversation the whole way? In any case, my absences were put down to my distractions. The former are certainly different from the latter, aren't they? Primus is concerned. What can I do about it?
Our road was coming to an end. Before us now stretched the barely perceptible hollow of a vast, rolling plain, one of the edges of which disappeared over the horizon. The other edge was a hill covered with a dark wood. Leaning against the last trees that had come down from the hill was the tiny little township situated outside time. Time does not count for the dead protected by the tombs that have formed the little township.
Lunch was served. Eel and cider pasties from Primus' kitchen were the star attraction, laid out on one of the tombs. Of course, you want the recipe... Here goes!
EEL AND CIDER PASTIES.
Pour the cider into a large bowl and add pieces of eel, finely chopped shallots, chervil, parsley and chive and peeled and diced potatoes. Season and leave to marinate for four hours. Make eight rounds of pastry, six to eight inches across. Divide the mixture between them and add a teaspoon of sour cream. Gather the pastry up, making a purse shape but leaving a little chimney. Pinch tightly and glaze, then cook for thirty to forty-five minutes. Serve hot or cold.
A comment without importance: we ate them cold!
We spoke of this and that, as usual. What else is there to talk about, after all? This time it was Lark's turn to be absent-minded. I jumped on the opportunity to point out the fact.
- What are you looking at so carefully?
She gestured towards the vast, rolling plain:
- Down there, you're defenceless; here, you're in a fortress.
- It's a bit late for the occupants here to be thinking about self-defence, observed the Engineer.
The Poetess gave a little frown:
- That's true for those who took everything they had with them.
- Like those who live in these fine houses, said Primus, pointing to the impressive tombs sunk in the greenery that surrounded the cemetery.
- Oh, you can take big things just as well as little ones; the question is whether they have taken everything.
- If they haven't taken anything, they have nothing to defend.
Lark gestured again towards the vast, rolling plain:
- Perhaps they're defending what got left down there.
- They'll have trouble trying to do that from here, observed the Engineer again.
He seemed to be so right that none of us came up with a retort to his observation.
We wandered among the tombs, which twining brambles had decorated with a modest but affectionate embroidery.
- They're down there...
Lark had said the words in a low voice, looking off into the distance. Primus gave her a startled glance:
- Down there, they have left what keeps people alive.
We said nothing. She went on in the same voice:
- They're down there. No-one can separate them from what they have left to others.
The morning had been spent in the company of our quintet, the afternoon was being spent in the company of tea and almond cake, lazing around in Lark's garden.
- We will never play as well as the birds sing... contradicted the Poetess.
- It's not the same thing; we're interpreting, protested her brother.
- That's just what I meant. The birds know what they've got to say; we want to speak in somebody else's place.
- We express feelings; we can express different feelings, broke in Primus; all the birds do is say what they've got to say.
- But you can hear when a bird's frightened, remarked Lark.
- That's what I meant, it expresses its fear and nothing else.
- We want to share our feelings with those who are listening to us.
Primus was not convinced:
- Our feelings or the composer's; the birds only speak of theirs.
- You can express your own feelings, went on the Poetess; but never other people's.
She added after a moment:
- You can only pretend to; and in that case, you can lie.
- You can also lie about your own feelings.
The Poetess shook her head:
- When I listen to a bird, I know it's him that I can hear. When I listen to a musician, I cannot know who I hear.
I turned sharply towards her:
- And if the musician plays his own works?
- The question seems clear, replied the Engineer; when a composer speaks, it's definitely him that you can hear.
- And can the composer also lie?
My question was followed by a long silence, broken by Lark:
- You mean that if the composer of our quintet is lying to us...?
She stopped, looking for words. The Poetess went on:
- In that case, the better we play, the more we play wrong.
- And if we play wrong, then we can't be playing right! finished off Primus ironically.
That evening I took out the mirror. She was sitting on her sofa, reading. I went to the piano and played her tune. She looked up from her book. I broke off, played notes at random, then got up and closed the lid. I looked at the mirror. She had put her book down on the little table and was hurrying out of the room. The furniture had changed. The piano was no longer there.
One of Primus' cousins had invited him over for the day. "Bring your friend, we'll go for a bike ride", he had added.
Cousin was a bit older than us and had passed his driving test. As he lived some way away from our little town, he had come to fetch us in his father's car. There were bikes at his house, we did not need to take our own.
The way there held no surprises, we all knew it well. And yet our viewpoints diverged, insofar as for cousin our roads were too flat whereas for us his roads were too hilly. "At least where I live we can race!" he said. To which we replied: "And where we live we can idle along and chat!" Apparently irreconcilable viewpoints, but they did not stop us from racing him!
The village where cousin lived was a lot smaller than our little town, and yet its massive houses built one against the other gave the definite impression of a real capital. Not of a country, perhaps, but nevertheless of a land to which it had evidently once been closely attached.
One of the massive houses took us in. We had arrived just before midday. Primus' uncle and aunt welcomed us with their usual warmth. Lunch was waiting.
In accordance with what nephew must have been thinking, aunt asked the ritual question:
- How are your holidays?
In accordance with what nephew must have been thinking, uncle asked the other ritual question:
- How's school?
And the answer to both questions was:
Only joking! Aunt talked about her garden, the neighbours, a play, a planned trip; uncle talked about his business, his competitors, a film, a planned trip. Although neither of them said so, it was definitely the same trip.
The coffee éclair for dessert was delicious; their baker's coffee éclairs always are. Aunt knows that Primus and I love those particular pastries and always makes sure to get us some.
Uncle told us that when he was young, he enjoyed going on bike rides: "We could have races!" he added with a smile that came from the past.
En route! And we were off. The main road leading out of the village is featureless. Fortunately, it is also short.
Now we were cycling along a winding road that skirted the occasional coppice, playing at hide and seek with the first hills. Beside a stream, a hamlet; or rather, a couple of farms. After the hamlet, the road started to climb. First to the top, of course! At the top of the hill, fields of redcurrant bushes as far as the eye could see. "I'll give you some jam, it's very good!" said the cousin, who knew the farmer. The hill decided to descend. Just below the crest, a graveyard looked down into the valley.
A little village. I knew the road and the village, but each time I was just as surprised by the houses. Most of the houses in our part of the world are brick; these are made of stone, big, solid stones. Here, when you go through a village, it's like going through a town; a town that's been there for a very long time.
The road continued its descent. We were now heading for the meadows. Of course there are meadows round where we live, here and there, sometimes even with two or three cows in them. The meadows that I could see here followed in procession along the road, full of the kind of lush, tufty grass that we don't have. And cows!... To your heart's content!
Another little village - an austere settlement in the middle of the fields, made of the same big, solid stones. Another hill - First to the top again! And woods... that stretched peacefully over the hillside. And hedgerows!... thick hedges with brambles, stems and leaves, and on the brambles those pretty blossoms that make the mouth water with their promise of the first blackberries...
There's none of all that where I live. If I had seen the sight on a screen, like at the cinema for example, how could I have known whether what I was seeing was real? Yes, I know, someone would have told me, and then someone else; and my geography teacher too. And I would have known that it was real. Without having been there myself.
The hills were behind us now. Ahead, a vast plain. Not really like where we live, but the difference is unimportant. Two worlds. The frontier? A stream.
The stream does not run fast. The current, in passing, strokes long tresses of greenery. Big willows protect the stream from the heat of the sun.
We too had taken advantage of the shade to rest awhile beside the stream and enjoy the snack we had brought with us. What snack? The famous coffee éclairs, of course, that we would devour whenever we came to visit!
The cousin was going to be a history teacher. He talked about it with passion:
- What a pity that we can't travel back in time and live in the past for a while!
- That's usually a child's dream, remarked Primus.
- Children are curious, which isn't always the case with grown-ups.
- And yet it is the grown-ups who study history. At school, for children, it's often just an unpleasant obligation.
- Sometimes there's nobody to bring the past to life for them.
- I reckon that if the text books are well-written... started Primus.
- Books don't show anything; they merely repeat what people have said.
- And the further back you go in the past, the less you can be sure of what they actually did say!
- What is written is permanent; whether in the past or in the present.
- No doubt, but books were not always written at the time things happened, pointed out the cousin.
- You mean that in that case it's no longer the book that tells us about the past.
- Books don't just appear, someone has to write them; it comes to the same thing, observed Primus.
- So what matters is the credibility of the witness.
The cousin nodded:
- What matters most is whether the witness has told the truth.
- You can never be sure about that.
- One could even say that people often lie when it suits them, added Primus.
- In that case what is the point of studying the past if it is only the one that people have constructed to suit them?
- And yet there are cases where you can be sure of the truth, said the cousin; like if a lot of witnesses all say the same thing.
We both allowed the value of the argument. And yet I had the feeling there was something else. I asked the cousin:
- You said it is possible to bring books to life.
- Yes, that's what I think.
- Which means that something that does not exist can have life.
He made a quick gesture of impatience:
- Having life doesn't mean...
He hesitated, trying to find the right word. Primus came to his aid:
- Those who are no longer here live through their words, we have already talked about it.
- How do you mean? enquired the cousin.
We told him about our discussion in the cemetery. He seemed satisfied:
- That's what I meant. Those who are no longer here are still part of our life; they can enlighten us, help us, influence us, through their words and by their example.
- In a nutshell, they are alive for us but we are not alive for them.
The cousin hesitated. I went on:
- They can affect our life, but we cannot affect theirs.
- So they're only half alive! exclaimed Primus, half laughing.
Back from our bike ride, we found dinner waiting.
In accordance with what nephew must have been thinking, uncle asked the ritual question:
- Did you have a good time?
In accordance with what nephew must have been thinking, aunt asked the other ritual question:
- Are you hungry?
And the ritual answer to both questions was:
- Oh, yes!
Only joking! Uncle wanted to go over the bike ride with us, aunt wanted us to be happy.
I am not poking fun, as it seems obvious that I must be. No, uncle and aunt wanted to show us that they shared our life, each in their own way. What they said to us was hardly original; but when you try to be original, is it for the pleasure of the person listening or for your own? Both; yes, both, certainly. But when you want to show someone you love them, do you have time to think of being original?
Cousin had brought us back after dinner. So I got home very late.
Once in my room, I did some tidying up. When you tidy up, is it to stop things from sticking to you? I wasn't particularly sleepy, but having nothing better to do I started heading for bed. I don't know what made me stop. I halted in mid-step, not knowing... Oh yes I did, I knew perfectly well. I wanted to take out the mirror. But at this time of night... she would certainly have been asleep for hours. Having reviewed all the reasons for not taking out the mirror, I did so.
She was there, sitting on a plain wooden chair, looking down, holding a book that she wasn't reading. Around her, the room was empty.
I stayed still for a long while, looking at her. She did not move. I found myself at the piano, without knowing how I got there. The lid was up, which surprised me because I usually left it down. I played her tune, twice. I turned; she was smiling. Almost straight away she stood up and left her room with the calm, easy step I recognised. Her room was once more full of its usual furniture. Her piano was open.
Sunday. Some of my parents' friends have come to lunch. My parents often have friends to lunch on Sunday. I like it when there are people. Today there are eight of them including my parents. With me, that makes nine.
When there are people, the conversation is varied. There's no need to worry about getting bored with a subject that goes on for too long. The subjects change before anyone has to really think about them. Comments about nothing in particular give the mind a rest, bring it back to what's on the table. It's what's known as a lively meal.
I generally make a lively contribution to lively meals. Today, while making a lively contribution, I feel something the cause of which I do not understand; there are too many people.
At Lark's. No quintet this morning. We have meandered from trio to quartet, Lark has sung, Primus has played his party piece on the piano; all of them things already known beforehand, or at least as well as we knew how.
It's pleasant to stroll through music; feelings are free, untroubled by the quest for perfection.
- All those mistakes! deplored the Poetess.
- If I understand aright, commented Primus, we only play properly when we are rehearsing our quintet.
- I suppose you say quintet... began the Engineer.
- Yes, that's right; today it's this one, yesterday it was that one.
I proffered an explanation:
- A thing is only done while you're doing it.
My explanation must have been somewhat less than limpid since the others looked at me inquiringly, though without a word. I realised that my explanation was somewhat less than limpid to me too. I was wondering how I could explain my explanation when Lark broke into my thoughts.
- A fine tautology indeed; and yet that's what happens when we're rehearsing. We don't yet know what the composer means. Our rehearsal is really a searching.
- And a finding, added the Poetess.
I sketched a little smile:
- Since my tautologies are so fine...
Primus broke in with a laugh:
- You mean you're lucky Lark got you out of it!
I pretended not to have heard:
- When a thing is done, it no longer remains to be done.
The Engineer seemed interested:
- We may deduce that when a thing has been done, all that remains is to use it.
- That's not telling us very much, declared Primus; when a train has been built, all that remains is to get on it, that's obvious!
- How do you know where it's going?
My question seemed to take him by surprise. He chose irony:
- Not easy. First, you have to learn how to read, which takes a few years - and in the language of the country you're in; then, you have to find the signs which show which way the train is going, and then you have to read them.
- And if there are no signs?
He rounded on me:
- You're doing it on purpose. You...
He suddenly broke off, then, in a slightly anxious tone of voice that he tried to make funny, said:
- If you're on a moving train and notice that it's going in the wrong direction, just don't jump off!
- And what if the station it's going to is even more dangerous?
It was Lark who answered:
- As long as you're on the train you can't know.
This afternoon, Primus and I went to a school friend's to play cards.
Cards seem just as odd to me as when I first discovered them, when I was about six. To win you have to play well, which means thinking clearly. But cards are random and, however clearly you think, if the cards are bad you can't win, whatever you do. And the winner gets all the plaudits and the loser is despised. Why? What did he do wrong? I said to myself, when I was about six.
This morning, down to work. The quintet awaited us. When we stopped at a double bar, Primus commented sarcastically:
- I don't know what the Engineer was on about the day before yesterday, but I reckon we make just as many mistakes after rehearsing as before!
I said in a slightly mocking tone:
- The mistakes probably aren't as valuable!
- He also said that when a thing is done, all that remains is to use it, remarked Lark; and we're using what we have rehearsed.
The Poetess likewise said in a slightly mocking tone:
- And how do we use the mistakes we have made?
It was the Engineer who answered:
- There's no mystery there; when you make a mistake, you try not to make it again.
- Or to forget it at the same time as you hear it.
Lark's suggestion did not meet with the Poetess's approval:
- So why do you try so hard to play the right notes?
- Perhaps because when I rehearse I'm listening to the composer and when I play...
As she tried to find what to say, Primus picked up:
- You wonder whether you're listening to yourself or to the music.
The repeat beckoned. The bows were waiting patiently, occasionally making gentle little movements to pass the time. The piano... A fleeting image of her piano passed before my eyes. What was she playing? Was she playing? I suddenly wanted...
Primus was standing over me.
- We're waiting... he went on.
I bit my lip, nodded vigorously and played the first few notes of the repeat.
- We've been working hard; would you rather stop? he asked.
- No, absolutely not! I replied firmly.
My fingers went back to the keyboard. The quintet was under way again. I tried not to make any mistakes.
The market dozed this Thursday. August was entering its pomp and the heat, now heavy, heralded the storms that precede the milder weather of late summer.
Right at the top of the high street, the beguiling scent of carrots still whetted the appetite. The carrots were not alone. Peas nestling in their succulently fresh green pods, pot-bellied aubergines glinting deep purple, scarlet tomatoes that you couldn't see without being overwhelmed by a desire to feel them melting in your mouth; to say nothing of the heavy melons, the velvet-painted peaches, the plums that already held out the promise of jams to come...
Meetings with schoolmates who had come like us to stroll around before lunch. Arrangements to go here or there, to this one's or that one's. We spoke briefly about the heavy heat, at length about the big mid-August fair due to be held in our little town. An important fair, the biggest in the region. Lots of people were expected from all around. Friends from the villages in the nearby countryside were expected - what fun we were going to have!
And this afternoon? What should we do? The quintet? No, not today, it was too hot and heavy. Discussions. Nothing seemed to fire our imagination. So? "Why on earth do we absolutely have to decide what to do?" exclaimed Primus. His proposal was adopted unanimously. This afternoon we will do nothing! See you later, at the Poetess and her brother's house.
So this afternoon, settled in the garden, we were doing nothing.
- Doing nothing is doing something... began Primus.
I interrupted him immediately:
- Don't start! If we've been over it once, we've been over it a thousand times.
- Yes, but we've never got as far as saying that doing and not doing come to the same thing.
- Fascinating! Might as well play cards!
The Engineer pricked up his ears:
- Cards? Primus will be pleased with that outcome; we'll...
His sister cut him off:
- And we won't!
- You're right, nodded Lark; and it will come to the same thing!
- So I'm right then! exclaimed Primus triumphantly.
- I note, however, noted the Engineer, that being right and being wrong come to the same thing!
The conversation - if that is what it could be called - petered out into the grass we were sitting on. Silence reigned. I would not suppose for a moment that we were giving any thought to the arguments - if that is what they could be called - that we had just set out.
In the meantime the Poetess had got up and was coming back from the house.
- There will be at least one outcome: tea will soon be ready!
Primus looked at her enquiringly. She smiled:
- Yes, don't worry, there's an almond cake!
- You see, I said jokingly, you were wrong; if the cake...
He broke in laughing:
- Don't give us to believe that you are so naive as to suppose that I would combine philosophy with an almond cake!
We all laughed.
During dinner I took a lively part in the conversation - yes, this time it was a proper conversation. "Finish your sentence then! What did you mean?" What did I mean?... Why had my mother asked me that? Oh yes, that's right! I had started to say something... I couldn't remember what... I wriggled my way out of it.
Back in my room I opened my piano and started playing my part of the quintet - two or three pages. Then, after running a finger over the keyboard, I played her tune three times. I stopped... then took out the mirror.
She was at her piano, close by the window. She was playing my part of the quintet.
Lark's garden was full of noise. People were talking, shouting, laughing, dancing; tennis balls thwacked on the court.
- I won! the resolute boy told us.
- Anyone got a laurel wreath? called the girl with forget-me-not eyes, laughing.
- There are some bay leaves in the kitchen! joked Lark.
Disdaining a wreath, the resolute boy made do with a large glass of orange squash.
- It's strange how something can be a symbol and also used for cooking, remarked a girl with an habitually pensive look.
- Symbols nourish the life of the mind, declared a boy with an habitually intellectual look.
- Do they also nourish real life? asked Primus with veiled sarcasm.
- The symbol is to reality what mind is to matter, replied the intellectual boy magisterially.
One of the girls in earshot of the seminar gaped and, catching a passing boy by the arm, said:
- Come on, let's dance!
Yet the seminar continued:
- Do you mean that the reality depends on the symbol? enquired the Engineer.
- That's a well-known subject, broke in the pensive girl; does mind depend on matter?
- It's a question I don't think anyone has finally answered, observed the resolute boy.
- Our life depends on our ideas, just as matter is fashioned by mind, said the intellectual boy.
Two of the boys in the group headed off towards the tennis court after exchanging a pitying look.
The girl with forget-me-not eyes nodded:
- My life depends much more on my parents' and teachers' ideas!
The weather had become even heavier. "There'll be a storm tomorrow", Lark had said. We had not contradicted her.
We cycled unhurriedly through the countryside, as was our custom when there was nothing in particular we wanted to do. The quintet could wait. We had worked hard on it over the past few days and there was no harm in giving it a rest, quite the opposite in fact.
We were on a road that we did not often take, perhaps because fewer of our friends lived on that side of our little town.
The hills were higher here and when we got to the top we could see long valleys that resembled undulating carpets spread over the earth.
In the far distance of one of the valleys, a mirage; surrounded by a desert that the fields, all alike after their passage under the scythe, seemed to have created, a majestic town rose, impalpable, unreal, surrounded by a long wall. As we approached, the mirage faded. The houses of the town were no longer there; they had made way for great tombs. The cemetery of the neighbouring town stood before us.
Sunday. Lark was right; a violent storm broke shortly after midnight. I had got up and was looking through the window at the garden, lit by long, shattered lightning flashes that made the raindrops glisten. Was there a storm in her garden too? I took out the mirror. She was at her window, looking at her garden. Only a slight radiance, like a moonbeam, gently illuminated her room.
We were shoving the wood, Primus and I. He was playing well, I was playing badly.
- Your mind's elsewhere, he said.
- I'm thinking about the fair...
- You're not thinking about the fair.
- I'm thinking about your next move...
- You're not thinking about my next move.
- I'm thinking...
- You're not even thinking.
I said nothing.
- It's not that I want to know your secret, I just want to break down your solitude.
- I'm not alone; you...
I fell silent.
- You're not alone, you're solitary.
- If I'm not alone, I can't be solitary.
- Don't try and get out of it. You're not alone because I'm here, and our friends; you're solitary because you want to shut yourself away...
- I don't want to shut myself away, I don't! If I knew what to say, I would tell you.
That evening, I took out the mirror. She was at her desk but, unlike her usual position, she had her back to the window. She was writing, I thought. She was wearing dark clothes, strict, like when you're on a visit. The furniture was not the same; severe, intended for a study, a place of work, a boy's rather than a girl's. I did not move. After a moment she got up, stared at the desk for a long while, then left with a slow but sure step. I looked. The desk, which was not the one at which she usually sat, had changed place slightly and was now right next to the window. On the table, a drawing. I couldn't really make it out because as usual what I could see was not stable. However, I thought I could distinguish two people facing each other, who could well be boys. One of them had put his hand on the other's shoulder.
Tuesday the fifteenth of August. The great day had arrived: the day of the fair. Since yesterday, since the day before yesterday, our little town had been abuzz. Roundabouts were being erected, air-rifles cleaned, dodgem cars polished; field kitchens were being set up in booths and trestle tables put out. Friends called out to one another: "Will you be there? Don't forget to come! I'll be there, definitely!" And the girls and boys of our age were not the only ones to feel the expectation. The children - we no longer being children, of course! - were even more excited than us; since yesterday, since the day before yesterday, they had been prowling around the carousels, sliding stealthily onto a horse or into a plane under the knowing eyes of the fairground people. All the parents were saying that they wouldn't miss the fair for anything. Yesterday, before our game of chess, the agitation had reached its peak. The circus had come to our little town, ending up with a parade down the high street. The band could be heard everywhere - probably, I think, for miles around, as the saying goes. The tumblers and clowns passed by, the former almost dancing as they walked, the latter grinning at the children, who laughed fit to burst. The whole of Noah's ark poured down the street. Proud white horses in golden harness led the way, announcing the morrow's festivity with their neighing; dogs in red ribbons, running in strict order, barked in counterpoint to the band; a camel with a look of perpetual astonishment, ridden by a monkey that basked between its two humps, delighted the children; and a bored-looking donkey listened distractedly to a goat that was telling it a shaggy dog story.
The fun was due to begin straight after lunch and would last until late into the night. When I arrived at the vast fairground, Primus and Lark were already there, eating candy-floss.
- Want some? he asked.
I did not have time to answer. Lark was already holding out the stick she had just ordered for me:
- Of course he does! He likes at as much as you do, she said to her friend.
Our noses in the candy-floss, we went off to take our chance.
Everyone from our school was there, taking their chance like us. Even the boy with an habitually intellectual look, beside a girl dressed all in white, seemed preoccupied by no weightier speculation than guessing the number that would decide whether he won or lost on the multicoloured wheel that turned and clicked: "Your guess, your guess!" it murmured. His number came up; the girl in white clapped her hands.
- I hope the camel gets to the other side of the desert before she dies of thirst! joked Primus, pointing at the placid animal placidly plodding across the fairground, a little girl on its back.
The Engineer and his sister had seen us and were coming towards us.
- The circus starts in an hour! cried the Poetess from afar.
The hour passed quickly. Of course, there were many more sideshows than in the nearby villages, but they were generally of the same type: merry-go-rounds, dodgems, games of skill, soft toys to win - the girl with forget-me-not eyes was cuddling her teddy bear with the affection it deserved, albeit temporarily. And then, the circus was so uppermost in people's minds that they had little excess ardour to lavish on the customary attractions.
The hour had passed. The time had come.
Under the big top, the stars that twinkled in the firmament were not those of deepest night but of enchantment. The children were holding their breath; their Ah!... would not be heard until the proud white horses in their golden harness stepped into the ring.
An arithmetic lesson! Have you ever seen children get excited about arithmetic? No? Well, come and see them at the circus, then! They are all gripped, the smallest counting on their fingers; and with such enthusiasm! But why? you may well ask, taken aback; they've come to the circus to have fun, not to work! Yes, but you haven't seen the donkey, you haven't seen the goat... What of it? you may say. What of it? It's perfectly simple. Someone whispers two numbers into the donkey's ear - very loudly, so that everyone can hear; and he has to add them up! How? It's perfectly simple. The donkey taps out the answer with his hoof on a drum. What about the goat? you may ask. The goat! It's perfectly simple; it checks the answer! How? By nodding its head if the answer is right and shaking its head if it's wrong. What's that? You have nothing more to say? You're quite right; do like the children and clap!
The show must go on! The show never stops!
The audience has shivered. A gracious acrobat has launched into flight from the trapeze where she had been perching like a bird. Yes, but she isn't a bird. Oh yes she is! For another bird, swinging on another perch, has come to mingle his wings with hers. And there they are, the two of them, lit by a joyful smile, blowing kisses to the crowd from the dizzy heights of their eyrie!
The show must go on! The show never stops!
Who was that man there, in the ring? You had to see with the heart and not the eyes to make him out in the rainbow covered in golden stars that had just appeared! It was a clown.
The children were already laughing; they knew that the clown was supposed to make them laugh, with laughter that would bring them joy and happiness. Why were they laughing? What can you do but laugh when you're confronted with someone you don't know, someone who is lower than you are, someone who stands powerless before you? How delightful is his misfortune to those who believe it will never touch them!
The clown had come for another reason. He had come to teach the children emotion, that emotion called pity at misfortune, misfortune which here in this ring went by the name of ridicule; pity for people who are not that which they may have wished to be and who are quite simply incapable, whatever they do. "Don't play the clown!" - "Have you finished clowning around?" you often hear. Do those who say it realise - no, of course they don't - that they kill pity?
The clown makes people laugh. What would he not give to have his pity shared?
The show must go on! The show never stops!
The show was over. A dream world faded and imperceptibly gave way to reality. The children stayed where they were, unmoving, eyes wide, and in their eyes I could see the mingled images of the show, still alive but gradually fading. We would all have to wait for next year now...
The morning was spent at Lark's with the quintet. Little by little, we were starting to feel relatively satisfied with the outcome of our efforts.
- It's not perfect yet... started Lark.
- Because you reckon it will be one day? broke in the Poetess.
- What I meant is that now we can listen to our music and not just work on it.
- What matters is the pleasure we get out of it, whether working or listening, expounded the Engineer.
- The question is, is one of those pleasures greater than the other? declared Primus.
I chipped in:
- They are different kinds of pleasure. One is a question, the other an answer; the question won't leave you easy, the answer will.
- Only if it's right! protested the Poetess.
- It'll leave you easy even if it's wrong...
- That's going a bit far! exclaimed the Engineer.
- Not at all; even a wrong answer satisfies the question. After that, there's nothing more to be said; there has to be another question.
- So the answer we seek when we're working on our quintet...
I interrupted her:
- Do we know what it will bring us?
After a moment's silence, Primus turned to me:
- You want to know...
He left his sentence unfinished. No-one said anything. And I had no idea what to say...
Lunchtime was approaching. What should we do this afternoon? The Engineer suggested a long bike ride, with something good for our tea. "It'll give us a rest from our profundities!" he added, half-joking, half-serious.
So here we were, riding through the countryside. The weather had cleared after the previous Sunday's storm and we could appreciate the sunshine of the fine summer's day all the more. Low hills, more numerous in this direction, followed one another, giving relief to the landscape. From time to time we would cycle through a hamlet in the middle of which a couple of geese or half a dozen ducks would watch us pass, unconcerned and unmoved. In one of them, we wanted to stop and say hello to one of our mates who lived there. But he wasn't there, and nor was anyone else. A neighbour told us that they had all gone off to see friends in a nearby village. Too bad! We headed off again on a path which ran by a vegetable patch that was also where they had their family grave. The hamlet's old graveyard had been abandoned long since and was now reduced to a few headstones scattered about in the dense undergrowth. As tea-time was approaching, we decided to eat our good things in what we called a garden.
The garden was in the middle of fields and meadows. A thick, low hedge allowed us to see all around without hindrance while giving us the impression of not being separated from the countryside. Some cows which came to pay us a visit over the hedge - viewing only, of course - strengthened that impression. Leaning against the hedge, solitary in the countryside, a gravestone. We were in a graveyard.
The last apples from Lark's orchard graced our tea-time tart.
- Half the holidays gone already... said Primus regretfully.
We must all have felt the same regret since, other than a little sigh from the Poetess, no other comment was to be heard.
The silence went on, the apple tart providing quite enough in the way of conversation. But the Engineer probably thought himself obliged to say:
- But at school...
But his sister would let him go no further:
- Watch it, kids, we're going to be in for a maths lesson!
The kids cried: "No!" - "No way!" - "I'm off!" - "Let me out of here!"
The Engineer smoothed things over... in his own way:
- You do maths every day, you just don't realise it!
- Well then, that's the way we'd like it to stay! snapped his sister.
But there was no apple tart left.
And the Engineer wasn't going to leave the matter there:
- There are some for whom school would be holiday!
A surprised silence. Primus enquired:
- If you're not kidding, tell us what you mean.
- Those who seek.
- Those who seek? Who do you mean exactly? insisted Lark.
The Engineer pointed to me:
- He's the one you should ask.
- What are you on about? You're the one who...
But the Engineer smiled calmly:
- You said this morning, didn't you, that work was a question that won't leave you easy...
I pondered. The Poetess cried:
- School is where I work! Is that what you call holiday?
The Engineer went on smiling:
- At school, it's your teacher who works, looking for what he will have you learn.
Lark, frowning, remarked:
- If it's all the same to you, I work when I do my homework.
- That's not working; that's showing your teachers that they've done their work properly by having you learn what they had been looking for.
- However elegantly you phrase it, objected Primus, surely you can't say that I take it easy at school?
- That's not for me to say, it's for him, said the Engineer, pointing to me again.
I realised what he had been getting at:
- School is the answer; it leaves you easy.
Now the sun no longer stayed until after dinner time. This evening, my room was dark. The mirror, in front me, did not leave me easy. She was standing at her window, looking out into her garden. Her garden... I was in front of her, I could not be in her garden. She had just waved, doubtless to someone in her garden. This evening, my room was dark. On her side, the lights weren't on; the sun lit the whole room brightly. She gave another little wave. Instinctively, as though she were before me, I waved back. Her face remained attentive, her eyes seemed to seek something in front of her. I waved again. Her position did not change. She continued to seek. After a moment she left the window and went to sit at her piano. The lid was down. She opened it slowly and brought her hands back without setting them on the keys. She stayed motionless, staring at the keyboard. Her tune... I could hear her tune. And then another one, very short; a tune that my ears did not hear. I went to the piano, it was open again. I played the tune twice. I turned to the mirror. She was playing. She was playing the tune. I could recognise it from the movement of her fingers, though I could not hear her piano. At last she got up, glanced over towards the window, gave a long smile and went out with her easy, calm step.
My uncle and aunt had invited us, Primus and me, to spend a couple of days in their house not far from the sea. "My daughter will be happy to go for walks with you", my aunt had said.
My father took us to a station not too far from our little town, and from there we took a train that got us to our destination at around eleven o'clock.
The house was surrounded by meadows; my uncle, my aunt and their daughter welcomed us on the front step. Kisses. Lunch. Exchanges of news about our respective families. How is Primus? How is our music going? School, health...
- Where were you thinking of going this afternoon? asked my aunt.
I was a bit embarrassed. I turned to my cousin:
- My friend hasn't seen...
- ... the sea from the cliff top! she finished off, laughing.
She went on, addressing Primus:
- Go ahead. It's lovely, you'll see. I've already been but I'm always a bit scared, it's a bit high.
- We can always go somewhere else...
- No, no, broke in my cousin, smiling; we'll have plenty of time to go for a walk tomorrow. I'll show you other places that are just as lovely, but not quite as close to the sky!
Primus protested again, but in vain.
The cliffs were about an hour's ride from the house by little roads on which we met few other people.
- Is that it, the cliff? Primus asked me with a note of anxiety in his voice.
We had come to a broad expanse of tousled, wind-blown grass from which the sea was not to be seen.
- Keep your eyes on the horizon; it's not far. It's there, I answered with a reassuring smile.
He pulled a face and set off.
Indeed it wasn't far, but the path was so bumpy that we had to push our bikes, which obviously delayed our arrival at the cliff's edge. Primus kept a cautious expression. Suddenly:
- The sea!... he exclaimed.
He had come to a halt near the cliff edge and was staring.
It was the first time he had seen the sea other than in a picture.
You can't sail on a picture.
- It's amazing! I've already seen the sea...
He halted for a while:
- ... but not like that!
We stayed for a long while, admiring the blue of the sky and the motionless movement of the sea on which we could see tiny sailing boats and an imposing ferry taking passengers out, and listening to the high-pitched screams of the elegant gulls which soared in calm and powerful flight along the cliffs and then plunged silently to snatch a fish in the wave-tops.
Primus, who like me was not afraid of heights, wanted to sit on the cliff top with his legs hanging over the edge. I convinced him not to:
- Sometimes a whole section of the cliff can suddenly crumble away; it doesn't happen often, but it's better not to get too close to the edge.
He made an expansive gesture towards the sea:
- I can understand your cousin; it's like she said, close to the sky!
And we went to sit down on the grass, a bit further off but still close enough to continue contemplating the sea.
- What is there at the sea's end?
Did my question surprise Primus as much as it had surprised me? He answered slowly:
- It used to be Hades' dwelling; now it's other people's.
- People like us?
He looked at me for a long while:
- Is that what you want to know?
- I can't know unless I go there.
- Like jumping off a moving train?
- You want to leave the road and head off into the fields?
I said nothing. He waited. I went on:
- If I head off into the fields...
I broke off for a moment:
- ...I know that I'll be able to get out of them again.
- If you didn't know, would you do like on the cliff?
- On the cliff, I know what can happen; in the fields, apart from what's been sown there, I don't know what can come out of the earth.
We stayed for a long time without speaking. Were we looking to the sea's end? I felt Primus' hand on my shoulder. I thought about the drawing...
My cousin knows all the lanes and paths around and, whenever I had been there before, she had shown me new ones. The path she had chosen for today's walk was another one I did not know. I was already used to the verdant countryside, so different from the countryside where I lived, but I had never before felt myself so enfolded in greenery. Where we lived the weather had been hot and dry, apart from the storm the previous Sunday, but that had not been the case here. The wind off the sea had often brought showers - I would actually call it rain - which had caused forests of bushes to spring from the earth, forming the hedges that submerged our path.
Emerging from the path, the sky reappeared. The dew which covered the high grass glistened in the soft August light. On every side we were surrounded by meadows. Yes, I know, but there really were that many! Every time I came, I could hardly believe my eyes. Where were the fields?
Apparently Primus was as surprised as I was.
- Don't you have any fields? he asked my cousin naively.
She laughed her clear and merry girl's laugh:
- And I know there aren't any meadows where you live!
She looked thoughtful:
- It must be sad...
- Sad? said Primus, astonished.
- Yes, there are no cows in the pasture.
- There's wheat...
- Wheat isn't alive.
- It is for us, we can see it grow.
- Yes, but can you talk to it?
Primus was even more surprised:
- You talk to the cows?
My cousin smiled:
- Yes, and they talk to me too.
- How do you mean?
- When I call them, they come and tell me they're happy to see me. Town people say they moo.
She smiled again:
- I would rather say they talk.
There were cows everywhere. I had seen them, of course, but I don't think I had really noticed them.
- They're not yet ready to eat!
My cousin had noticed that Primus was looking with interest at the little apples hanging from the spreading trees of a large orchard that ran alongside our path. Disappointment on the part of one who every year waited impatiently for the apple harvest.
But... from the bottom of the orchard a farmer's wife came towards us.
- Good morning, young lady! The apples are still small but I picked some yesterday. I'll bring them over later on.
- My first apples of the year! exclaimed Primus, pleased as Punch.
While waiting, sitting in a meadow that the cows had obligingly vacated for us - having eaten all the grass first - we enjoyed, with good appetite, the good things my cousin had brought with her for our picnic. Potted meat for some, sausage for the others - it's true, there were only three of us - and a shower of shrimp for everyone. Then cheese for those who were still hungry - actually, I don't think any of us was, but they were so good! So no apples, then? What do you mean, no apples! What about cider?
- I'm glad you came, confided my cousin between two mouthfuls. I love walking the lanes.
- Don't you ever...
- It's no fun when you're on your own, she broke in, and my friends prefer the beach.
- Don't you like going to the beach?
- I get bored on the beach...
Perking up, she went on:
- But I like the sea: shrimping, collecting jackknives...
Primus couldn't believe his ears:
- Jackknives?... You find knives in the sea?...
Our bewilderment made her burst out laughing.
- No, no, she said, still chuckling, jackknives are long, flat shellfish that you can find in the sand at low tide.
And, licking her lips, she said:
- They're really good...
She went on brightly:
- They're really funny...
- Isn't that a bit rich? said Primus.
- Not at all. I'll tell you. The jackknives are buried in the sand. You take some salt and spread it around you. They think the tide is coming in and come out. Then all you have to do is gather them!
It was a tempting idea. My cousin went on:
- There are too many people around in the summer, it's no fun. Come back in September when they've all gone.
We made the date with enthusiasm and were still thinking about it in the train on the way back, Primus and I, watching the sun set in the distance, in the sea.
- Come on, we're waiting!
Primus, I think it was him, had... Oh yes, it was my lead... I glanced at the music; we must be there... I started up again. The quintet carried on. We played almost the whole afternoon.
This morning, I had taken out the mirror. She wasn't there. The room was entirely empty of furniture. The walls were bare.
Sunday. Primus and Lark had gone... I can't remember where... Lunch with my parents. I was probably rather taciturn - Primus would certainly say I was distracted - because I merely answered the questions my parents asked, I think, now and then, about the conversation, I mean the usual conversation, nothing special... "Are you tired after the journey?" my mother had doubtless asked. My father had probably said... In all events, he seemed satisfied with what he had said. The lunch was good, we had... I can't remember, but it was good. My mother seemed happy with the compliments I paid her. My father was surprised: "For once that you actually notice what you're eating!" I dissertated on what I had found good... what was it, then? I remember, it was good.
I spent the afternoon reading. I had gone back to my text books. But I had nothing to learn. "I'm on holiday!" I told myself several times. I came across a maths problem that I had had trouble with the previous year. I started to do it again. There was no point, since now I knew how to solve it. I went through the whole problem. There was no point, since now I knew how to solve it. I took up a book again... but did not read it...
The piano lid was down. I went and opened it and then sat back down in my chair. I went to the window to look at my garden. The flowers were in bloom but did not have the same tenderness as in June. June... I was at school... June... It was hot and the air was fresh. June... it had started on the first day. I could see her in the mirror. Sitting at her desk, an open geography book to her left, she was writing; homework, I suppose.
I fell quiet. The silence would come. The silence would... I recognised the note. It was a single note but I recognised. I found myself at the piano... The first note of her tune, her very short tune of last Wednesday. I did not dare touch the keys. The note came again, louder. I played the tune. I played the tune and the mirror was before me. In the vase where I often saw flowers there were grasses, meadow grasses. She was there, at her window, she was smiling.
This morning, I read. A novel. A novel has characters. They have a look, they have a personality, they do things, they think, they know each other, they have feelings; they live.
They live together, they live for themselves; they do not live for me. I cannot cross into the page of the book I am reading. I can only imagine their lives from what I read. They do not exist. Why do they exist in my head? How do they exist in my head?
Is it only while I am reading? What happens when I close my book? Do they disappear? No, they can't, because I find them again, intact, when I reopen my book. What were they doing while the book was closed?
What was Primus doing? I did not know, I will never know. I can ask him tomorrow: "What were you doing yesterday at ten oh three?" He won't be able to tell me, he won't know what he was doing "yesterday at ten oh three". He will doubtless say: "I was in such and such a place with Lark". I knew he was with Lark. But did I really know? He had told me he would be. He will tell me he was, let us suppose. I will have to trust. Trust him? Or me? Him, Primus, I can touch. When he is there; only when he is there.
This afternoon I took my bike and went off. I knew all the little roads and at each turning I found the one I expected. Were they waiting for me to come by in order to reappear? I started to laugh... Whether I came by or not, they were there. I knew it! I knew it!
Where was she when she wasn't in the mirror?
Today at Lark's. The same as usual. The same...? The same boys and girls, the same occupations.
- The ritual question is: "Why is it boring to keep on doing the same thing?"
Primus continued our customary game, which I had started:
- The other ritual question is: "Why is it pleasant to keep on doing the same thing?"
- And the ritual answer to both questions is: "We don't know!"
- What are you on about? said the Engineer; the answer, whether it's ritual or not, is that we don't like doing one thing and we do like doing the other!
Primus was untroubled:
- We like playing tennis...
- ...but not all the time! finished off the Poetess.
- You see, your sister gets it, said Primus snidely to her brother.
Who was not in the least disarmed:
- I get it too: what we don't like doesn't bore us all the time!
The boy with an habitually intellectual look declared magisterially:
- All that suggests the need for a more detailed analysis.
Needless to say, a small desert had formed around our colloquium; there were so many more tempting things in Lark's garden.
However, the girl with an habitually pensive look had not deserted:
- Things we don't like can start to please us.
- Yes, but only after they have become pleasant, observed the intellectual boy.
- No doubt, but it's still the same thing.
After a moment's silence, Lark commented:
- My violin, tuned or not, is still my violin; but it's only pleasant to me when it's tuned.
Wednesday. Four o'clock in the morning, when the nightingale sings to say that the sun will be rising in an hour's time. But it wasn't the nightingale that had woken me, it was the rain; a rain full of a freshness, heralding summer's end, that I could feel through the window of my room, which I always left open. I was no longer sleepy. I thought about the trip we wanted to make today, the whole lot of us, to go and see one of Lark's and her brother's cousins. We were due to take the nine o'clock train. The cousin lived near coal mines that were about to close. Then tomorrow we were due to go on to one of the cousin's friends who lived not far from a steelworks that was also about to close. The Engineer had explained that he really wanted to visit the two places, where men had built the future and which one day will be vestiges of the past.
There was plenty of time before I had to get up. I don't know why, but the image of seagulls flying along the cliff below me crossed my mind. They were flying; I cannot. Are we part of the same universe? What does it matter, if each one is able to live without the other? Live? What kind of life?
I remembered the grasses in her vase. In a little while I would leave. What could I do to let her know? Slightly irritated, I got up. And why should I let her know in any case? I went into the room containing the desk at which I usually worked and where I was accustomed to placing the mirror. The mirror was there. Had I left it out yesterday evening without putting it away again, as I usually did? The sun had just appeared above the horizon. I went to the mirror. One after the other, the lights in her room went out. She was at her window, with the sort of smile on her lips that you make when you don't want to look sad.
I sat down at the piano and softly played her melody, then her short tune. I stopped, keeping my hands on the keys. She had not moved and her face had become attentive. Then I played a few bars of music that came from I knew not where. Her smile returned; it was serene. She gave a wave, like when you say goodbye, and went out with her easy, unhurried tread.
Nine oh four. The train shuddered. Everyone was there.
We spent the journey as usual chatting and looking at the scenery, which was entirely unremarkable. Of course the countryside around our little town was not, to be honest, any more remarkable, but it was home. We knew every nook and cranny inside out; and yet, unlike the countryside through which we were travelling and which we looked at rather distractedly, we did not miss its slightest detail during our walks and bike rides. We watched the buds break in spring, the flowers fade in summer, the wheat ripen and the apples swell.
A three-quarter-hour change of trains encouraged us to stretch our legs in a town hardly any bigger than our own. The houses were magnificent, the streets pleasant, but again, it wasn't home; we did not know what we were supposed to look at. So the walk was a bit dull.
The big house belonging to the Engineer's and his sister's cousin was very beautiful, all in warm red brick set off by an embroidery of white stonework. After dropping off our stuff and refreshing ourselves, we went straight into the dining room where, given the rather late hour at which we had arrived - one o'clock in the afternoon - lunch was awaiting us.
The conversation with the cousin's parents was as banal as conversations with parents usually are. Perhaps it is not their fault - children do not always make dialogue easy. But what can you do to connect two lives that are so different? Theirs speaks of a future forged by the present, ours speaks of a future that breaks away from it. A pleasant conversation, however that may be, with very nice, very foresighted, interested and understanding parents. But did they try to understand anything other than what they could themselves understand? I thought of the seagulls...
In the afternoon, the cousin was to take us to visit the coal mines - or at least their surroundings, because there was no question of going down the mine! A shame, maybe...
The cousin knew that we liked to walk along railway tracks. So she suggested walking up a track that had long served the mines but had recently been taken out of service. The rain had just started falling again. "Oh, what a shame, that's put a stop to your walk!" cried the cousin's mother. I could see Primus biting his lips so as not to laugh and especially so as not to add: "You mean that's put a damper on our walk!" How did I know? Simply because that's how I felt too. And I was probably not the only one, which encouraged me not to look around so as not to set off a bout of hysterics - I mean between the six of us and the cousin, of course.
Keeping a straight face, we explained that the rain did not bother us, quite the opposite, in fact, because we loved walking in the rain but that we would take all the necessary precautions so as not to catch cold. We were allowed our exeat.
The track glistened under the heavy drops of rain that had not stopped falling - anything but, in fact! And the wind had no qualms about whipping our faces... After a few hundred yards appeared a roof supported by half a dozen cast-iron posts. The roof, on its own, far from the track, seemed to belong to no world, neither to the railway nor to... nor to anything, I would have said.
The cousin assumed the role of cicerone:
- It's a station; it was full of people when the mines were working.
She let us admire the roof:
- I was very curious when I was little...
- Already! broke in the Poetess with a grin; faith, your curiosity has grown as much as you have!
The cousin smiled:
- My father would sometimes take me with him when he had business at the mines. I can remember this station very well; the miners going to the shaft...
- The shaft? enquired Lark.
- The shaft you go down to get to the bottom of the mine, said the Engineer, who knew what he was talking about.
- Exactly! said the cousin.
And, showing us what must have been the platform... way back when:
- They took the track up not long ago, there are no trains any more now.
- You told us a while ago that not all the mines are closed, so what do the miners do now? asked Primus
- There are buses, answered the cousin; it's less...
She was at a loss for words.
- Less poetic? suggested the Poetess
The cousin nodded slowly:
- That's it, yes...
A flurry of rain suddenly clouded my vision. I could see the track running alongside the platform, I could see... but no, I couldn't see anything, it was just my imagination that had shown me the miners, their faces blackened by the coal... just my reading, nothing more.
- Get back in the train, we're off!
The train?... I turned round, surprised. Primus was watching me... did he really have the mocking look he assumed to accompany his joke? Some joke... I pretended to go along with it:
- No need, I'm taking the boat!
And yet, doubtless for the sole pleasure of proving me wrong, the rain eased off. We were soaked but the wind, still warm, promised to dry us off... though without saying when.
- Change track! Stay with us! Primus yelled at me again.
Ahead of me, on the track along which I was walking, I saw a buffer. I shivered. If I stayed there, while the others...? I suddenly burst out laughing.
- No need! I jump them!
But I changed track nevertheless.
The Engineer knew his stuff.
- That's a slagheap! he announced, pointing at what I had taken to be a hill, albeit a slightly unexpected one in this flat landscape.
I hadn't been the only to think it was a hill. Lark, looking where he had pointed, said:
- What's a slagheap?
- Slag is all the spoil that's taken out of a mine, explained the cousin.
- Can you climb up? enquired Primus impatiently.
The cousin hesitated:
- You can; but it's very slippery with all this rain.
No sooner said than done. We slipped and slid our way up to the top.
Around us... I don't know what to say, a landscape I cannot describe because there was none. No, really, there was none. A town? I knew what a town was, mine or another, bigger or smaller. It wasn't a town. A jumble of houses... no, not even! Jumbles of the same house, repeated over and over again as if spewed out from some pit that no-one could stop, tumbled jumbles of houses all ordered at random for evermore one against another, no, this was not a town! My reading? Yes, my reading... Miners leaving the night of mine day for the night of night in one of these houses... And around them? Other jumbles of sheds, beams lying on the ground, roads that seemed to go nowhere... oh yes they did, they went from the mine to the houses, railway tracks unable to find anywhere to go, it wasn't the country either. From the top of the mountain where I stood, I could see the earth at the end of a secret cataclysm.
Thursday. Quarter to eight. Our train had left the station and was taking us to the cousin's friend. After coal, steel.
The Engineer knew all about it.
- They put coal in iron and that makes steel, he explained.
He went on, keeping as straight a face as he could:
- They get the coal from my cousin and mix it up at her friend's.
- Not on your nelly! cried the cousin, half laughing; I keep my coal for winter!
The Engineer looked troubled:
- That's a nuisance, because then your friend can't make steel.
The cousin assumed a regretful look:
- What a shame! My friend was so looking forward to making chips the way you like them. But hey! No steel, no chip pan! Too bad!
The matter ended up in laughter all round...
The train ran on; the scenery passed by. Primus started the ball rolling:
- The ritual question is: "Is it the train that runs?"
I carried on:
- The other ritual question is: "Is it the scenery that passes by?"
- And the ritual answer to both questions is: "We don't know!"
- So in that case how can be sure that what we see exists? joked the Poetess.
Lark went on:
- That's what those who see us go by must say to themselves.
The train ran on; the scenery passed by. Primus asked me:
- Well? Are you inside or outside?
The train had finally come to a stop; the scenery too. The train was the same as at the beginning; the scenery wasn't. I looked on without surprise. There was nothing surprising about it; we had changed location.
All that seemed absolutely normal. Why was Primus bothered?
The cousin's friend's parents lived in a village not far from the city in which we had arrived. A bus would take us there. We walked through the city streets - empty, seeing as it was lunchtime. I looked around. The houses seemed much more impressive than those of my little town. Taller, especially; which made the streets seem dark and cramped even though they were quite wide. But what struck me most were the shops. There were shops everywhere, stuck to each other side by side without a break. It was like being in a shop full of shops! Sure the city was much bigger and more important than my own little town, and yet... And yet perhaps that's what living in a city means; buying what you're offered, not what you've chosen. And is it just buying?...
On a narrow path closer to heaven than to earth, passing between the rocky peaks that press in on him, walks a traveller. The road has been long, fatigue has slowed his steps. Evening is drawing on, a storm threatens. The traveller has spied a hut; he knows what it is, he was hoping to find it. He knows that he will find shelter there, and that he will be able to recover his strength. The hut is called a refuge.
The steelworkers' village where the cousin's friend lived was not a village, it was a refuge.
We arrived from the main road busy with big lorries going to and from the endless factories we had been able to see outlined against the sky ever since we had left the city.
A sudden calm succeeded all the bustle and noise. A broad, bright avenue where two or three inhabitants were strolling. Lining the avenue, little houses that seemed to know each other well. By each house, a little garden. In each garden, a meal was served, or soon would be. The meal was not served on a nice hardwood table covered by a white damask tablecloth. The meal was served at ground level, and in some cases even underground! Yes, underground. Because the meal was not mere food from the shops or even from the market, with its richly odorous carrots... No, the meal was living food, it was growing there beside each house, ready to grace the table all on its own. Oh, of course not the whole meal was to be found here, amid the orderly allotments, but here too the carrots filled the air with their scent and the lettuce was as lovely on the eye - and even better on the tongue - as the most beautiful flowers in my garden, in my little town. And the tomatoes, and the peas that I love so much, and the... But I had better stop there, because lunch was awaiting us!
We headed towards the end of the avenue, passing the little houses, so different one from another. Ah, they weren't like the terraces in the mining villages, with their houses that I couldn't tell apart. Here, not only were the little houses all of different shapes but they each had their own decoration. One sheltered its round red flowers behind the windows of a porch, another embellished its walls with a tapestry of tall, multicoloured flowers. A woman leaning at her window has bestowed an affectionate smile on the cousin, whom she has recognised. A little girl perched on a low wall, lost in thought, has scurried over to say something nice.
Lunch. One cousin had given the other a fright over a mere trifle - though had she really? The chips were on the table, hot and crisp!
- I see you got the coal; you're going to be cold this winter! he murmured to her between two chips.
The cousin's friend's parents had leaned over and were listening carefully, but they did not seem to understand. The cousin noticed.
- It's just a joke... she began.
The father began to nod his head, though I couldn't decide whether or not he understood what she meant. The mother remained motionless, staring. The cousin seemed slightly embarrassed. I shot a discreet glance at her friend, who seemed to be searching unsuccessfully for something to say. The Engineer intervened:
- We were talking about making steel... it was his turn to begin.
- Ah yes! You have to put coal in your iron... the father said slowly, as if to reassure himself he had got it right.
The mother gave a vague smile.
That's what the sign said. There was a little yard in front, and a line of iron railings. Did they come from the steelworks we wanted to visit? What was there behind the sign? A house. A house with blackened walls. A door, windows. Shall we go in? No, the door is locked and the windows have hidden their panes behind shutters. I saw again yesterday's platform, the miners with their faces blackened by the coal that only my imagination had seen and who were not there, any more than the workers at the factory that was soon due to close.
I had already seen photographs of factories. The factory, transported onto paper, was smaller than me; here, it was bigger. On the paper, I saw a metal monster; here, I saw a giant that had its own life. The paper showed me a motionless jumble of beams, tubes, stairways and walkways; here, the tubes connected the beams, the stairways led to the walkways. On the paper, a railway line appeared close to the factory; here, the squeal of the wheels on the track, the powerful breath of the steam jetting in bursts from the locomotive announced the train that bore off man's work.
I had no need of my imagination to see that work. I could see for myself the mullock mingled with iron that had entered the factory. It was just that it had taken other shapes; a car, a rail and, why not, a chip pan?
But I knew all that. What does someone who doesn't know see in mullock mingled with iron?
We had returned yesterday evening to the cousin's house with her friend, who had come to spend a few days. We were due to leave this evening on the four forty-five. Which left us time, after lunch with the cousin's parents, and the fine weather having returned, to spend a pleasant afternoon roaming around together. "Let's go and sit in the sun at the big little station", the cousin had proposed.
The big little station was an ideal spot. We could stroll along the platform, wander about on the tracks, sit down on comfortable benches. The big little station, once so busy, now saw only two or three trains in a day, since the lines used for the coal mines operated on a much reduced schedule. Most of the tracks seemed covered in old gold; but alas - isn't what we see not always what is there? - the old gold was only rust. Stretched out on one of the tracks, a bramble shoot - knowing full well there was no danger of being run over - warmed itself in the sun. And was it the fear of having nothing to do that had put the tracks to flight, leaving the old sleepers in surprised solitude?
- Why did you want to see the past?
Surprised by the cousin's friend's question, the Engineer hesitated:
- It's not the past...
- The factory you saw yesterday will soon close down.
- It's still working.
- What it used to do will no longer be done.
- That's right, confirmed the cousin, it's like with us, the coal will soon be no more than a memory.
The Engineer was still hesitating. His sister suggested:
- You said you wanted to see the factories before they disappeared. Maybe it was to know what people used to do in the past?
- Certainly, he agreed, if I hadn't seen all those things these last two days, I would never have been able to.
- You could have seen them in books, remarked Lark.
- It's not the same, retorted Primus; I agree with the Engineer, what he sees is different from what people tell him.
I broke off. The thought that had crossed my mind when I had seen her in the mirror came back to me: "I could not know her, through the mirror; I was a prisoner of the real. How could I escape?"
- ...are real!
Everyone stared at me. What had Primus said? I turned to him... He studied me for a moment, then said merrily:
- As I told you, what the Engineer sees and what people tell him is real, both of them!
A brief silence followed. He went on, a bit less merrily:
- Reality is there, in front of you.
I said offhandedly:
- You said: "What he sees is different from what people tell him."
He waited. Nobody said anything. I went on:
- Is what you see really real, since explaining it can change it?
- What about the past then? Is that real too, because you can't even see it? asked the cousin's friend.
The cousin commented:
- The lunch we've just eaten is the past and yet it gives us strength in the present. And that strength is real enough.
I went back to my idea:
- If the real can change when you explain it, can it become unreal?
Primus looked at me, biting his lip. The Poetess took over:
- Why bother with the past if you don't know if it's real, or even if it exists?
Lark shook her head vigorously:
- Whatever your past, when you play that's what you hear!
- I can't make anyone else hear what I hear.
- You can play it; I'll hear it!
The Engineer objected:
- You can hear what she plays, not what she hears.
I was going to say something but Primus beat me to it:
- We already talked about that last month!
- Can you fill us in? asked the cousin curiously.
We explained. In primo loco, what we listened to was not Primus' viola but his music; in secundo loco, we perhaps listened to what we did not hear.
- In that case, when we look into the past we look at what we cannot see! exclaimed the cousin's friend.
- At least it's better than seeing what we don't look at! said the cousin, laughing.
- In art class, my teacher sometimes tells me I'm not seeing what I'm looking at, confessed Lark, seemingly fascinated.
She added thoughtfully:
- So what I draw does not exist anywhere other than in my mind.
- It's becoming a game, interjected the Poetess; we can study every case!
And, with a teasing smile, suggested:
- Let's ask my brother to do a demonstration!
The brother demonstrated:
- Let x and y be...
A unanimous shout went up:
Can I see the unreal?
That evening I took out the mirror. She was at the piano. She was playing the music I had played the day before at dawn before leaving.
Can we hear the unreal?
At Lark's. The quintet was beginning to take shape.
- We'll soon be able to give our concert! exclaimed the Poetess.
The Engineer soft-pedalled the idea:
- Although our audience is made up of people we know, it's still very demanding; it's a pity we can't go over some of the details with our teachers.
- Teachers should never go on holiday! declared Primus sententiously.
- Didn't you tell me you wanted to be a teacher? asked Lark, assuming an innocent tone of voice.
In answer, he pulled a face and poked her in the shoulder with his bow. We all laughed.
Four o' clock. Tea time. Lark's parents were having tea with us. We talked about our trip.
- Changes to society always happen too quickly when people have got ready to refuse them, said her father, commenting on the closure of the factories we had visited.
- It reminds me of exams: they too come along too quickly when you haven't revised enough! commented the Engineer.
- It's not the same! protested Primus. You can choose to take an exam; social change doesn't necessarily depend on us.
I backed him up energetically:
- I have chosen to play our quintet, I practice as best I can; but if the audience's taste changes and they no longer want quintets, what can I do about it?
Lark's father nodded:
- You can sit and bemoan your fate or you can find out what kind of music the audience likes and learn it.
Lark chipped in:
- And if the audience likes trios and I don't, what should I do?
Silence fell for a moment. The father went on:
- What should people do if they're cold and can't get any more coal?
Lark's mother intervened:
- We can still regret times gone by if they were pleasant; a coal-fired stove was alive, you could see the flames through the window.
- And I regret old instruments, remarked the Poetess, even though I do play the violin.
She added after a moment:
- Which doesn't stop me from liking the violin just as much!
- So why don't we just light candles and play our quintet on old instruments! joked the Engineer.
- Why don't we just? It'd be really pretty! exclaimed Lark, smiling at the thought.
Primus said enthusiastically:
- You're on! We'll give our concert by candlelight!
Sunday. Lunch with my parents. My mother was greatly worried by my walk in the rain. "You could have caught cold!" etcetera. My father said nothing. On that subject, I mean. Otherwise, he told us about the cost price of coal, the profitability of steel, the advantages, and probably the drawbacks too... It was interesting, instructive. My mother was bored. I listened with as much attention as I was capable of, which was not a lot... It was interesting, instructive; but what use was it to me? In all events, I won't remember. I'm wrong, I should listen to everything, know everything. Alas!...
After lunch, I went into the garden to read a book about the olden days. At school, it's called Ancient History. At school, the point is not whether the olden days were pleasant or not. At school, the point is not whether or not we should regret them. And as for seeing flames in the window of a coal stove... At the very most we might get a lesson about different heating systems at the time. Which we would then have to repeat back, of course. In order to have a mark. Otherwise, nothing new; dreams on one side, knowledge on the other. That's all. It's interesting, instructive. And what's more, I will be able to do something with it; not just get a mark. It will be useful to me in my future life. Whether Ancient History or mathematics. I was wrong to say that I would not remember anything; I can remember lots of things from my lessons. All that, without any irony at all. Poor father! I neglect him. I should listen to him more carefully. He knows lots of things too, he could be a teacher if he wanted; he's got enough qualifications. But he's not called a teacher; and so I neglect him. I'll have to have another think about all that. I reckon everybody neglects those they haven't been told they mustn't.
At about four o'clock, Primus arrived for tea and chess.
I lost the first game, stupidly. He shook his head. I reassured him:
- I was thinking about the olden days; you know, what Lark's mother was talking about yesterday...
He interrupted me:
- Why, do you want to go there?
- No, I'll stay here. I was thinking about what they represented. At school, it's a history lesson; for Lark's mother, it's memories of things she has experienced.
Primus indicated that he had understood:
- Still our subject from the day before yesterday. The same past is real for one person and not for another.
- You have to admit that it's irritating! The same thing can be both...
- I admit! he broke in, laughing.
We went back to our game. Ah! He's made a mistake! I took advantage of it:
- At least there are no surprises in chess; a move is good or bad!
He thought for a moment, then said:
- The bad move I've just made belongs to the past. And yet it has a consequence: I lost.
He still seemed to be thinking. I thought I understood:
- Can an unreal past have consequences?
He nodded slowly:
- And the answer, albeit not the ritual one, is once again: "We don't know!"
That evening I took out the mirror. She was at her window; she seemed sad. Suddenly, her eyes brightened; she waved, like you do when you say hello. I remembered last Wednesday, the morning I left; she had waved then, too, but like you do when you say goodbye. She ran to her table. I had the impression she was turning the pages of a book that I could not see. After a moment I saw that there was indeed a book. She put it close to the window, the same way she sometimes did for her piano. I could easily see that it was the geography book that had been on her desk the day I had first seen her in the mirror. Then, as happened so often with her furniture, the book changed shape and pages of a notebook appeared; I recognised the geometry exercise she had started so badly and finished so well. The notebook also changed shape and became the book in which an author studied the thought of a character, a book that I had had trouble understanding for so long and that one day, for no particular reason, I had finally found very simple. She was no longer at her table; she was at the piano, playing my part of the quintet.
August would be over at the end of the week. The fine weather had persisted but the sun had grown older. We were in the Poetess's garden, neglecting the arbour whose cool shade no longer tempted us. The conversation languished.
- Recite us a poem! Lark asked the Poetess in the middle of a silence.
The society approved.
- Have you composed some new ones? enquired Primus.
- It's not beyond the bounds of possibility, observed the Engineer easily; I noticed her with an abstracted air yesterday, and I even wondered whether she might not be trying to find the solution to a difficult problem in maths.
- And you didn't dare offer to help in case you weren't able to find the answer yourself!
laughed the Poetess.
This interesting exchange of views was interrupted by the remaining members of the society:
- We want a poem! We want a poem!
The Poetess had indeed composed a new poem.
- But it wasn't yesterday! she teased her brother.
As usual, the poem was full of fancy and the Engineer, despite his somewhat obscurantist literary opinions, as usual succumbed to the charm.
- And yet it's odd how poems constantly distort reality, he remarked nevertheless.
- They don't distort it, they enhance it! challenged Lark stoutly.
- Enhance means change and change means distort.
There was no answering that. So I answered:
- You have to know what the reality is before you can say that the poem distorted it.
There was definitely answering that. So the Engineer answered:
- The reality is the sun, not Phoebus' chariot.
His sister was also not short of an answer:
- When I say "Grub's up!", is the reality a squishy, squirming thing or your lunch?
Was it the idea of eating grubs that left the Engineer mute?
- We could embark on a study along the lines of "Is reality real?"... Primus started off.
- And we could just as well not! countered Lark immediately.
The Poetess returned to her idea:
- What I see is one reality, but so is what I feel, just as much.
Her brother had recovered his wits:
- It's an apple that I eat, not the poem that talks about it!
His sister held out:
- I eat an apple because I want to, not because I see it.
She gave a little laugh:
- I certainly can't eat it if it's not real, but it's not because it is real that I will eat it.
And concluded, smiling innocently:
- It was you who told me that reciprocals aren't always true...
Her brother pursed his lips admiringly, then added for our benefit:
- I told you she always managed to put poetry into her maths!
The Poetess said slowly:
- Hunger is the poetry of food.
She smiled sadly:
- Sometimes poems sing tragedies...
Tuesday. The quintet was lying fallow; you get a better harvest from soil that has had time to rest. And yet our instruments were not lying idle; only living earth can rest, not inert matter. Lark has sung; we have accompanied. And then a trio and then... lunchtime. What would we do this afternoon?
- Let's go for a bike ride! proposed Primus.
A proposal unanimously accepted!
We knew the way, of course; and yet...
- We've come the wrong way! exclaimed the Poetess suddenly as we were riding through a copse.
Instinctively, we stopped. Primus said with surprise:
- How do you mean? We haven't even decided which way to go!
- We're lost; we don't know this road!
Lark looked closely at the Poetess.
- What are you up to? she asked curiously.
- Look! Do you see all those red leaves on the elms? They weren't there last time we came this way...
- Of course not, it's the end of August!
And Lark added, gazing at the trees:
- They're lovely!...
- That's just what I meant, said the Poetess straight away.
I had understood. I turned to her brother:
- Your sister is right:
"These leaves that autumn days portend
To enhance the road their crimson lend!"
Everyone stared at me in surprise. Everyone but the Poetess, that is.
- You see! A road enhanced isn't really real! she teased her brother with a smile.
We went on our way again. I looked around me, perhaps a little more carefully. How much had changed since the start of the holidays... And why only the start of the holidays? That copse, over there, a bit further on, near the crossroads we would barely be able to make out on a foggy day if the copse were not there; I had seen it bare last winter, it was overflowing with leafage today! The fields had forgotten the lovely golden glow of the wheat that had left them for places where people live. The earth, exposed by the plough, showed its secrets; "This is where I prepare food for people to eat", it confided to the passer-by. It was summer, as Lark had said. Poetry was all around us.
- It always is, assured the Poetess, but you have to find it, it's shy, it won't show itself.
We were idling down a little track. A blackbird told us that teatime was near and we started looking around for a good place to stop. Suddenly Primus, who was riding near Lark, let out a shout. What was going on?
- You've got a flat tyre, he cried.
- A flat tyre? she said in surprise; I can't feel it.
- Maybe, but if you carry on you'll shred it!
Lark was used to relying on her friend for all that kind of thing. Primus, having asked her to get off, pumped up the tyre again.
- It should last until teatime! he commented hopefully.
His hope was not confounded; there were still enough molecules of oxygen and nitrogen to protect the fragile envelope when we reached the place.
- Yes, it's a puncture all right! he said, pulling a face.
Because it was he, of course, who would have to make the repair. Having rapidly stripped off the tyre, he had to find the puncture. After pumping up the inner tube to bursting - so to speak -, all that remained was to find the slight - oh so slight - whisper of air that betrayed the leak. That was where Primus' musical ear came in: one look was enough for him to hear! All that remained then was to sandpaper the rubber until it was rough enough for the glue to hold.
- Don't use too much! warned the Engineer knowledgeably, otherwise it won't dry all the way through and the patch will just slide off.
Primus nodded, calmly continuing to apply his glue. Once the patch was in place, the tyre was jacked back onto the wheel just as quickly as it had been stripped off. The job was done, and well done! Primus was a past master of the art.
- Pity you don't mend my tyre when I get a puncture, you're much better at it than me... said the Engineer, sounding somewhat deflated.
- I'd be happy to do so, replied Primus smoothly, but as I haven't undertaken a full study of the glue I got from the shop, you'd be worried it wouldn't hold up.
- Oh, there's no reason why the shop shouldn't hold up, it's always full of customers, replied the Engineer just as smoothly.
Primus was temporarily discombobulated.
- Very funny! he said at last, trying to regain his countenance.
But his countenance couldn't hold up against our laughter...
- Plum pie! announced Lark.
Which promptly changed the subject.
- They're really good today! enthused the Poetess; when are you going to make jam?
- In a few days' time; as you can see, they're starting to get really ripe.
That was good news; Lark always gave us some of her jam. And her tree was not short of fruit this year!
- When I practise our quintet, do I distort it?
My question, coming amid the jam, surprised the society. Lark was the first to react:
- I would rather say that you would distort it if you didn't practise!
Primus vigorously supported his friend:
- That's just how I feel every time I go back to playing; the bow has a mind of its own and the keys are recalcitrant!
The Engineer smiled:
- Fortunately that's not how it sounds when we play together!
- You're right. He's just being clever!
The Poetess returned to the subject:
- I don't always play the same way, whether I practise or not; the way I play comes from what I feel at the time.
- If the way I play depends on how I feel, can you say that I distort my feelings when I change them? Lark asked the Engineer.
The Engineer hesitated. I took advantage:
- You said yesterday that to enhance is already to distort.
- Yes, but I wasn't talking about feelings.
- You were talking about reality, the reality of things you can see, hear, touch...
- Yes; you talked about knowing it. But if you agree that it exists, changing it means distorting it.
Primus chipped in:
- You also have to agree that it was right before it was changed.
- I agree to agree! agreed the Engineer.
- Thank you indeed! said his sister, mock-pompously. So when can we expect a list of right realities?
- A tyre is a tyre. If I turn it into a sausage, would you eat it?
- A string is a string. If I turn it into a sound, would you listen to it?
- I'd listen to the sound of a string that vibrates at a certain frequency.
- I agree with you: "Fortunately that's not how it sounds when we play together!"
The Engineer smiled:
- I appreciate the compliment. But a vibrating string will never be anything other than a vibrating string.
- A feeling is not a string! exclaimed the Poetess.
- Did I say it was? I made it clear just now that I wasn't talking about feelings.
- So. The conclusion seems to be that the feeling isn't reality.
- And yet we all feel something when we play together.
- Maybe that's why we all like my sister's poems.
A brief silence fell. Brief, because it was pleasantly broken by Lark:
- There's still some plum pie left!
- Now that's what I call reality! applauded Primus.
And although the plum pie was excellent indeed, I think that if we lingered so long over our enjoyment of it, it was to give ourselves time to ponder what had, after all, been the subject of argument.
Meanwhile, the Poetess had finished her pie. Having thus restored her spirits, she returned to the subject:
- Joy, surprise and so many others are feelings that are not the same. Which one is wrong?
- If feelings have no reality, can they be true or false?
Thus spake Lark, who had also restored her spirits.
After dinner, I went to read in my room. An adventure story. Insatiable danger attended the adventurers. The landscapes were surprising; surprising for a reader in the country in which I lived. They enabled you to feel as though you were somewhere else; somewhere other than where you were. People always want to find out what they don't know. Adventure stories invite us on very tempting journeys. The only problem, as the Engineer would say, is that they are not real. He's right; if I go off with my adventurers they won't be there; they never have been. Why go if there's nobody there? And what if they were there, the adventurers? But how could you know? By going there, that's how. I remembered the train in which we walked along the track, a month ago. Should we jump off the moving train to head into the fields, as Lark had said, or pull the emergency cord, as I had answered? Why had Primus asked me if I had wanted to jump when on the contrary I had just talked about pulling the emergency cord? And the Poetess, what had she said? That to get back on the train you had to stay on the track. Everything was getting muddled up... No, it wasn't! There was no muddle! Perhaps I would have liked it if there had been? No, everything was clear in my memory. "Don't jump off!" Primus had told me. "And what if it's dangerous to continue?" "As long as you're on the train you can't know" Lark had answered. "What is there at the sea's end?" I had asked Primus on the cliff top. I had asked because I wanted to know. Yes, I wanted to know. I had felt Primus' hand on my shoulder. I had thought about the drawing; that drawing that she had made and that I had seen in the mirror...
The mirror was in front of me. She was reading too, sitting in the corner of her sofa. I still couldn't make out her book and could not see what she was reading. Was it a text book, a novel, an adventure story? "It's an adventure story!" No, nobody had spoken, nor had I made any kind of guess. The certainty was inside me, like something self-evident.
Was danger attending her adventurers too? A fleeting thought crossed my mind: was danger attending her too? And me?... Was the same danger attending both of us? What danger? That of jumping off the moving train on which I lived out all my days, untroubled? What about her? What train did she live on? I suddenly saw her coming towards me in her train, travelling at full speed on the same track as mine. No, no; it was just my imagination, I knew it, it was nothing else! And yet, can't imagination reveal a thought that might have concealed itself there? But what thought? And what if there was no thought? "Why go if there's nobody there?" I had said a moment ago. And to find out you have to go. It's easy enough to say. I would have smiled but wasn't really able to.
I could still remember the day when I had seen her in the mirror. I had written: "I watched without surprise." Without surprise. What was so strange about that? Every day I saw the stars without surprise. And the lettuce I was served. And my fingers. And then one day I was born; I had never dreamt of finding it surprising.
Lost in my thoughts, I had stopped looking at the mirror. Seeing her again, I was surprised. Her room had grown big, very big. The walls were festooned with soft hangings and silken tapestries. The furniture and decorations came from earlier centuries. The crystal of the Venetian chandeliers sparkled in the light of innumerable candles.
She was standing opposite me, in the middle of the great room, wearing a sumptuous dress from bygone festivities and looking towards the window, smiling.
A morning of work; we were preparing our recital.
- Well, I don't know if we're distorting anything, exclaimed Primus during a break, but I don't think we're playing too badly!
He added, with a great gesture of approval... for himself:
- And I don't think our audience will be troubling themselves with philosophy while we play.
- I hope not, otherwise I'd have stage-fright, cried the Poetess.
- There's no reason why you should get stage-fright, objected Lark; you're proposing music, not philosophy.
- Just as well! I know what I can do in music, but not at all in philosophy!
- With me, it's when I know what I can do that I tend to get stage-fright.
- How so, since you know you'll cope? said the Engineer with surprise.
Lark shook her head:
- I'd be afraid of not being up to it, of not doing what I'm capable of. It's like a lack of honesty.
- You didn't promise anything!
- No, that's true; I'm not a real musician. But it's as though I had promised it to myself.
- Well in all events, declared Primus, I would definitely not get stage-fright if I didn't know what I was playing properly, because I'd know in advance that it would be bad!
The Engineer smiled:
- Well, let's all be like you and none of us will have stage-fright.
He went on after a short pause, half-serious, half-joking:
- As we're not real musicians, as Lark said, we're not supposed to know our quintet as well as all that...
General revolt: "We will get stage-fright!" - "We know!" - "I'm shaking already!" - "Perfection!"
- It's a wonderful thing to summon up courage to face...
But no one will ever know what turn of wit the Engineer had prepared, for a unanimous cry went up:
Once we had all calmed down, we looked at each other with a tiny little large hint of anxiety...
An afternoon of rest. We fall easily into habits of... let us say, a social nature; I have written "work" for this morning and "rest" for this afternoon. But work rarely means pleasure and rest just as rarely means bustle. The morning had been full of pleasure and the afternoon was giving us not a moment's respite. Have you guessed? No? Well, let me give you a clue! There were hundreds of us at Lark's. Hundreds? Well no, not exactly; but her garden was so full of people... So as far as rest was concerned... Always - I think I've already said it somewhere - the same occupations: dancing, tennis, chatter, food.
The girl with forget-me-not eyes has been to stay with a cousin who lives in a city and has brought back a new dance. Farewell to the languorous smooch, now everyone has to shake themselves about. How can you talk with your dancing partner under those conditions?
- Who said anything about talking? fired back the resolute boy; all you have to do is dance well!
- All right, then, come and show us if you've understood what to do!
The girl with forget-me-not eyes had just give a demonstration of her new dance and was looking for a guinea-pig, since no-one had volunteered for the experience. Taken at his word, the resolute boy assumed the look of someone for whom the invitation would make his day. On with the dance! The girls watched with interest, the boys with prudence. Primus had already borne Lark off into the whirl and both showed an aptitude that brought expressions of admiration from the society... and the girl with forget-me-not eyes who, it seemed to me, admired Primus' shaking much more than Lark's grace. Strange, isn't it?
Even I also tried my luck, having invited the girl who, for once, was not clad all in white today. And I didn't do too badly. To be honest, the resolute boy was not entirely wrong; dancing well is pleasant, you let yourself be led by the music. It's without danger.
Suddenly it was as though a tear had clouded my sight. I could see her in the great room, wearing a sumptuous dress from bygone festivities; she was waiting.
I went home early. She had not moved. A tear was glistening in her eyes.
In the first light of day, barely awake, I took out the mirror. The room, now tiny, was empty; the walls were bare. She was not there.
I took my bike and went off after leaving a note for my parents to let them know I wouldn't be there for breakfast.
I didn't really have any idea where to go. After riding along slowly for a while, I remembered we were supposed to be getting a chicken from the farmer who had such delicious free-range ones. The farm was on the road to the abandoned graveyard where we had gone at the very start of the holidays for a simple lunch in the shade of the trees growing around the abandoned chapel that was slowly falling down under the assault of the wind and rain. Yes, I know, I have already written that, but today I wanted to remember it again.
The farmer's wife was surprised to see me so early. "We were just going to eat", she said, and asked me if I had already eaten. I said I hadn't, so she invited me in to share some stew left over from the previous day, because, contrary to our habits, that is how farming families eat. I accepted with - why not say so? - gratitude. I was happy to be at table with them, to devour the excellent left-over stew, which for me represented a whole way of life that, although I was aware of it, was nevertheless not mine. It was as though I had gone into the fields without having had to jump off the moving train, as we had said the day when we walked along the tracks in our train.
The farmer talked about the previous month's harvest, this month's ploughing; the farmer's wife talked about her geese and hens... I listened attentively to what they said, as though these things were part - no, not of my life, of course - but of a life... It doesn't matter, I will never live that life. Never.
September the first. I was at Primus' house this afternoon. We were shoving the wood.
- Do you think farmers never play chess?
He looked up at me, not a little surprised:
- What sort of a question is that?
- I went to the farm yesterday to get a chicken.
- Now that's an interesting piece of news! You're forgetting that I had lunch at your house yesterday with Lark and that we ate your chicken.
As I said nothing, he went on:
- It was very good.
- Don't you remember?
- Of course I remember.
He seemed to be waiting. I said:
- It's your move!
He took a moment, not exactly a short one:
- No, it's your move; I've just taken your pawn.
I looked down at the board:
- You're right. I wasn't paying attention.
He said nothing. I looked up. He looked at me squarely:
- You don't pay attention to your chessmen?
- I was thinking about the farmers.
- You want to play with them?
- Don't be ridiculous!
And I made my move. He took his time replying. I teased him:
- Are you stuck? Am I too good for you?...
He looked up and bit his lip:
- You still don't know what to say?
I made a gesture of impotence:
- I don't even know how to say it.
He made his move. A very bad move. I swivelled away from the table and stretched out my legs:
- Do you want to stop playing?
He nodded slowly then got up and went to sit in an armchair. I did likewise.
- Would you like some tea? he asked.
I said yes. He went and got it. We drank in silence.
- Have you met a girl?
- I don't know.
I was afraid he would misunderstand my answer. I went on with emphasis:
- It's true, I don't know; and I don't know how to find out.
He had picked up his cup mechanically and was looking at it, motionless. No; I could see his lips moving very slightly, as if he was looking for a word, a phrase...
I went on again:
- You talked to me about my secret, my solitude. I remember, it was the day before the big fair.
I paused briefly:
- It's not a real secret. There can't be a secret when what it is supposed to keep secret may not exist.
I paused again:
- I am not alone, as I said; you are there. Am I solitary? I don't know.
I looked at him, making myself smile.
- Whatever I tell you, it will be.. I don't even know what it will be.
A quiet day... or at least so it seemed, because tonight was the night of the concert! All our friends, neighbours and even a few parents had said they would come to listen and applaud us - which, make no doubt about it, meant that some were being kind and some polite. All five of us had helped with the preparations for the evening, which would take place in Lark's enormous drawing room. The preparations mostly involved decorating the impromptu concert hall, which in turn mostly involved setting out the candles that Primus had decided on last Saturday. We had put them all over; on the bookcase, on the side-tables, on the dressers and sideboards that lined the walls, and we had even hung some, not without difficulty, from the great chandelier. I thought of the great room from earlier centuries in which she stood, wearing her sumptuous dress from bygone festivities, and the crystal of the Venetian chandeliers sparkling in the light of innumerable candles. I had had to stop, perched on my stool, because I heard Primus asking me in a whisper: "Is it her?" Without really realising what I was doing, I gave an almost imperceptible nod.
The concert went quite well. I think we were quite happy with the way we played. Of course we weren't real musicians, as Lark had said at one of our last rehearsals the previous Wednesday. The numerous, shall we say, approximations in our playing bore stark witness to that but, as she had also said, I think we had kept the promise to ourselves of which she had spoken.
Our audience? Well, it clapped, as expected, and, it would seem, willingly. But what had our listeners liked? The pleasure of an "artistic" evening? That we, of whom they were fond, had shown ourselves capable of playing a difficult piece, shall we say acceptably well? Or, as I would so much have wished, the music of our quintet - that music that we had made such an effort to learn because it had cast a spell over us? Nothing more was needed than to know who their applause had been for: us or the composer.
Late that evening, I took out the mirror. In the middle of the great room from earlier centuries, under the crystal of the Venetian chandeliers sparkling in the light of innumerable candles, I saw a piano of a sort they don't make any more these days. Wearing her sumptuous dress from bygone festivities, she was playing my piano part from the quintet.
Sunday. Some friends of my parents had come to lunch. They had come with their little boy. He was maybe six or seven. He knew everything. Nothing surprised him. Everything seemed normal to him. He talked about the telephone as if it were part of the natural order, in existence ever since people had existed; which may have meant, for him, ever since he himself had existed. He watched television, born at about the same time as him, in the same way that he would have looked out of the window; in both cases, what he saw was apparently equally real. "Is that a cat, there, on the right?" he asked, pointing to the screen.
Suddenly I heard a cry; a cry of surprise. The little boy was at the window and seemed very frightened. Everyone turned towards him and his mother, worried, got up quickly. I went to the window. In the sky over the town I saw a large balloon. In the basket, two men were adjusting the flame intended to heat the air to make the balloon ascend. I was used to seeing these hot-air balloons, or aerostats, as the Engineer called them, in which enthusiasts took to the skies. I was not the only one used to seeing them and no-one could understand the little boy's surprise and fright. "What are you afraid of?" - "It's just a balloon!" - "It won't burn!" and so on. I looked attentively at the balloon, then at the little boy. He was standing stock still, his eyes open wide, very wide. What made me ask him softly: "You've never seen one before?" He shook his head slowly.
My seaside cousin, as Primus called her, had not forgotten her invitation of the previous month. She had called me last week: "I'll expect you on Monday. And tell Primus I'd be very glad if his friend came with him!" My cousin's and Lark's parents having agreed, the three of us had decided to leave today.
Just as I was leaving my room I remembered, I don't know why, the grasses in her vase. Yes, I did know. The day after the day on which I had come back from my seaside cousin's, in August, I had seen her empty room in the mirror. And the following day I had seen the grasses, the kind you find in meadows; and that day she was smiling. I went quickly down into the garden, picked some grasses and, back in my room, put them in my wardrobe, near the mirror.
My cousin was right; September is not like August. The train, full of people on the last trip, was nearly empty. And the few passengers were not the same; they were going to the place where they had to live, they were not going "to the seaside" - can it be said to be a place at all? - to experience the pleasure of being temporarily free from the life they were trying to get away from. I tried to imagine being deprived of my friends, of my quintet, to give an example, just so as to go "to the wherever".
Eleven o'clock. A car had come to fetch us from the station. My uncle, my aunt and my cousin were waiting for us impatiently. Hugs and kisses. Exchanges of news. Lark was made warmly welcome. Primus was delighted.
Lunch. My uncle talked to us about life in the region:
- It's not like where you live here; there are meadows and cows, there's more going on than in your cornfields.
- Corn grows... began Primus.
My uncle looked at him, slightly surprised. My aunt chipped in:
- When life is different, you see it differently.
- A cow is still a cow! protested my uncle.
And he added with an uncomprehending shrug:
- How can you see it any other way?
"A vibrating string will never be anything other than a vibrating string", the Engineer had said. But a cow? I argued:
- For someone who lives in a town, a cow is a source of milk, or meat; for a farmer, it's an animal he takes care of.
My uncle nodded:
- We're very near the coast here; there are lots of fishermen. Do you think they take care of the fish they catch?
- You have to take care of corn too, remarked Lark.
My cousin smiled:
- You don't talk to corn like you do to cows.
- And as for the conversations between cows and corn... laughed Primus.
- What do we know? wondered my aunt; different people talk to each other.
- How do you mean? asked my uncle, slightly taken aback by the argument.
- Fishermen, livestock farmers, crop farmers; that's three different worlds.
She fell silent for a moment:
- It's hard for people; how can they understand each other?
We stayed a little while longer, listening to the talk about the life of the region. Primus and his friend were both enthusiastic at discovering this life that was unfamiliar to them. Three worlds, my aunt had said. So can there be several worlds? What are the ones I don't know like?
The rest of the afternoon was spent showing Lark the cliff. I mean the sea seen from the cliff-top. And believe it or not, my cousin was there too! Yes indeed! Lark had managed to convince her: "Come with us, I'll be too scared with the boys, they're always so reckless!" My cousin was hardly likely to believe that, but she pretended to...
Lark stayed looking at the sea for a long time. Like Primus, she had never seen it either.
This morning, we set off on a long bike rode. "Tomorrow we'll go fishing, the tide will be better", my cousin had announced. She told us that choosing the right day to go to the beach was always complicated. "The tide has to be low enough to go cockling; and the tide mustn't be out at night, or even too early or too late, else we wouldn't be able to see. That's why the end of September wasn't suitable."
We were cycling like the last time I had come with Primus beside the meadows, which were now distinctly less verdant. The cows were still there and Lark was also just as surprised to see meadows stretching as far as the eye could see as Primus had been when he had come with me to my cousin's for the first time. From time to time she would slow down when she caught sight of a cow, its head half hidden by the hedge, watching her passing by with unfeigned interest.
- Would you like to talk to her? asked my cousin, smiling, just as Lark had almost stopped.
- Talk to her? What do you mean, talk to her?
Primus spoke up:
- She's not taking the mickey; she told us the last time that she talked to the cows and that the cows talked back.
Lark was obviously wondering if it wasn't her friend who was taking the mickey.
I reassured her:
- She told us that townspeople would say that the cows were mooing but that she would rather say they were talking.
My cousin smiled again:
- They always come to meet me and tell me they're happy to see me.
We were pedalling slowly. Suddenly Lark cried:
- Oh! That's a lovely one!
- Come and see me!
The cow did not move.
Primus and I started to laugh but were very soon interrupted by my cousin.
- Hush! she murmured sternly.
She went on, whispering:
- You mustn't talk too loudly. Animals don't like noise; for them, it's a sign of danger.
- And you mustn't make any sudden movements either, it would scare them.
- How sensitive they are! exclaimed Primus... in a whisper.
My cousin nodded:
- They're animals; they're defenceless.
- What about their horns?
- For wild animals... I know, there aren't any any more; but the memory is still there... in towns, they call it instinct.
There was a moment's silence. Then my cousin brightened up and, turning to Lark, said:
- You have to speak their language. Wait and see!
She tiptoed up to the hedge and I heard a long, soft "Moo!" which gave every impression of coming from the cow that Lark had found so lovely and that was grazing peacefully in the pasture. The cow lifted her great head, looked at my cousin for a moment, then walked slowly over towards her.
- How about it if we were to chew the cud? observed Primus literately.
As lunchtime was not far off it was a proposal not to be ignored and we settled down in a nearby field which contained no cows.
- Look how short the grass is; they've eaten it all; they'll come back when the grass has grown, explained my cousin after conducting us to the field.
Lunch was not a frugal meal.
Snails to begin with.
- Snails from the region? observed Primus knowledgeably.
- Sea snails, replied my cousin, smiling.
Primus was more and more taken aback. And I must say that I myself...
- Actually, they're not really snails, they just look like them, she went on; they're called whelks and fishermen harvest them from the sea.
And indeed they did not taste at all like snails but, cooked with bay leaves, thyme and pepper, chopped and made into a salad with shallots, they made a more than passable substitute for gastropods, as the Engineer, who did not like snails, disdainfully referred to them.
- Make sure there aren't any that get away!
Lark and Primus were ready to burst out laughing but were taken aback by my cousin's apparent concern. I knew the joke and confirmed her worries with the utmost seriousness:
- Yes indeed! If a crawler's got in...
Our two friends were looking at their salad with a mixture of incomprehension and perhaps, as we were hoping, apprehension.
It was my cousin who finished by laughing:
- Don't worry! Crawlers are what we call the ones inhabited by hermit crabs, which hide in the empty shells of dead whelks.
And, seeing the hesitant expression on our two friends' faces, she added serenely:
- Oh, you can eat those! They were alive when they were boiled.
Our two friends had not been the least bit discomfited.
- You do the same with cows, declared Primus with the utmost indifference.
- And mussels! added Lark in the same tone of voice.
And in chorus:
- In all events, it's delicious!
Lunch was coming to an end. Lark looked around:
- Don't you have any crop fields?
My cousin thought for a moment:
- Grass meadows for hay to feed to the animals in winter; but they're not proper crop fields.
Lark was still looking around:
- You never feel alone in your meadows.
She let a little while go by:
- In our fields there are no limits...
Watching my cousin, walking on shingle seemed easy; it was another matter altogether when we had to do it ourselves. But at least nobody had yet twisted an ankle...
The tide was going down and it was about an hour from low tide.
- Now is the time when the sea uncovers the sand in which we can find what we're looking for, explained my cousin.
- And where do we find the sea? asked Primus innocently.
My cousin hesitated for a moment:
- What...? But we're th...
She started again, in an equally innocent tone of voice:
- The sea? It's gone on holiday!
Now it was Primus' turn to hesitate. My cousin laughed:
- Don't worry, we'll wait for it; it'll be back in eight hours!
As in chess, Primus tried a feint:
- If the tide is out, it's because the moon's gravity...
Lark cut in:
- No, no! We're the ones who are on holiday, the moon has nothing to do with it!
We all started laughing.
- If we had come at the end of September the tide would have gone out even further, at least another three hundred metres, went on my cousin.
Primus declared off-handedly:
- That's normal. Low tide at three twelve will be at a height of two metres thirty one, with a coefficient of sixty-one; the coefficient at the end of September will be about a hundred and fifteen.
- The what? exclaimed Lark, somewhat disconcerted.
I thought I'd already seen the term in a book somewhere but I wasn't sure I could remember what it meant.
- What coefficient? I asked all the same.
- The tide coefficient. It's used to calculate the height of the tide.
- And you know how high it will be? Lark asked him with a tinge of admiration.
He assumed a pitiful look:
- Ah no, that I don't know!
My cousin came to his rescue:
- About thirty centimetres. But how on earth do you know all that?
And, trying to sound modest, he answered:
- I looked it up in a book.
- And when the tide comes in, does it go a long way? asked Lark curiously.
- In late September, high tide is about ten metres, said my cousin.
- Oh, that's a lot. How far does the tide go up?
- The whole beach is under water and when there's a gale the waves hit the breakwater that runs along the promenade - and the people on it, too! It's fun; I love coming here with my friends from school.
Not many people on the beach.
- Is it crowded in August? enquired Primus.
- Not crowded, answered my cousin; there aren't usually that many people.
- And yet Primus told me you preferred September because it was quieter then, said Lark with surprise.
- That's right, said Primus, backing her up; you said that there were too many people in summer.
- I've already been here in August; it's not crowded but there are enough people for it to be less quiet than today.
We were getting close to the sea; the shingle had given way to sand.
- The sea comes here more often; the shingle can't resist it, my cousin told us.
The wind off the sea brought a fret with it; a slight haze veiled the distant cliffs that I loved to look at whenever I came here. The elegant gulls with their piercing cry surveyed the outgoing tide that left behind it seaweed with its good but penetrating smell... and the good things we had come to catch!
My cousin's practiced eye was also surveying the tide as it descended slowly, slowly.
The time for fishing sandeels - also called smelt - had come!
- And try to be quick! she had warned us; they're slippery little things and won't hang around for you to admire them.
And with that she started to cut the sand with a sort of iron set-square, tracing a long furrow with wide edges. We had been told what we were supposed to do and rushed to catch as quickly as possible the sandeels that appeared on the edges of the cut in the sand and wanted nothing better than to disappear back into the sand so as not to be caught.
- How do they manage to breathe in the sand? asked Lark with concern.
- Oh, there's still plenty of water in the sand, Primus reassured her.
My cousin turned to Lark, smiling:
- Your friend is quite right; he really is very knowledgeable.
Lark blushed with pleasure.
The tide continued to go out. In a ripple in the sand I saw two little grey shrimp. My favourites!
- If he has his way, warned my cousin, we'll never catch anything else!
- Oh, I'm very fond of shrimp too, said Primus supportively.
- Very well then, said Lark, feigning submission; and we'll go cockling and eat them all where we stand!
She turned to my cousin with a conniving smile:
- Won't we?
- Absolutely! replied the traitor.
So I promised...
- Traitor! Primus accused me theatrically.
With peace restored and after a good laugh we went... shrimping!
There were still three hours of daylight left. The sea was as smooth as silk.
- From now on we'll have to be very careful, my cousin warned us.
- Because otherwise we might get caught by the rising tide, went on Primus in as natural a tone of voice as he could manage.
Everyone clapped. Primus bowed.
The jackknives! Lark, forewarned by her friend, awaited them impatiently.
And the jackknives were willing enough to believe that the sea was returning and to come out of the sand when we put salt in the little holes that showed where they were. Thank you, gentle jackknives, for allowing us our fun!
- There are hardly any mussels or crab this year, announced my cousin; but we can make up for it with cockles.
She considered the state of the tide:
- We've got about an hour, let's go!
Having had no trouble gathering the cockles, which lay flush with the sand, we were wondering how to eat them where we stood; even Primus had no idea! But my cousin knew a trick:
- You take two blews...
- What's a blew? broke in Primus.
- Oh yes, I forgot to tell you. It's another name for a cockle.
- Blew it is, then! But that still doesn't tell me how to open it; it looks pretty shut to me, your blew! I've tried, but I couldn't.
- Well, you take two of them...
- So that makes it twice as hard!
- Shut up! You take two cockles...
- Right then! Two cockles. That changes everything!
- Shut up!...
My cousin went on, doing everything she could not to laugh:
- You take two cockles...
Everyone, myself included, almost got the giggles. But she went on stoutly:
- ...and you put them end to end; then you make a screwing movement with one of them, like a screwdriver. And at least one of them will open up!
And we ate them raw on the shell. Delicious!
And now it was lunchtime!
So what? A lunch is a lunch, as the Engineer would say.
Oh no it isn't! That lunch was our catch from the previous day!
- What a wonderful catch! You should come more often; a catch like that isn't one you can get from the market.
No sooner said than done, my uncle started tucking into the smelt and jackknives.
My aunt, realising the importance of the matter, had personally supervised the cooking. And while the ladies enjoyed the cockles, emerging from a cloud of steam perfumed with thyme and bay, what can I say about the shrimp that Primus and I devoured? Just that it's a well-known fact that the best shrimp are caught in September!
The sun was already dipping into the sea when our train left to take us back to our little town. The sea kept us company throughout the journey, and we were already preparing our next fishing expedition...
Almost as soon as I got home, and having as politely as possible avoided dinner - I was tired and wasn't hungry - I went to my room and got out the mirror.
She was not there. Her room had changed. Vast, with a very high ceiling. The walls were covered in lovely, warm-coloured panelling, caressed by time. The furniture was made of heavy, rather dark wood. The great chandeliers were dark. Only lamps on the walls shed a soft light. Near the window stood a simple, stout table. There was nothing on it.
She came in, all smiles, wearing a simple dress and carrying a light-coloured wicker basket on her arm. She put the basket on the table and in it I could see shrimp.
I must have got up very late. "Still tired?" asked my mother. No, I wasn't tired. And I added that I was hungry.
The sun, which had disappeared to the bottom of the sea when our train left yesterday to bring us back to our little town, had not reappeared this morning. My garden was streaming with lovely, brand-new drops of water. It must have rained all night but I had doubtless slept so deeply that I hadn't realised.
Lunch was quite a lively meal. My parents put questions, I answered. I told them about the fishing expedition, with details. It amused my parents greatly.
My mother sometimes went to visit her sister, with my father and me. But never to the beach. Like everyone there, in fact. My uncle often went into town on business - he had fishing boats - and my aunt sometimes went into town to shop - "It's not as though you're going to find anything in the places round here!" she would say - but the sea seemed to hold no attraction for either of them. And when my cousin - my seaside cousin, as Primus had called her - and I wanted to go to the beach, the car took us. And fishing? Oh, we fished all right, just as my cousin went fishing with her friends during the short holidays. But nobody ever took their catch home! We weren't like the wretches from the cliff caves who fished for a living. So it was better not to mention the subject at all at home.
So what about our catch from the day before, that had so pleased my uncle and aunt? Lark and Primus were there...
And yet I am certain - oh yes, absolutely certain! - that my uncle really had found our catch oh so much better than anything you can get from the market!
I recounted the fishing expedition, with details. But my parents, did it only amuse them?
- Can you still hold a bow, then?
We had all met up this morning in Lark's living room - it was still raining - and the Engineer was laying into us.
- Have you already forgotten that we were at Grandpa and Grandma's these last few days? remarked his sister innocently.
- And I don't even have a bow to hold, I just have my keys to take care of! I said calmly.
The Engineer wasn't going to miss an opportunity like that:
- And when we play a quintet with two violas, like last year, does Primus play both viola parts?
- I didn't really play very well.
- That's not true! protested the Poetess kindly; at any rate it was better than what we can do on the piano, my brother and I.
I had had enough:
- Now I'm buried under compliments. But apart from that, what are we going to work on now?
- Well, since my sister finds you so wonderful, let's take a quintet with two violas! suggested the Engineer with a mischievous grin.
- I can't even remember where I put my lump of wood...
- Oh, I can help you there, said Primus quickly, it's at the bottom of your wardrobe, on the left.
The wardrobe... I felt troubled. He was visibly surprised at my lack of reaction. I pulled myself together and tried to parry his strike:
- Traitor yourself!
Did he see my disarray? He went on as though he had not noticed anything:
- It doesn't matter. We're not reckoning to give a concert before next summer. So we can work away quietly on both viola and piano. After all, we're not real musicians, are we? So a bit of a change won't do us any harm; quite the opposite, in fact!
And he added, seeing my faint air of concern:
- When you play a wrong note, I'll play louder so that no-one can hear you!
And other discussions of the same ilk...
We all then told the others what we had been doing over the last few days. The Engineer had done some work - "Term will be starting soon", he said. The Poetess had recited some of her poems to her grandparents and their friends who had come specially. We talked about the meadows, the cows, the seas. We talked about our fishing expedition. "Shame you didn't bring anything back, it sounds damn good!" exclaimed the Engineer. Time passed without disturbing us. We didn't really feel like doing much. The quintets can wait!
Sunday. The weather was still gloomy. Primus had come after lunch to shove the wood. We had stopped after two games.
- We played well today; your mind wasn't even elsewhere.
- My mind isn't always elsewhere.
- Have you still got your viola?
The question took me by surprise:
- Of course!
There was a moment's silence.
- Do you want to see it? I insisted; it's in the wardrobe; on the bottom, at the left.
There was a moment's silence.
- Yes; I told you that yesterday, said Primus.
There was a moment's silence.
- I don't know; I still don't know.
That evening, opening the wardrobe, I looked at my viola. Yes, it was there; on the bottom, at the left. "I don't know; I still don't know", I had said to Primus. As far as my viola was concerned, I did know; my viola was in the wardrobe, on the bottom, at the left. And what about the mirror? That too was in the wardrobe. Was it really there? "I don't know; I still don't know", I had said to Primus. "It's true, I don't know; and I don't know how to find out", I had said to him earlier, the day before our concert.
I took the mirror and set it before me on the table, as I usually did. Through the window, opposite which I was sitting, I could see my garden that was getting ready for the approaching autumn, adorning itself with gold. Was it autumn too where she was? Were there seasons?
She was writing. She lifted her head slowly and looked out of the window, opposite which she was sitting. She seemed to be looking for something. She tossed her head impatiently, which made me think she hadn't found what she had been looking for. She picked up the piece of paper she had been writing on and brought it close to the window so that the writing was turned towards me. It enabled me to see better what she had written. The letters were quite big and well-formed. Unfortunately, as always, what I could see was unstable and I was incapable of reading anything. However, I got the impression it was question. A moment went by, after which she sadly shook her head and left the room with slow steps. In place of the paper that was no longer there, I could see a handful of grasses carefully laid out on the table.
The weather was still just as bad, and this afternoon at Lark's had begun sluggishly with a glance at our music - viola and piano, as we had apparently decided. Like last Saturday, it wasn't a day when anyone felt like doing anything.
- I see we are no more energetic than the day before yesterday, declared the Engineer in a voice that betrayed little energy.
- Oh, it's good to do nothing! declared Primus in a voice that betrayed no energy at all.
Silence descended, which allowed us to take a well-earned rest after all the effort we had put into courageously taking our positions.
- Why do we feel like doing nothing?
Some time went by before my question penetrated the consciousness of those around me. But no! the girls were wide awake and had taken up all the time in thinking, if you don't mind.
- In term-time it's easy; we're tired and need rest, proposed Lark.
- And when you do a lot of algebra, like you did yesterday, you want to do something else to relax, proposed the Poetess, turning to her brother.
And added slyly:
- Don't you think so?
Lark had apparently not noticed anything, but Primus and I had immediately seen the mistake, as we say in chess, because we had exchanged an amused grin. And so the Engineer made the expected counter-strike:
- Absolutely, that's exactly what I think; so this evening I'll do geometry.
But I wasn't giving up on my question so easily:
- Right. Let's say, however unlikely it may seem, that our engineer obstinately refuses to do anything other than working at mathematics, or something else, it doesn't matter...
An approving wink from Primus greeted this master-stroke. The Engineer tried a defence:
- What do you mean, however unlikely it may seem?
A weak defence; the trap had closed. Primus forced the win:
- By what you've just said, you've just admitted that work is the only thing that interests you!
The Poetess sounded the trump:
- And that's why we call you the Engineer!
- All right, all right, you win. But you others, explain to me just as brilliantly why you are so keen to do something other than work, the case of "being tired" being ruled out as having already been debated in scholarly fashion and duly resolved.
- There he goes! He's off again! cried the Poetess.
Primus assumed the scholarly air as mentioned by the Engineer supra per mundum:
- The ritual question is: "Why do we want to do different things?"
I went on:
- The other ritual question is: "We are we tired of doing the same things all the time?"
- And the ritual answer to both questions is: "We don't know!"
- If you don't mind, gentlemen! objected the Engineer; the first question was: "Why do we want to do nothing?" It was a general, not a particular, thesis, as in your so-called ritual questions!
- There they go! They're off again! it was Lark's turn to cry.
The Poetess turned to her:
- Didn't you tell me Primus had brought some hazelnuts yesterday?
- Oh yes indeed. And there are macaroons for tea.
- Oh goody! I love his hazelnut tree!
- That's a lousy rhyme, Poetess! teased her brother.
- Yes, but the macaroons are good! Though we wouldn't like to interrupt your philosophical discussions...
- Teatime! Teatime! interrupted Primus merrily.
The macaroons - which were indeed good - left us feeling... relaxed. Not for long, however, because Lark had the unfortunate idea of saying:
- Gosh, they're good! I could eat them for ever!
That was a hostage to fortune. The Engineer leapt into the breach:
- The other ritual question is therefore wrong!
But Primus was ready with a reply:
- Lark can't, otherwise she'll be sick!
The Poetess joined battle:
- So it's not because she's tired of them that she'll stop eating them.
- So the other ritual question remains, affirmed Primus.
- And what if it's just because we can't do otherwise that we say we are tired of something?
- And if we drink water all the time without getting tired of it, it's also because we can't do otherwise, added Primus.
The learned society deliberated. The Engineer shared his thoughts with us:
- These prolegomena have revealed a further question.
He took the time to excite our curiosity:
- Are we masters of ourselves?
- Is that a ritual question? asked Primus caustically.
The Engineer did not see the threat coming, as they say in chess:
- I don't see how your question could answer mine.
- Easy. Because the ritual answer would be we don't know!
The Engineer counter-attacked:
- On the subject, while you're talking of relaxation, school also offers relaxation from what you do outside it.
- I couldn't agree more, agreed Primus, but this time I can't see...
- I haven't often heard anyone say they're going to go to school for a bit of relaxation!
The Engineer seemed to have won a draw. As nobody had anything else to say, we fell back on the macaroons.
The quintets were still waiting. Today, we had planned a bike ride but the rain had returned and a north wind had got up. Brave but not foolhardy, we were at the Poetess's house, having invited a few friends to join us.
There was no place for philosophy here, or not much... Chatter, dancing, eating... And the subject of school did come up, since its gates would shortly open to swallow us up. Though it must be said we were willing enough victims.
Philosophy was absent but not music, for three Muses from distant Phocis had come down from Parnassus to be among us. Terpsichore guided the dancers' steps. Euterpe had chosen some trios - for two violins and cello, played by the Poetess, Lark and the Engineer, for violin, viola and cello, played by Lark, Primus and the Engineer, and for piano, violin and cello, played by yours truly, the Poetess and the Engineer again. And the tragic sonnet composed by the Poetess had been inspired by Melpomene.
The Poetess recited her sonnet:
A delicate flower dwelt in the shade,
Fearing the fiery rays of the sun.
A tree stood by, its leafage made
A shelter for the fragile one.
An axman, passing where it stood,
Marked out the tree as good to burn.
The tree knew not that living wood,
When once consumed, can ne'er return.
Alone, the fragile flower took fright,
It could but wait and then expire.
A friendly cloud, moved by its plight,
Protected it from the sun's hot fire.
The sun at such effrontery took wrath
And, cloud and flower, burnt off both.
Around us, the earth was awaiting new life. Swathes of mysterious fields that would speak only to those who know. The rain had stopped but the sky had not returned to its purity of the weeks gone by. A gentle sun had come to dream over our heads. We had decided to take advantage of its presence, which looked like being only temporary, to go and picnic in the abandoned graveyard, overgrown with shrubs and ivy, near the old chapel that was slowly falling down under the assault of the wind and rain. Yes, I have copied what I wrote at the very start of the holidays. But why can't we see the same landscapes and use the same words to describe them?
There may be a reason. We were cycling along roads that we knew well. They seemed not to have changed for... I was going to say for centuries but I think I may be getting ahead of myself there, let's say for years. And then we didn't have so many years between us, so I can say since our childhood. Any yet nothing today was like the last time we had come. Of course, you may say, it was probably not the same time of year. Yes, that's true, but it's not the time of year I'm thinking about; even if we had come yesterday, something would have changed. What? A branch, broken by the passing of a tractor? Perhaps, but that's not enough on its own. A stone that I had missed last time was not in the same place; I remember it very clearly. Is that it? Of course, of course, that's it, and autumn that has started to yellow the leaves, and... all the things you see and that are no longer the same; because of the time of year, I've already said it, and then also because of the time of day, because the light is not the same, and then the shadows that come and go... All that, it's what you see, and it's probably all that that gives the impression that everything changes. So it's true that you can't use the same words to describe the same landscapes since the landscapes are never the same.
Only, you see each of those things that change clearly when you look at them. For each thing there is a word. Leaf, green, yellow. By putting all the words together you can describe every landscape. And if it's just to say that I'm going to somewhere I've already been, the same words will do.
How could I describe with words what I saw in the mirror and that was never stable?
Lunchtime. We had reached the graveyard, in which the graves were disappearing under the gold of leaves fallen from the trees. The sun was still strong enough to let us have our lunch outside without having to seek shelter in the old chapel, as we did when the weather was less favourable.
- The sun won't be killing off any flowers today, mumbled Primus, eating his leek pie.
- Especially now that there aren't any flowers left, noted the Engineer.
- It can't even get rid of all the clouds hiding it from us.
- There are flowers all year round.
Who had...? Oh yes, it was the Poetess.
- What do you mean? protested her brother, flowers are for spring!
She said nothing for a moment, looking thoughtful. Lark seemed to have guessed:
- You mean your poem? Of course, the flower is a symbol.
The Poetess nodded slowly. I said:
- I think we talked about symbols, about a month ago.
- That's right! exclaimed Primus; I remember it very well.
He went on with a scowl:
- We were just having a good time dancing and the group intellectual came up and talked to us about symbols.
- I remember it very well too, declared the Engineer; I asked whether reality depended on the symbol.
- I can't remember anything at all; I must have been dancing, commented Lark.
- And what was the answer? asked the Poetess curiously.
- The answer? I think someone said that the question was well-known and the intellectual said that nobody had come up with a final answer.
The Poetess gave a sad smile:
- Flowers can't wait...
The weather had turned bad again. The rain was falling in showers interspersed with gusts of wind that chased the lost raindrops away into the distance.
We had taken up our instruments again and, unable to go walking outdoors, were ambling through our music. The quintets, with piano and with viola, had been touched on without too much insistence. No real work.
- There's progress to be made but our heart's in it! commented Lark.
Primus did not miss the opportunity:
- The heart! Another symbol!
The Engineer shrugged:
- It's not even a real symbol; it's just a commonplace that people say every day.
His sister was preparing a reply but he beat her to it:
- The heart won't replace a missing hand.
- If the heart is a symbol, at least it encourages us to do what we are capable of; you don't get very far if you don't put your heart into it, as the saying goes.
The Engineer nodded:
- The only trouble is that the word heart has no meaning on its own; it encourages us equally to do and to not do.
- How do you mean? said his sister with surprise.
- Not to get upset by a setback you can't do anything about, for example.
- But when your sister spoke to us about the flower, we all understood! exclaimed Lark.
- And what would someone have understood if they lived in a place where there are neither clouds nor flowers?
- I think that nevertheless, Primus interjected, it would be possible to explain...
The Poetess approved vehemently:
- If they don't have flowers, they have other things that are part of their life.
- And thoughts to direct it, said Lark supportively.
The Engineer did not seem very convinced:
- Yes, good, evil, boldness and whatnot. Words, just words...
Primus started our little game:
- The ritual question is: "What do words mean?"
- The other ritual question is: "Are thoughts words?"
- And the ritual answer to both questions is: "We don't know!"
The Engineer gave a pale smile:
- And everyone leads their life according to what they have understood of what they don't know.
The fifteenth of September. Back to school in about two weeks - Monday, the second of October. I had spent my morning tidying up. I had also looked at some textbooks from the school year that had ended two and a half months ago at the end of June. What good could they still be to me, these books? "Keep your books, you can look at them when you need to", our teachers sometimes said. Why do we have to keep them in order to look at them? I can remember very well what my books contain; it's easy, the image of each page I have read is before my eyes. I look; I read the words. Oh! There are some missing. Where have they gone? Yes, yes, I know, don't fret; memory. And yet I can see the missing words, I can see them clearly, very clearly. But... Yes, that's just what I mean... I can see them but I can't read them; they aren't... yes, they aren't stable... I know, I've already said that, it's memory. It's the same when I want to remember a landscape; I can't remember all - yes, that's what I said, all - the branches, down to the smallest twigs, of the tree I have looked at. That's memory again. But have I really seen all - all! - the branches? No, of course not. That's not memory any more. Oh no, that's eyes. And yet my eyes could see everything, everything; and I could learn it - I learn more at school. But I don't do anything with it, any more than you do! I am satisfied to look at the tree, and the bits I see suffice. They tell me it's a tree. But that's because when I was taught what a tree was, that's how I was taught. Memory, eyes... What about words, then? Is it worth even asking the question whether I hear all words, whether I understand them all, whether I remember them all? What more do I really know about the world around me than about the world I see in the mirror? One day, on the subject of translating of the word 'tea' - it was at school - I had said to Primus, roughly, that translating the word would serve no purpose, that you had to see tea in order to know what it was. And I had added, I remember it very well: "Just being able to see your tea isn't enough either, you have to be able to touch it, take it, eat it." Would that be the only difference between the world around me and the world I can see in the mirror? Primus had asked me: "What kind of tea are you short of, then?" I had answered that I had no idea. What can I tell my friend? Show him the mirror? He certainly saw my confusion when he mentioned my viola that was in my wardrobe, on the bottom, at the left. But there's nothing to be seen in the mirror when there's someone other than me. I had found that out one Thursday, the first day of June, when my mother had passed by the open door to my room. Yes, I remember it very well. A bit later, one day when Primus was in my room, I had opened my wardrobe and glanced discreetly at the mirror; there was nothing to be seen.
Lunch with my parents. Ordinary talk, but pleasant. I had brought up the question of after school, knowing that my father was capable of talking the hind leg off a donkey on the subject. He did not disappoint. But I'm poking fun at him only for my own benefit. To be honest, his analysis was entirely logical but it left no room for - for what? The word "dreams" comes to mind, of course, but I shouldn't be mixing dreams up in our conversation. It was imagination that my father's logic left no room for. Analysis is good, let's be clear about that, when it's so... what's the right word? Rational? Objective? Either or both, you choose! It's good, it closes doors. Of course, you can't get out, but then no-one else can get in, so you're undisturbed. As for those who don't need, or don't want - your choice again - to be undisturbed, I reckon they look askance at logic; it doesn't let the light in. My father's analysis was of course followed by advice. I didn't find much wrong with the advice. Some of it even seemed rather good. Its main quality was to be based on proven, unarguable fact. What my maths teacher tells me is true, it has been proved; it is not a whim or a fancy. And I can't apply what I've just said about being undisturbed to what is true; everyone needs to drink real water, not imaginary. Real, true... real is what is, so all you have to do is find out what is. One day, a boy who lives not far from me decided to go for a walk with a friend instead of going to school, without telling his parents. So he went out, saying that he was off to school. On the way he met a classmate who started telling him a story that got him enthralled. The boy didn't realise his misfortune until he heard the heavy school gates clanging shut behind him. There was no way he could get out. That evening, his mother asked him if everything had gone well at school. As everything had indeed gone well, he said yes. And that way his mother knew what was true; the real that is. As for those who prefer dream to real...
Back in my room, I sat down at the piano.
We had come up with an amusing way of playing a piano and violin sonata that pleased us greatly. It took four of us. Primus and I took it in turns to play the piano, while Lark and the Poetess both played the violin part; the Engineer also played the violin part, but on his cello. It wasn't what the composer had intended but we were sure he would forgive us, seeing the passion we put into playing his music.
So I had sat down at the piano and was practising, rather idly I must admit, the sonata in question. Practising a duet on your own is never much fun; but what can you do? An unexpected thought flashed through my mind: did she play the violin?
I took out the mirror. Her desk was covered with exercise books and text books. The ornaments had disappeared from her room. The tapestry was no longer on the wall before me, on which I could see a large map. Though when I say see... Only a single ornament had remained in her room. On the side-table, near the sofa where she usually read, a vase, a deep vase; and in the vase a sheaf of corn.
She was at the piano, playing my part of the violin and piano sonata. The movements and pressure of her fingers revealed her feelings. She was playing easily and with a great deal of expression. I was filled with a wish to play with her. No violin in her room. She probably didn't play. I was heartbroken. Suddenly she stopped playing and stared out of the window, as if she were expecting something. Then she played over a few bars and looked towards the wardrobe. After a moment, without turning her gaze from the window, she played another bar, two or three times, the way one does to let the other players know you're ready. I leapt up and got my viola, tuned it and got ready to play. She turned back to her piano, played two or three notes from the beginning of the sonata then gave a quick nod to indicate that she was going to start. I had already looked at the violin part on my viola - it was helpful for accompanying. We played the whole sonata. Of course I couldn't hear the piano, but I could hear her hands. Could she hear me? Unlike me, she never looked my way; and yet, when I fumbled or made a mistake she stopped and slowly played over the passage again. I knew that the sonata inspired the same feelings in us, I knew it. And I also knew that we had no need of words to communicate with each other, of words that fade in the memory.
The rain was tapping on the window pane - to wake me up, no doubt. All right, all right... But getting up doesn't necessarily mean not sleeping. There was nothing I felt like doing but Primus didn't feel the same way and so we were shoving the wood.
- The tide's going out; the gulls will be back...
I looked up in surprise:
- Tide? What tide? Oh yes, the tide.
He didn't say anything. I asked:
- Do you want to see the sea?
- I would have like to see it in bad weather, like today.
- It's true, in autumn...
- It'll be here in a few days. And next Monday, I remember, the coefficient will be a hundred and fifteen. High tide will be about ten metres, like your cousin told us.
He pulled a horrified face:
- The tide will be at its highest at midnight! The waves will sweep over the breakwater! The storm will hurl the ships against the coast!
He gave a laugh:
- Imagination's a wonderful thing!
- Come on, he added, it's your move.
You can't live in the imagination; in the imagination you can't feel life. Imagination cannot give rise to feelings.
Leaving, Primus gave my shoulder a friendly shake.
Lunch with my parents. My father mentioned going into the city:
- ...to get school things. There's a bigger choice of books...
I pointed out:
- You can order books.
- You can compare...
He was absolutely right. But I really don't like the city.
My mother took advantage of the opening:
- You need a suit too; we'll go to...
She mentioned the name of a tailor I usually go to - I mean that my mother usually takes me to. I can never remember his name. It's not that he's disagreeable, but I get so bored during the fittings... And as my mother always knows better than I do which sort of material I like... At least I was able to save the single-breasted jacket, under threat - like the pawn from the queen - by the apparently more becoming double-breasted version that you can't easily get out of - just like the city. And besides I don't need another suit; the ones I've got are fine and I hate new clothes. I will not escape the tailor...
The sun had returned during the night. Well, you know what I mean... We had agreed to go for a walk as soon as the eternal absent of the last few days deigned to favour us with a visit. So the sun was back, though it had forgotten to bring any warmth...
The railway line we had followed, "playing trains", nearly two months ago - ah! we were still in the middle of the holidays then - went to the other side of the city where the tailor was. That was the direction we had decided to take on our walk, though our destination, as you can imagine, was not the tailor's...
Leaving the station of our little town, one side of the railway line is wide enough to ride a bicycle on. As the main road running alongside was too busy for our liking, we took the railway route.
- No playing at trains today! said Primus regretfully.
- You're wrong, we'd be an express.
The Engineer gave a laugh:
- We'd scare the living daylights out of everyone! Who has ever seen an express on this line?
- There were a lot more trains a few years ago, remarked Lark; there must have been trains faster than the stopper.
- A few years ago, the trains would have been drawn by a horse!
The Poetess made a sweeping gesture, as if presenting her brother to an audience:
- A poet is born!
Everyone started laughing except for the Engineer, who pursed his lips:
- If ever I built a poetical train, I doubt you'd ever take it.
- I'd take the horse that draws it! stated Primus.
And turning to Lark:
- And have you sit up behind me!
- And forget to stop at all the stations!
- Why stop? Life goes on!
- Careful! You'll come off the rails! warned the Engineer.
Thrust and counter-thrust continued until all the arguments - increasingly threadbare, it must be said - were worn out. The train - I mean the onslaught - ground to a halt.
The neighing of the horse that drew the stopper warned us that it was not pleased. Not without reason, it must be said. The path we were riding along may have been wide enough, but from time to time we may have strayed a little too close to the track itself and horses are fearful beasts, which doubtless explains why this one was making such a palaver.
The Engineer took umbrage nonetheless.
- Since we are not wanted here, let us return to the ways drawn for us by the men of the past, he suggested.
On which we left rail for road.
And where was the stream that had run alongside us since we had started out? No, it hadn't got lost; there, on the other side of the track, it was waving in reflections brought to us by the sun.
Our road was quiet and so were we; we were clearly made for each other. And so we came to a level crossing, not far from a little station. Noon struck somewhere in the village.
- Lunchtime! cried Primus.
- Where shall we sit? The ground is still damp, fretted Lark.
The Poetess gave a broad smile:
- I'll invite you all to the buffet-car!
The buffet-car was not far off, lost in the countryside, doubtless set down on rails: who knows what goes on in the thick grass that the rain of the last few days had brought out! The service was impeccable, the menu delicious... I mean what was on the menu was... no, I mean... oh, you know perfectly well what I mean!... and the guests couldn't have been nicer... Never before had the goods wagon - I mean the buffet-car - seen such a party!
- It is particularly interesting to note that this buffet-car is absolutely perfect, compared to any other buffet-car.
- Your proposition is particularly interesting; we look forward to hearing you defend it.
Primus had opened the debate following the Engineer's proposition.
I stepped in:
- The task is impossible on first principle. You cannot know all the buffet-cars in the universe.
The Engineer held up a hand:
- A fundamental restriction must first be made. Not at present being able to explore the universe, we must therefore be content with the planet on which we live, assuming of course that it exists.
Primus held up another hand:
- Your proposition will therefore be of limited interest, since it cannot lay claim to universality.
The Engineer held up the first hand:
- My proposition will be of unlimited interest, since it is of an absolute, not relative nature.
- Argue it!
- The argument is simple. Even you should be able to understand it.
I pressed him:
- No pirouettes! Get to the point!
- The point is equally simple. Our buffet-car depends on no builder other than ourselves; consequently, any imperfection cannot have been introduced by anyone other than ourselves...
- But, broke in Primus; if ourselves...
- But me no buts! said the Engineer; a thing cannot be done imperfectly unless it can be done and we have done nothing; we have imagined it all.
He paused for a second before adding triumphantly:
The joke ended on a thought. I pondered. Could I imagine what did not exist?
We were now cycling along side roads that seemed to lead nowhere; they were like the streets of a great village made up of fields, fields as far as the eye could see, and each street led to a hamlet, a collection of three or four houses with lath and plaster walls. Were they really houses? The weather had ill-treated them without destroying them; what were they doing there, without moving? Were they waiting for something, expecting something? No, they expected nothing. The harvest no longer depended on them; all around, large villages surveyed the fields that stretched as far the eye could see, and it was now on them that the harvest depended.
In one of the houses, in a tiny little room the daylight had trouble getting into, an old man and an old woman were sitting side by side. Without moving, they looked out of the narrow window. What did they see? Reality? Imagination? Or a dream, that of their life?
That evening I took out the mirror. Her room still had the austere look I had seen last Friday, the day when we had played the violin and piano sonata together, she on the piano and I on the viola. Her desk was still covered with school books. The sheaf of corn was still on the side-table. As usual, everything seemed unstable and lacking in permanence. The side-table in particular changed shape slightly every time I looked at it. I had long stopped being taken aback by these strange phenomena. But today, something unexpected took my eye. Whereas everything else in the room - the side-table, even the vase - shifted in shape, the sheaf of corn alone was not affected by any change; it remained immobile, clear, as constant as if it had been my own world. Instinctively I looked around me; my room looked just the same as always. I felt troubled. Why had I said my own world? Had I unconsciously admitted that her world was not... that her own world was... I couldn't go on.
From the heap on her desktop emerged a geometry problem. She was trying to find the answer, doing not too badly. She reached a hard bit. Without really being able to see properly, I could nevertheless make out the terms of the problem and just about follow what she was doing. It was a more difficult problem than those she had done the previous year. Was she already back at school? Or was she getting ready for the start of term the way I quite often did myself? The hard bit had apparently stopped her. She lifted her head and a happy smile lit up her face. She was opposite me, so she was looking out of her window. She put down her pencil and seemed to wait. I tried to solve the hard bit. I took a piece of paper and started drawing the figure. I hadn't managed to see everything on her drawing and was hesitating over a detail. "Tell me where this line goes!" I thought to myself. Oh yes, through D. I drew the line and immediately found myself staring at it in surprise. How had I found it so quickly? The answer was obvious and I had done everything I could not to accept it. But why, since the same thing had not surprised me when I had made music with her? I looked up and seemed to see her give a bright little laugh. I smiled too and started to solve the hard bit. When it was done I looked up again; she was drawing the necessary lines... A moment later, she had finished. She looked out of the window again, with a grateful smile, as if to say thank you.
I write that each time she looks out of the window, but she is opposite me... Does she see me the way I see her? Why have I always shrunk from asking myself the question? Is it true that I have never asked it?
- Are you already back at school?
I have asked the question aloud, clearly. She has not reacted in any way. I have asked the question again in the other languages I know, including the dead ones. Still no reaction. She has not heard me. That's no surprise, I have never heard her either. I have taken a piece of paper and written out the same question, in all the languages. She has looked at it, but her look did not seem to see anything precise, it was a seeking kind of look. Slightly crestfallen, I tell myself that I must have been mistaken about the geometry problem and that she had not understood anything at all about my explanations, if that is what you can call them. Downcast, I had looked away. When I looked up again, I saw that her room was dark; on the wall, in place of the map I had seen earlier, was the piece of paper on which she had finished the problem, greatly magnified and brightly lit. She was sitting upright on her sofa, an ear of corn in her lap. She looked radiant.
Tuesday. It was raining. Autumn would be here before the end of the week; the sun was going to sleep and night was preparing to rule over day. And we would be back at school in under two weeks.
At Lark's. High spirits filled the living room. Was it a defence against the faint anxiety of going back to school? No point asking the question; everyone always says they're happy to go back to school. Well, perhaps not absolutely everyone; there are malcontents.
- I don't like being shut in the whole time, one of them announced.
- You learn things that have no use! said another.
- It's not the only place where you do things that have no use, chipped in a third.
I just listened. I wanted to listen to what nobody talks about. Yes, the others talked about it, but I reckon they did so in the same way as grown-ups when they ask how you're doing at school. What would the malcontent say if I suggested a closely argued discussion of the real reasons why he didn't want to be shut in, as he claimed? And what would the other say if I suggested a detailed analysis of what is and is not useful at school? And what about the third, if I told him that what matters is knowing whether what things might be useful for is worth all the effort? I know what they would say; they had come to have fun, not to think, hadn't they?
And after all why shouldn't I have fun. As for not thinking, I don't think I know what it means.
So I was having fun. I danced with this girl, then with that one; I chatted with this boy, then with that one. They were all there, around me. I could touch them, talk to them, hear them talking. And yet I had nothing in common with them, school mates, neighbours... So I didn't touch them, didn't talk to them... - provided of course that you give the word "talk" a personal meaning; when I ask the grocer for a pound of potatoes, I don't call that talking. But in that case, can I say that I live with them? And the man I saw one day out of the train window, I can't even remember where, and who I have never seen again, how can I know whether he really existed? The Engineer had spoken yesterday about presuppositions, whether our world existed; of course it was just a joke, we were having fun, but how can we prove that the world exists?
Primus would say that all these things are ritual questions, meaning questions that people ask when they have nothing better to do, knowing full well that there are no answers, apart from the ritual ones. Sometimes they get turned into school books, too, soon forgotten.
All I know is that I see her in the mirror.
This afternoon was spent working quietly on our new quintets, playing other pieces from our repertoire; Lark has sung, the Poetess recited. We have spoken about the start of term.
- It always bothers me when I go from the holidays to school, or from school to the holidays, remarked the Poetess.
- And yet you should be pleased at not having to do maths during the holidays rather than bothered, joked her brother.
His sister smiled brightly:
- That's true enough!
She frowned and then went on:
- I mean I feel as though I'm someone else...
She broke off. Primus declared solemnly:
- We're going to be getting new poems, the like of which have never been heard before!
The Poetess smiled and said nothing.
- Our life isn't the same when we're on holiday or at school, observed Lark; on holiday, we have more space for our own thoughts.
- Do you mean school thinks for us? I asked her.
- When we play without writing our own music, the composer has also thought for us, said the Engineer.
- It is we who choose the composer.
- It is also we who choose the kind of studies we do, retorted Primus.
The Poetess was still thoughtful:
- I am free with regard to the composer; he proposes, I can dispose and still be myself; at school I have to accept...
- You can refuse what you're told, protested Lark.
- I still have to hear it.
She was silent for a moment then went on:
- And as soon as I accept, I am no longer myself...
I was at Primus's; we were shoving the wood and stuffing ourselves with fresh hazelnuts from his garden.
- It's your move.
I was surprised:
- How do you mean? I've just played...
- I thought I had made my move...
- Thought without action cannot have any consequences, he said professorially.
And he added with a laugh:
- That's what happens when your mind is elsewhere!
I retorted with a mocking smile:
- That's what happens when I have made my move!
Discomfited, he looked at the board:
- Ah! I hadn't noticed.
Check. My triumph was complete:
- That's what happens when your mind is elsewhere!
He gave a little nod then said with a smile:
- Come on! Next game!
Yet it's unusual for him to be absent-minded...
A tidying-up day today. There's so much to get ready for school. You never know what but you always find something. You suddenly come across notes you took the year before and had forgotten to file. You...
Was everything always tidy at her's? Oh yes, that's right! Last Monday I had seen a great pile of stuff on her desk... a real mess. And yet she seemed to have no trouble finding whatever she needed. A ruler, not to be seen anywhere, found its way into her hand in the twinkling of an eye. Everything happened quickly, very quickly. And anyway was I so sure I had seen a mess? On second thoughts, what I had seen was as unstable as usual. So... So I don't know. I still don't know.
I took out the mirror. Sitting at her desk, she was looking out of the window - as if she were keeping watch over something - with an impatient look that changed the moment she saw me. Why do I write when she saw me? Because I am sure she can see me. I waved to attract her attention. She started peering around, like someone who can't see very well. "You can't see me clearly" I thought. Immediately she smiled and gave a wave which seemed to be an answer. I went to another part of my room and waved again. I shouldn't have bothered. "Why can't you see me any more?" I thought again. And immediately she waved back, looking at the new place I had moved to. Could she read my thoughts? I started to think: "If you can understand me, nod twice." She did nothing, but seemed happy to see me. I made other requests, seeking a response. I shouldn't have bothered. A feeling of sadness flowed over me. She gave a start. She got up, came to the window, looked at me for a long time. And I seemed to see her eyes softly glisten, as if strewn with dew.
Saturday. The city. We were there. The wide streets opened their arms to the sun that had come to stroll around with us. The shops were full of people. Some had come to buy things they needed, others had come to try and buy things they didn't need. "Look what I found in Soandso's!" I have sometimes had the occasion to see the "what" that they had bought in wherever. You have to be quick, because by the next time the "what" had disappeared, been forgotten. The shops for school things were full of schoolchildren who had come to buy things they would have found with no trouble in the little towns like mine where they lived. Of course, some parents, like mine, had brought their offspring here, but in other cases... "Look what I found in Soandso's!" said a boy from my class who had come off his own bat. Rather absent-mindedly - not because my mind was elsewhere in the way Primus meant but because I was simply not interested - I pointed out that the same "what" could be found in our own little town. "But this one's red!" he replied. If I tell you I know he doesn't like red, you won't believe me, will you? But I should also say that some had come simply to walk around. How can you walk around in a city? Could you play at trains? However that may be, I didn't need anything, though I did buy a book - don't ask me whether I could have found it in our own little town - to please my father. My mother was bored and did not encourage me to buy anything. She was waiting to get to the tailor's.
At least there was one thing I liked at my tailor's: his chalk; a little rectangle, not quite flat, smooth, slightly convex, soft-coloured, with pretty little edging caught and limned by the light. Otherwise... "I'll take it in a little here... - Not too tight, is it? - If you'll just put on the jacket again... - We need to let it out a little there..." Oops! The seams have split. Will he ask me to try it on again?
Lunch with my parents. The conversation had no need of us to keep going all on its own. The city we had visited yesterday paid the price. My father was happy with the book I had bought - "You'll find it useful, you'll see!" he said. My mother was happy with the suit my tailor had made me - "He's really first rate, that tailor!" she said. I was happy to back in my own little town - "Why leave the place where you feel at home?" I said to myself. To be honest, my father was sorry I had not taken more time to look at other books - "You don't go to the city often enough!" he said. To be honest, my mother was sorry I had not wanted a double-breasted jacket - "They're so much more elegant!" she said.
Monday. Only one more week to go. I started revising my notes from the previous year. A bit of maths, a bit of physics, a bit of... A bit of everything.
Was she doing the same? I took out the mirror. She was at her desk. Evidently she was doing the same. The mess had been replaced by tidy stacks of text and exercise books. She seemed absorbed in a large book illustrated with a few pictures. A history book, perhaps? The history of which country? I had already asked myself the same question when I had seen a large map on her wall... which I had not managed to see as clearly as all that. Thinking that there may not be answers does not stop me from asking questions.
She must have seen me take out the mirror because she gave me a great wave before looking up from her book. A moment later, she was smiling at me and indicating her desk as if to tell me what she was doing. I in turn showed her my maths book. She looked at it carefully, then opened her arms to show, I suppose, that she hadn't seen clearly. Suddenly the door to her room opened and I seemed to see the figure of a woman... Instantly everything disappeared and all I could see in the mirror was what one usually sees in a mirror. I glanced round just in case. No, no-one had come into my room. I waited for a good while. The mirror was still dumb.
I went back to what I was doing. In fact, I went back to nothing at all. I was anxious. And yet there was no reason to be. I knew perfectly well that you couldn't see anything in the mirror when you weren't alone. So it was quite natural for the same thing to happen when someone came into her room. Natural? What do you mean, natural? There was nothing natural about the mirror, nothing! And yet I couldn't get rid of the thought that everything was natural, everything! I remembered the thought that had crossed my mind last Tuesday - instead of having fun, as I had decided to. The man seen from the train window, did he really exist? I had said that I had never seen him again. I felt anxious again. Will I see her again? A few moments later, I saw her again in the mirror. She was closing the door of her room, in which there was no longer anyone else. She ran to the window and waved, smiling, smiling...
The sun had stuck with us for three or four days and Lark's tennis court wasn't getting much rest. And yet we danced less than usual and all our conversations were about school.
- Why shouldn't we study our poetess's poems in English? asked the girl with an habitually pensive look.
- Great idea! And we could ditch the authors we don't like, too, declared the resolute boy.
The point was made that no-one would agree on which authors to ditch. He swept the argument aside:
- Even better: let's ditch all of them, then there'll only be our poetess left!
- An equally great idea! exclaimed the girl clad all in white, then our poetess could tell us what we should say about her poems; that way, we would be sure to get good marks!
The Poetess was doubtful:
- Nothing could be less certain; if the teacher doesn't know I'm the author, he'll come up with some ideas of his own.
- Or that he's pinched from English Lit. textbooks, commented the girl with cornflower blue eyes.
- English Lit. textbooks are written by English Lit. teachers, observed the boy with an habitually intellectual look profoundly.
- The man is a very fount of knowledge! mocked a champion, arriving racket in hand.
- In all events, remarked Primus, the teacher's ideas will be the best!
- Now you're following in my sister's footsteps! said the Engineer sarcastically.
- Oh, please! cried Lark, or else he'll have me writing mathematical poems!
- If the teacher teaches his ideas instead of those of our poetess, what will be left of the poem? said the intellectual boy.
A little music this afternoon. Without much conviction. I think we were waiting for school, which started next Monday, in order to get ourselves organised. It's silly, but you have to prepare a timetable; and it will no longer depend on us alone.
Tea was ready.
- I was thinking about what our intellectual said yesterday, began the Poetess; when we play, we too speak according to our own ideas, not the composer's.
- We play what's in the score, pointed out her brother.
- It's not the score we draw over our strings, intervened Lark, it's our bows, ours; it's our interpretation, our thought.
- So what's left of the quintet?
- It's not the same thing! We don't make anyone...
- What about the teachers in music schools?
Lark seemed discouraged:
- School transforms, we transform, everyone transforms; what is left of what touches thought?
- How can you believe what you see, what you hear? added the Poetess sadly.
The sun of the last few days would soon be making its escape, if the distant clouds starting to invade the horizon were anything to go by. "I reckon it's the last day for a walk before school starts again", the Engineer had suggested. We walked around, not going anywhere in particular. Autumn. The trees were nostalgic. The leaves, losing their life, were gradually falling from the branches. That's what people call beautiful. A breeze had got up, reminding me of the holidays that were coming to an end, of the summer, the summer heat sometimes tempered by that breeze that had returned like a memory today. Can thought touch nature? Perhaps... Nature too is transformed. No more corn in the fields. But I know the corn will return. Just as summer will return, just as days will return, without our having to do anything. Except look on. Look on without understanding. Trusting that they will return.
It was getting close to lunchtime. We weren't very far from our little town, not far from the graveyard that was nearly abandoned, overgrown by bushes and ivy, where we liked to sit and picnic in the shade of the trees growing around the abandoned chapel that was slowly falling down under the assault of the wind and rain. I know I have already said that. Please forgive me! I so much enjoy saying it again. Nature too is always saying the same thing over and over again - as we have just seen, or so the Engineer would say.
Lunch. A picnic.
- For transformation to happen, there has to be something that can be transformed, announced the Poetess suddenly in the middle of a slice of ham.
- What's this? You've been taking lessons from our intellectual friend, said her brother sarcastically.
She went on, ignoring the interruption:
- Lark asked, about a month ago I think, whether feelings could be true or false if they didn't have any reality, the reality of things we can see, hear, touch...
- I remember very well, confirmed Lark, so the question, as you have just said, is whether a feeling, if it has no reality, can be transformed or not.
- Do you mean transformed from true into false? inquired Primus.
She nodded. I spoke up:
- I also remember that Primus summed up our conversation that day by saying that the conclusion seemed to suggest that feeling was not reality. I protested, mentioning the fact - which nobody contradicted - that we all have feelings. I therefore conclude that we have the capacity to feel what is not real.
I had said my piece all in one go, almost violently. Primus gave me a quick but attentive glance.
It was raining. It had been raining since morning. My garden was covered with leaves abandoned by the trees. People say that weather like that is poor; I find it calm. Or perhaps rather calmed down, after the impetuous heat of the summer. I will go to school at peace, accompanied by serene memories of the holidays; music, poetry, lively discussions, dancing, walks, trips away - Ah! the jackknives on the beach! - the fair, playing at trains... Memories already distant; what stops does so without waiting.
A last glance at my books. School is no longer waiting either; it is as present in my mind as if I were already there.
At school, everything will be reality. Feelings do not get through the gates. You solve a maths problem, you explain why a passage from a text is interesting and apparently well written. What sort of mark would you get for an English essay that would contain only a single line: "This story made me dream..."? My teacher would say "You're entitled to use your mind, it's even recommended; but what have dreams got to do with it? It's your imagination you need to use, while still making sure that what you write makes sense."
Very well then; let's imagine.
Here I am again - in imagination - at the station hidden in a clump of trees where we had gone for a walk in July. A train - imaginary - runs at full speed on rusty rails - real - overgrown with saplings - real - threatening to run over my feet on the rails. The train has passed; I can no longer see the station because I'm now on the train. That's imagination for you! My teacher will be pleased, I'll get a good mark. For it's not a dream, everything I describe exists, is real. Of course, I have thought of the mirror; it too exists, it too is real, I mean the object itself, not what I see in it. I can show the object and no-one will bat an eyelid.
Night has fallen - why not? - and I can't see anything out of the window. I look for a conductor to ask him where I am and where the train is going. There's no-one around. Even imagined, all these things can exist. I describe a reality, it's not like what I see in the mirror, about which I know nothing and which I cannot show to anyone.
So here I am in a real world. How will I live with that reality? It's easy. It's a reality I can touch; I say something, other people talk back. So I ask the passengers where the train is going. Nobody knows... The passengers haven't seen a conductor since finding themselves on the train, without knowing how they got there. Nobody has ever tried to find out anything. Why? Because they're all busy with something else and they don't have time. But what about the driver? He may know, they tell me, but we can't get into the cab.
Jump off the moving train?
How can I live here? Easy. There's everything you need on the train, food... And people - real people - I can talk to.
Let us not forget that all this is only imagination. Our world - really real - certainly does not resemble the one I have just imagined.
And life with her?
At Primus' house. We were shoving the wood. Or rather, we were not shoving the wood. The chess board before us was wondering what it was doing there. We had talked a bit about school, Primus and I, and I had told him about my... English homework. I had made no mention of the mirror. I had joked, saying that I was bound to get a good mark. He said nothing, twisting and turning a knight which seemed greatly vexed to be treated thus. A long moment of silence went by after I had finished my tale. He took a deep breath:
- You'd like to jump off the moving train to go and be with her?
I tried to find an answer but I had already said a barely audible yes. Another long moment of silence went by, at the end of which he asked me:
- The carriage door was closed and you couldn't open it?
I nodded slowly. He went on:
- You said the day before yesterday that you couldn't feel what wasn't real.
- Perhaps your train exists and we are all on it.
He paused again:
- But if you can't leave it, outside is only a dream.
He paused yet again:
- Perhaps she is a dream.
He paused for the last time:
- Perhaps it's the dream that makes us want to live.
Sunday. The first day of October was taking its leave; tomorrow, school.
She was at her window. We talked all night. Without words; without those words that fade in the memory.
T H E E N D
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