MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK
The man in the green hat always got on at Bercy, always via the doors at the front of the compartment, and exited via the same doors at La Motte-Picquet–Grenelle, exactly seventeen minutes later. That was on days when the stops, warning signals, and clanging were regular, the days that weren’t exceptionally overcrowded, when there were no accidents, terror alerts, or strikes, and no unscheduled stops to regulate the trains. Ordinary days. The days when you feel as though you’re a cog in a well-oiled machine, a huge mechanical body in which each person has their place and their part to play, willingly or not.
On those days, Juliette would take refuge behind her butterfly-framed sunglasses and her chunky scarf knitted by Granny Adrienne in 1975 for her daughter. The two-and-a-half-meter scarf was a faded blue, the color of distant peaks at seven o’clock on a summer’s eve, not just anywhere but in the Pyrenean town of Prades gazing toward Mount Canigou. And Juliette would sit wondering whether her existence in this world was any more precious than that of the spider she’d drowned that morning in her shower.
She didn’t like doing that—aiming the jet at the small, black, hairy creature and watching out of the corner of her eye as the spindly legs flailed in panic and then abruptly folded in on the body. Then the spider would whirl around, as light and inconsequential as a wisp of wool plucked from her favorite sweater, until it was sucked down the plughole which she immediately stopped up, jamming in the plug.
Serial murder. Every day, the spiders crawled up, emerging from the pipes after a wobbly climb. Were they always the same ones that, after being flushed down into the murky depths—the bowels of the city like a vast reservoir of teeming, stinking life—unfolded themselves, came back to life, and embarked on another ascent invariably destined to fail? It was hard to imagine. Juliette saw herself as a pitiless but negligent divinity, too busy most of the time to fulfill her role, intermittently guarding the gates of Hell. What were the spiders hoping for once their feet were on dry land, so to speak? What journey had they decided to undertake, and with what purpose?
The man in the green hat could perhaps have given her the answer if Juliette had dared ask him. Every morning, he would open his briefcase and take out a book covered in thin, almost transparent paper, also of a greenish hue. He’d unfold its corners with slow, deliberate movements, then slide a finger between two pages already separated by a strip of the same paper, and begin reading.
The title of the book was: A History of Insects Useful to Man, Animals and the Arts, with a Supplement on How to Destroy Pests.
He would caress the mottled leather cover, its spine decorated with thin gold lettering, the title standing out against a red background.
He’d open it, bring it closer to his face, and sniff it, his eyes half-closed.
He’d read two or three pages, no more, like a food-lover eating cream pastries with a tiny silver spoon. A happy, enigmatic smile would appear on his face—the kind that Juliette, fascinated, imagined as that of the Cheshire Cat in Alice in Wonderland.
That smile faded at Cambronne, giving way to an expression of rueful disappointment; he would then refold the paper, put the book back in his briefcase, and snap it shut. And stand up. Not once did he look at Juliette, who, sitting opposite him—or standing, huddled against the shiny pole polished each day by hundreds of gloved or ungloved palms—devoured him with her eyes. He would patter off, very upright in his overcoat buttoned up to the neck, with his hat cocked over his left eyebrow.
Without that hat, without that smile, without that briefcase in which he shut away his treasure, Juliette probably wouldn’t have recognized him. He was a man like any other, neither good-looking nor ugly, neither attractive nor repulsive. A little portly, of uncertain age, or rather, a certain age, to speak in clichés.
Or rather, a reader.
* * *
Bees, silkworms, mealybugs, crayfish, wood lice, blister beetles, leeches …
“What are you on about?”
Juliette, who was humming, jumped.
“Oh! Nothing. A sort of counting rhyme … I was trying to remember the names…”
“I’ve received the energy performance certificate for the Boulevard Voltaire apartment,” said Chloe, who wasn’t listening. “Have you got the folder?”
Juliette nodded after a moment. She was still thinking about the man with the green book, about insects, about the spider she’d drowned that morning.
“Give it to me. I’ll file it,” she said.
She pivoted her chair, pulled a binder from the shelves that covered an entire wall of the office, and slipped the documents inside. The binder, she noted, was piss yellow. How sad that was. The whole bulging wall, bristling with labels coming unstuck at the corners, looked as if it were about to collapse on top of her like a mudslide. Juliette closed her eyes, imagining the swashing sound, the gas bubbles popping on the surface—and the smell. She pinched her nose hard to quell her mounting nausea.
“What’s up?” asked Chloe.
“Are you pregnant?” her colleague pressed her.
“Of course not. I was just wondering how you cope with working opposite that … the color’s so disgusting.”
Chloe stared at her wide-eyed.
“Dis-gus-ting,” she repeated slowly. “You’re bonkers. They’re just binders. They’re ugly, I agree, but … are you sure you’re okay?”
Juliette drummed her fingers on her desk in a jerky rhythm: Bees, silkworms, mealybugs, crayfish, wood lice, blister beetles, leeches …
“I’m fine,” she replied. “What do you read on the Métro?”
There was the old lady, the math student, the amateur ornithologist, the gardener, and the woman in love—at least Juliette assumed she was in love from her slight breathlessness and the tiny tears that formed on her eyelashes when she was three-quarters of the way through whichever romantic novel she was devouring. They were fat books, dog-eared from being read over and over again. Sometimes on the cover there was an illustration of a couple locked in an embrace on a bloodred background, or lace suggestive of a bra. The torso of a naked man, the small of a back, a crumpled bedsheet or a pair of cuff links, sober punctuation of the title underlined by a horizontal leather-sheathed riding crop … and the tears that welled up in the young woman’s eyes, always around page 247 (Juliette had checked by glancing covertly at her neighbor), then rolled slowly down toward her jawline, while her eyelids closed, and an involuntary sigh made her plump breasts swell in their overly modest little top. Why page 247? wondered Juliette as she stared after an unfurled umbrella making its way down the platform at Dupleix, protecting from the downpour an entire family whose legs alone were visible—little legs in brown corduroy, long denim-clad legs, slim legs in striped tights. What was happening at that point, what sudden emotion was sparked, what heartbreak, what anguish, what shudder of pleasure or abandon?
Pensive, she drummed her fingers on the cover of her own book, which she no longer opened very often, so absorbed was she in watching other people. The coffee-stained paperback with a broken spine was transferred from bag to bag, from Tuesday’s big shoulder bag—the day when Juliette did her food shopping after work—to the little handbag she used on Fridays, when she went to the cinema. A postcard slipped between here and here hadn’t shifted for over a week. The landscape it depicted, a mountain village in the distance above a patchwork of fields in various hues of brown, she now associated with the old lady, the one who always flicked through the same collection of recipes and occasionally smiled as if the description of a dish reminded her of a moment of youthful madness, and who sometimes shut the book, placed her ringless hand on top of it, and stared out the window at the barges on the Seine or the roofs glistening in the rain. The back-cover blurb was in Italian, centered above a photo of two plump bell peppers, a fat fennel bulb, and a mozzarella ball in which a horn-handled knife had made a straight incision.
Bees, silkworms, mealybugs, crayfish, wood lice, blister beetles, leeches … Carciofi, arancie, pomodori, fagiolini, zucchini … Crostate, lombatine di cervo, gamberi al gratin … Butterfly words that fluttered around the packed compartment before settling on Juliette’s fingertips. She found the image cheesy, but it was the only one that came to mind. Why butterflies, anyway? Why not fireflies, winking for a few seconds before dying? But when had she seen fireflies? Never, as a matter of fact. There weren’t any fireflies left, she feared. Only memories. Memories of her grandmother, the one who’d knitted her scarf. And who looked a bit like the old lady with the recipe book—same pale, serene face, same strong-looking hands, with stubby fingers adorned with just one ring, the thick wedding band which over the years had dug into her flesh and made a permanent mark. Her wrinkled, blotchy skin covered the ring; her body swallowed up the symbol, became deformed by it.
“Fireflies,” she used to say. “Fireflies are fallen stars. I was still so young that I wasn’t allowed to stay up, and the summer evenings were so long! For at least two hours the slits in the shutters let the light in. It crept softly across the rug and climbed up the bars of my bed; and then, suddenly, the brass bed knob began to shine. I knew that I was missing the best bit, that moment when the sun sinks into the sea, when it becomes like wine, or like blood. So, I’d knot my nightdress, like this, around my waist, nice and tight. And I’d climb down, holding on to the trellis. A right little monkey. And I’d run to the end of the field, to the spot from which you could see the sea. Then, when it was properly dark, I’d perch on the gate that was always left open, behind the silkworm farm … that’s where I saw them. They arrived out of nowhere. Or they came out of the ground. I never found out. Silent, suspended in midair, settling on blades of grass … I didn’t move a muscle. I didn’t even dare breathe. I was surrounded by stars.”
The Métro slowed down. Sèvres-Lecourbe. Three more stops, or four, depending on the day and on Juliette’s mood. Squeal of metal, signal. All of a sudden, she leapt up and ran out, just as the doors were about to close, and her jacket got caught as they slammed shut. She yanked it out and was left standing rooted to the platform, slightly breathless, as the train pulled away. In the morning grayness, a few shapes muffled in heavy coats were heading for the exit. On a February morning, who walked for the pleasure of roaming the streets aimlessly, looking up, observing the shapes of the clouds, or out of sheer curiosity? No one. People went from the cozy warmth of their apartments to their overheated offices, drank coffee, yawning as they commented on the day’s tasks, the gossip, the news—always depressing. There was only one street to cross between the station where Juliette alighted each day and the door of the estate agency where she worked. A flight of steps, a stretch of pavement, then, on the left, the windows of a dry cleaner, a tobacconist’s, and a kebab shop. In the tobacconist’s window, a plastic Christmas tree, still decked with tinsel and shiny paper chains, was beginning to gather dust.
Juliette wanted to see something different. She walked over to the map of the neighborhood at the far end of the station: if she took the first street on her right, then turned right again at the second intersection, it wouldn’t take more than ten minutes to get to work. A little walk would warm her up. She wouldn’t be late—well, hardly. In any case, Chloe would open up. That girl was obsessively punctual, and either way, Monsieur Bernard, the manager, never arrived before half past nine.
Juliette set off along the street at a rapid pace, then forced herself to slow down. She must get out of the habit of forging straight ahead, her eyes fixed on the goal. Nothing exciting awaited her, nothing: documents to complete and file away, a long list of tedious formalities, a viewing or two perhaps. On good days. To think she’d chosen this profession for the excitement!
As for dealing with people, the ad she’d replied to had promised that this meant building relationships with them and reading their hopes and dreams in their eyes, then finding them a nest where those dreams could unfurl, where the fearful would regain their confidence, where the depressed would smile once more, where children would grow up sheltered from the strong winds that batter and uproot, where the elderly and the weary could peacefully wait for death.
She clearly remembered her first viewing, a thirtysomething couple in a hurry. She’d suggested a coffee before they went into the apartment building. “I need to get to know you better, clarify your expectations,” she’d stated with a confidence that she was a long way from feeling at that moment. Clarify your expectations, she thought that sounded good—she’d read it in the booklet given to each member of staff by the management—but the man had stared at her, one eyebrow raised, then tapped his watch meaningfully. The woman was checking her messages on her smartphone; she hadn’t looked up, not even as they went up the stairs, while Juliette, frozen, had reeled off the features she had memorized the previous evening: ashlar and the charm of the Haussmann-style architecture, you’ll notice the floor tiles in the lobby, restored to match the original sections, total peace and quiet, there’s an elevator to the fourth floor, and look at the thickness of the stair carpeting. Her voice sounded as if it was coming from very far away, ridiculously high-pitched, the voice of a little girl playing at being a grown-up. She felt sorry for herself and had a sudden, absurd urge to burst into tears. The couple tore through the apartment, a two-bedroom overlooking an interior courtyard, while she tried to keep up with them. The words blew away, tumbled over each other: lovely high ceilings, elegant fireplace moldings, lots of cupboard space, diamond-design parquet floors, which are very rare, the option of creating an additional bedroom or office by putting in a mezzanine … They weren’t listening, didn’t look at each other, didn’t ask anything. Valiantly, she’d tried to question them: Do you play the piano? Do you have any children or…? Receiving no answers, she’d stumbled over a ray of light slanting across a parquet floor tile covered in a fine layer of dust, her voice farther and farther away, so weak that it was impossible for anyone to hear it: a dual-aspect apartment, very light, the sun in the kitchen from nine o’clock in the morning … They had already left, so she ran after them. In the street she’d given her card to the man, who’d put it in his pocket without looking at it.
She already knew she would never see them again.
Copyright © 2017 by Christine Féret-Fleury. Translation copyright © 2019 by Ros Schwartz