One December morning a train gave three blasts on its whistle as it plowed through white mist, pierced here and there by poplar trees quivering like arrows stuck in the gray flesh of the Department of Yonne. In an overheated compartment a young infantry corporal gazed through the patch of window he’d demisted at the gloomy and monotonous landscape, grinning from ear to ear.
His two fellows, a sergeant and a plain infantryman, were drowsing, with their jackets unbuttoned, in the two corners of the bench seat opposite, using their caps as pillows.
“Look at that fog!” the corporal exclaimed, slapping the bench seat with the flat of his hand. “Take a good look at that fog!”
The infantryman was the only one to raise an eyelid.
“What’s up now?” he drawled. “What are you fussing about?”
“Just look at the fog,” the corporal said. “You know how long it’s been since you clapped your eyes on anything like it? Do you know how long it’s been?”
The infantryman rubbed his eyes and shrugged. He was a short, dark man with a pencil mustache and tapered sideburns. He nodded as he looked out of the window.
“Can’t disagree with you there. It’s a treat to see lousy weather again.”
“But how long has it been?” the corporal went on. “How long since you saw stuff like that? I’ll tell you, Lasteyrie. We ain’t seen it since Koblenz. When we got lost in Castortrasse, in the jeep.”
“That was a long time ago.”
“Thirteen months,” the corporal added.
“Fuck that,” Lasteyrie said, with a yawn. He stretched out and let his eyes nearly close.
“How long till we get in?”
“One hour forty,” the corporal said, doing the sum on the dial of his wristwatch.
“As much as that!” He tried to snuggle up in the corner and jiggled around until he found a comfortable position. “I’m going to sleep. Good night. I need to be in good shape for this evening.”
“This evening?” the corporal queried.
“You bet!” said Lasteyrie. “This evening I’m having a ball, and you won’t see me again until the third, at the railroad station, if I get there! See if I care…”
“What about your folks?”
“I’m not asking them for anything. If they hassle me, I’ll move out. I’m not exactly short of cash. In any case, I don’t owe them anything. It’s not as if the old’uns ever fussed over me!… C’mon, shut-eye.” And he settled back into the corner, using his cap as an eyeshade.
The corporal said nothing for a while, smiling at the thought that his own folks, right now, were thinking of him, just as he was thinking of them. He sank into the rhythm of the train wheels’ clackety-clack and the hissing of the wind as it rushed past the carriage. He looked at Lasteyrie, who kept shifting in his seat, then slowly turned his attention to the sergeant sleeping at the other end of the bench with his right hand inside his loosened jacket, near his heart. He’d crossed his legs and was sticking them out obliquely, with his heels on the floor. Now and again he scowled in his sleep and took a deep breath with a facial twitch that made his sharp and dented nose look even more angular.
“You’re just showing off,” the corporal said. “If you didn’t still have your parents, you’d take a different view.”
“For Christ’s sake, Valette, let me have a sleep!”
The corporal burst out laughing.
“Just let me sleep!” Lasteyrie repeated, breaking into a laugh as well.
The game was on. To stop Lasteyrie from sleeping now was to stop him from sleeping with the girl he hoped to pick up that evening, and thanks to the game, she was taking on a real existence. He’d already picked her up, she was waiting for him, and Valette had turned into a spoilsport. The soldiers started scrapping with each other out loud.
“You two, shut up!” the sergeant ordered as he opened his eyes.
“Sabah el kheir,” Lasteyrie responded, making a little bow, with his palm on his chest.
“Who closed the window?” the sergeant grunted. “We’ve been baking all night long. Open it.”
Valette lowered the window a little.
“You’re a hard bunch, you are,” Lasteyrie said as he buttoned up his jacket. “Valette stops me from sleeping and now you’ll make me catch my death. You’re trying to wreck my leave, you swine!”
But the sergeant had turned away and leaned his head against the compartment wall.
“Did you see the fog?” Valette asked him.
“Fuck that,” the sergeant said, without stirring.
“Lachaume! Lachaume! We’ll be there in an hour!” Valette declared, rounding down to make an impression.
“Fuck that,” Lachaume repeated, without opening his eyes.
Valette nodded as if he could see the light.
“Bah! When he gets to see her in the flesh, it’ll sort itself out,” Lasteyrie mumbled after a pause. “Being there is what matters. Chicks are all the same, if you ask me…” He made a swipe with his hand as if he were slapping a buttock.
The train screeched, slowed down, gave a blast on the whistle, drew into the station at Sens, and then stopped.
“Want a coffee?” Valette asked the sergeant, giving him a shake.
“No thanks. I’m asleep.”
When Valette and Lasteyrie came back into the compartment, there were two extra passengers: a woman from the countryside, dressed in black, hair neatly drawn back, sitting up straight and pursing her lips; and a round-eyed man of about sixty whose square-cut mustache quivered beneath a shiny nose as he got his wind back. He greeted the soldiers with a knowing wink. He had a clutch of medals on his lapel.
Valette brought in a plastic cup of milky coffee, with Lasteyrie ceremoniously bearing the croissant. Lachaume was jolted out of his sleep as Lasteyrie burst into song in falsetto:
Ah! Que c’est bon
Ah! Que c’est chouette
Le café au lait au lit (repeat)
“You’re a pal,” Lachaume said to Valette, taking the cup from his hands.
“What about me, then?” Lasteyrie protested as he waved the croissant under the sergeant’s nose. “Am I not a pal, too? If you’re going to be like that, I’ll eat it myself.”
But Lachaume grabbed the croissant as it passed and dipped it straight into the coffee, saying “Slam dunk!” as if he were playing basketball. Valette and Lasteyrie immediately put their hands above their heads and their legs apart as if they were players waiting for the quarter to start. But Lachaume wasn’t playing. He took little sips of his coffee, looking glum, with his elbows on his knees. Then he settled back into his corner with half a cigarette between his lips.
The train was traveling slowly across a sad and sodden plain, which the lifting fog now revealed. It seemed to be losing speed as it neared the end of its journey. The wheels rattled at a slower tempo, like the wheel of chance at a fairground booth clicking ever more slowly until it stops. An hour or two from now, I’ll know how things stand, Lachaume thought. He was overcome by a strange kind of weariness as he dozed off. What did it matter, winning or losing this time around? For him the wheel hadn’t stopped turning. Someone was forever putting it back into motion. All he could see was an icy hand emerging from the darkness, like an ivory hand on the pommel of a walking stick. Probably an old lady …
Lachaume woke up with a start. A cigarette lighter was burning his nose.
“Would you like a light, Sergeant?” someone was saying.
It was the passenger who had got on at Sens. Lachaume was furious. He threw away his cigarette, turned back toward the wall, and went back to sleep.
The passenger put his lighter back in his pocket and winked at Corporal Valette. His fat face oozed indulgence and understanding. “He’s tired out, is your sergeant!” And he sighed in a way to suggest that he, too, was no stranger to the weariness of war. But before settling on a definite attitude, he uttered the word “Algeria” sharply, but with a crossing of his eyebrows that could have been intended to make it into a question. He wanted to make sure he was talking to soldiers who had seen action.
Valette and Lasteyrie assented gloomily. The passenger rubbed his hands.
“Well, I don’t know about you, but trains make me famished,” he declared. “For starters, lads, let’s have a bite.”
Upon which, the self-appointed section chief reached into his leather briefcase and took out a half-loaf and two veal olives, which he cut up lengthwise for his men, giving each a slice on the blade of his knife. Valette and Lasteyrie were glad to accept the snack so as to head off any questions about Algeria, but that made them captives of the veteran, who went on eating noisily, with a martial look in his eye.
“You see this blade?” he said, with his mouth full. “It’s been through its fair share of corned beef and sausages! Argonne, Verdun, Dardanelles—you name it!”
Valette and Lasteyrie looked politely at the penknife being waved in front of them.
“A knife is a soldier’s fork,” the ex-serviceman decreed. “Boy oh boy…” He waggled his shoulders.
“Now, lads,” he ordered, “let’s douse it in blood!” Ignoring the plastic cup that had fallen out of his briefcase, he took a swig of red wine straight from the neck of a bottle he then passed to Valette—Valette first, because he was a corporal.
“And now,” he said when the bottle had done the round and come back to him, “I’ll tell you what I think, straight out, like a man who’s seen a thing or two. Seeing you two just now with your sergeant really gave me a fillip. Yes, lads, you’re real troopers, the way you look after your sergeant. An infantry sarge ain’t a nobody, he’s quite a someone…”
His round eyes began to water.
“I was a sarge in the 108th, so I know what I’m talking about. A sergeant is the soul of his section. It’s like he was a bone in the body of the army. A small bone, maybe, but without it the army would be like rubber, on its back … I can see you understand what I’m saying. You have to take good care of your sarge…”
Valette and Lasteyrie didn’t dare let their eyes meet, in case they burst out laughing, but they glanced at Lachaume—the old bone—who was unobligingly still asleep.
“We had a hard life, we did, in ’14–’18,” the ex-serviceman droned on. “Our kids, that’s to say, your fathers, didn’t understand the first thing about the army, they took us all for laughingstocks, and look how that turned out in ’40 … But things are going to change with your set. The French Infantry, the Queen of the Battlefield, is alive and well! Alive and well!” he repeated, darting a provocative glance at the woman in black who had kept pursing her lips and looking out the window ever since the train had left Sens.
“France hasn’t said her last word yet,” the old man announced. “Because France is eternal! Oh, là là, France wasn’t born yesterday … And ain’t that so pretty?” he exclaimed with a broad wave of his hand at the flatlands the train was traversing. “Is there anything prettier in the whole wide world?… I run a hotel, so I see people from all over coming to visit. Right, lads? So what I say is: France for the French, and foreigners should stay in their own place (I don’t mean the poor tourists, of course) … and hands off our colonies!”
He took another swig and continued in a loud voice:
“Because, you know, we didn’t have any trouble with our colonies until the Russkies and the Yanks started poking about. The Arabs, the Indochinese, the blacks, and the Malagasies just adored us, not to mention the Berbers and the Moroccans. And why did all those folk adore us? Because the Frenchman has his heart on his sleeve and can take a joke; because he doesn’t put on airs and graces despite being extremely intelligent; because he is broad-minded and doesn’t give a damn if your skin is black or yellow, as long as you get on with the job. Lads, don’t listen to the bastards! There’s nothing better on earth than a Frenchman, and I’ll give you proof: one, the French soldier is the best in the world; two, the French have the best food in the world; and three [he lowered his voice], Frenchmen are the world’s best fuckers.
“Of course we have our flaws,” he went on. “Who hasn’t, for heaven’s sake?… We grumble like hell, nothing is ever good enough for us. But it isn’t true that we’re lazy. We just work faster than other people, and as we’re not the ambitious kind, we take it easy the rest of the time. But that’s one of our faults—not being ambitious. Same as for our habit of running down everything that’s French. I do it, too! And then people say we’re chatterboxes, but that’s easy to say! Granted, we like to talk, but we don’t talk to say nothing, like the Eyeties, and we don’t talk in monosyllables, like the Brits. That’s because of the French language, which isn’t as soggy as Italian or as hard as English. It’s because of French, which is the most beautiful language in the world, and we appreciate it, we do, and like to use it. But we’re not chatterboxes, no, I won’t have that. The French are not chatterboxes.”
Thereupon the hotelkeeper launched into a long and detailed anecdote which sought to show that the French are not chatterboxes and that a sergeant can be led in certain circumstances to make a decisive decision that affected the outcome of a battle. It was set in the Argonne, at dawn, on a day when it was going to rain buckets, and all because of a dog with a broken leg … At this point in the tale, Valette and Lasteyrie were huddling down to avoid a burst of machine-gun fire that the hotelkeeper simulated by vigorous hand-clapping. To be honest, the two men on leave were leg-weary from circling about at the edge of a copse. From a military point of view, all copses are much of a muchness. But the sergeant of the 108th had them in his power and spared them no detail. As a taxpayer, did he not in fact own some part of Corporal Valette and Infantryman Lasteyrie? In any case, it seemed he wanted to get his money’s worth out of those two, who were keeping their heads down and their mouths shut, for they had become accustomed to silent submission through twenty-one months of military service. The reminiscences of an ex-serviceman must be counted part of a soldier’s lot. And then, as they were decent young men, the slice of veal olive that they had so thoughtlessly accepted called for a modicum of politeness. In short, Valette and Lasteyrie, who already had the Algerian War on their backs, had almost lost hope of avoiding the entire Argonne campaign when Lachaume, who had woken at the first burst of machine-gun noise, sat up suddenly when the second burst resounded and asked, with a frown, “Excuse me, sir, but how much longer is this going to go on?”
“What was that, Sergeant?” the hotelier asked, with a wide-eyed stare.
“Just because we are in uniform does not give you an excuse to recite your military memoirs,” Lachaume replied, just as sharply. “When you come across a sewerman wearing an oilcloth cap, do you bore him to death with the history of your shit?”
“Sergeant!” the hotelkeeper protested.
“Don’t you sergeant me!” Lachaume replied angrily. “You’re not my NCO, as far as I can tell!”
The hotelier turned toward Valette, whose ears were scarlet from the effort he was making not to burst out laughing.
“You have to understand, sir,” he said with great effort, trying to sound affable, considering the veal olive. “We’re on le … We could talk about something else.”
“Ho, I understand, I understand completely!” the hotelier replied in a menacing tone. “I know what I have to do!… Give me your name … sir,” he said to Lachaume, making “sir” sound like an insult.
Valette and Lasteyrie protested, they did not want Lachaume to give his name.
“Lachaume, 4th Infantry, Company No. 4,” Lachaume said with a smile.
“I’ll stick a report up your ass!” the hotelkeeper warned him. “Insult in public of a decorated ex-serviceman, that’s a serious matter, you’ll be hearing from me … A fine thing, the French Army!” And out he went into the corridor, slamming the compartment door behind him.
Throughout this scene the woman in black had carried on obstinately looking out of the window with her lips pursed. Once the hotelier had left, she showed a slight interest in the three soldiers, nodded her head, then dropped her hands in her lap, as if to signify she had decided not to say anything.
Valette and Lasteyrie waited for the words that failed to come. Once they got over rejoicing at the departure of the old soldier, they began to take the threat of a report seriously, and as they were law-abiding citizens, they were on the lookout for a witness for the defense. But after one last glance at them, the woman in black resumed her attitude of indifference and turned back toward the window.
The train was speeding through a drab station. Houses were getting more frequent and began to break up the countryside. Meanwhile, Lachaume had gone back to sleep.
The hotelkeeper took advantage of this to rescue his leather briefcase from the compartment. Valette gave him a hand and, putting on a smile, made a last attempt to resolve the situation.
“You’ll be hearing from me!” the hotelkeeper boomed as he grabbed the leather briefcase from Valette and moved to another compartment.
Once again the woman in black made a vague gesture, and Valette and Lasteyrie looked at her, seeing gray eyes so pale they might have been pewter diluted by rain in some lowland village. Then, resentfully, she pulled her black dress farther over her knees and looked away.
“Only half an hour to go,” Valette said.
“I must go put on my makeup!” Lasteyrie said as he picked up his toilet bag.
He went out and came back a moment later to fetch his cape, and five minutes later came back again wearing his cape, looking for a needle, because his own, he said, had snapped.
“What’s the matter?” Valette asked, intrigued.
“Nothing’s the matter. Just a button…”
Valette smelled a rat in Lasteyrie’s comings and goings. Two soldiers who have become friends understand each other intuitively. So Valette went and waited outside the toilets at the end of the carriage where Lasteyrie was busy, and picked him up as he came out with his cloak over his arm and sergeant’s pips sewn onto his jacket sleeve.
Valette grinned broadly while Lasteyrie moodily repeated, “You’re a fine Laughing Cow, Laughing Cow!” (That was Valette’s nickname.) “Bugger off, you soft cheese,” and so on. And he put on his cape with a swagger.
“Reporting for duty, Sergeant!” Valette said, clicking his heels.
Lasteyrie threw him a punch, and the two soldiers scrapped and wrestled in the juddering vestibule between the two carriages.
“So what’s the game?” Valette said as he got the better of Lasteyrie. “Is it for the bird you’ll pick up tonight? She won’t be difficult to get…” And he pulled Lasteyrie’s mustache.
“It’s for my father,” Lasteyrie said, with a shrug. “He doesn’t know I got demoted … He’ll go on and on about it. About my getting into trouble wherever I go, being a useless individual, and so on and so forth … You don’t know what he’s like.”
“Don’t tell the prof,” he added on the way back to the compartment. “He’ll only poke more fun at me…”
Meanwhile, the train had reached the outer suburbs. There were factories, warehouses, reservoirs, and even small groups of apartment houses with ground-floor cafés, looking very Parisian.
“Here we are! That’s Paname!” Valette shouted, using the Parisians’ pet name for the city. He leaned forward and shook Lachaume, repeating: “Paname! Paname!”
“Calm down,” Lachaume said. “How long till we get in?” And as there were still fifteen minutes to go, he wanted to lie down again, but this time Valette made him get up and come and stand alongside him and Lasteyrie at an open window in the corridor.
“Just look!” Valette said to him. “We’re home, we’re back … Boy, have I been waiting for this!…” He had tears in his eyes, and he put his arm out the window to wave at passersby in the streets and at the workmen on the other track, and at a thousand suburban windows with washing hanging out, which sometimes responded to his greeting. “Hey, see that? A metro station!”
“And when you think we’re not even entitled to free rides on the metro…” Lasteyrie said.
In a clatter of screeching points the train slowly drew into the station. Well before it halted, Valette and Lasteyrie were perched on the running board with their kit bags on their shoulders so as to be the first to jump off. Then they ran for the exit. The last man through the turnstile had to buy the first round. They’d agreed on that ages ago.
But Lachaume, who was taking his time and walking as if in a dream, saw his two companions in some kind of argument with an MP patrol, whose chief was checking their leave papers. That made him furious, so he speeded up, swinging his free arm and with a scowl on his face.
“What did those idiots want?” he yelled as he caught up with his buddies.
“Apparently we’re lacking in decorum,” Lasteyrie said. “Running is not allowed this side of the Med.”
They came out of Gare de Lyon, down a few steps, and took their first, wary dip in the ocean of Paris. Soon they were in a café in a state of silent wonderment. Paris seeped into them through their eyes and ears. They were fascinated by the street and stood with their backs to the bar, not hearing the waiter asking them for the third time what they wanted to drink.
“It’s funny,” Valette said at last, “I feel like stopping someone in the street so as to say: I’m Jean Valette, and I’m still alive, I’m okay, and here I am back again for a short break; then I’d shake his hand, just like that!”
“You might as well pick a girl if you’re going to do that,” Lasteyrie said. “But where have all the pretty ones gone?” he shouted, casting his eye all the way around the café, which was empty at that time of the morning. “Seeing as we’re in Paris!”
The three men drank their coffee; Lachaume settled the bill; the time had come for them to break up, but they were held back by some strange hesitation.
“Give me your address,” Valette said to Lachaume. “If you like, you could come and have lunch one day at my parents’ place … With your wife, of course…”
Valette blushed, unsure whether he had done the right thing by mentioning Lachaume’s wife.
“That would be a pleasure,” Lachaume said.
It took another moment to write down the address. Then since nobody could decide to be the first to leave, Lasteyrie coughed up for a round of rum, which they drank slowly.
“Come on,” Lachaume said at last. “I’m off. Cheers!”
“See you later,” Valette said.
“Ciao, Prof!” Lasteyrie said. “And if you find I’m not on time on the third, don’t bother to wait for me!”
Copyright © 1957 by René Julliard