An extract from The Foundling by Agnès Desarthe

‘A fireball cartwheeling right across the road, then, suddenly, after the bend, blat! Into a tree. This fireball smashes into the trunk and burns the lot, leaves, branches, even the roots. I thought it was like some paranormal phenomenon. But actually it was the boy. The boy on his bike. Apparently that don’t never happen, bikes catching fire like that, for no reason, but it happened then. I was there. I watched it from above, from the bridge over the main road. That’s where I saw it. A fireball.’

[private]Jerome is rereading the eye-witness account in the local paper. His hands are shaking. His stomach too. He reads it yet again, wonders why the journalist didn’t ‘massage’ the words of this Yvette Réhurdon, farm labourer. For a moment he manages to take his mind off it by imagining the editors’ meeting during which they agreed to transcribe, verbatim, the words recorded onto a pocket tape-recorder by the primary school teacher who writes their news-in-brief column in her spare time.

Almost immediately the trembling, which had subsided, starts up again. Jerome wants to cry, he thinks it would be a release, but his tears won’t come. The boy wasn’t his son, he was his daughter’s sweetheart.

Is that what you say, sweetheart? He doesn’t know. How did Marina put it? My boyfriend? No. She said Armand.

Jerome is sitting in the living room and, through his daughter’s closed bedroom door, he can hear sobs, moans, occasionally a cry. He has no idea what he is supposed to do.

Before leaving for work this morning he went to see her. He turned the handle very softly, so as not to wake her, just in case. But she was not asleep. She was lying on her front, crying. He went over to her.

He thought he might stroke her shoulder. But when Marina heard him, she looked up. Jerome saw her face and fled.

It’s completely natural for her to resent me, he thought. Why isn’t it me who’s dead? That would be easier. That would be normal.

Jerome is fifty-six years old. And the boy, how old was he? Eighteen, like Marina? Maybe nineteen.

Armand.

Such a pretty sounding name, Armand.

Jerome fiddles with the fish-shaped placemat in the middle of the table while his thoughts wander. He puts the newspaper down. He would like to read the account of the accident once more. He daren’t. What’s the point? There was nothing left of the boy. A boot buckle, perhaps. The zip from his jacket.

Jerome thinks of Edith Piaf’s song about a man on a motorbike in a leather jacket. Hates himself for being so easily distracted. He wishes he could be submerged in grief, inhabiting it, like Marina. But his mind gallivants around. He comes up with all sorts of rubbish. Perhaps, he thinks, if he reads the interview with Yvette Réhurdon, farm labourer, enough times, he will eventually manage to concentrate.

Why bother? He doesn’t know. He feels he is expected to give some sort of reaction. But what sort? And who is expecting it? Who is waiting for him to react? He has been living alone with Marina since Paula left him. That was four years ago.

Paula, that was a pretty name too, Jerome says to himself.

He loathes being in this state. Mawkish and aimless. But he can’t do anything about it. He feels he is no longer in control. He is coasting. Death has that effect. It’s very powerful, death.

No. I really can’t be thinking crap like that, he tells himself. But he is. That’s exactly what he’s thinking, that death is powerful. He thinks it with the same intensity as when, three seconds ago, he thought Paula was a pretty name. Paula was also a pretty woman. He still doesn’t understand why she married him.

If she were here she would know exactly how to handle this. She would run her daughter a bath, talk to her, give her a hand massage. She would let fresh air in through the window. Tell her all sorts of twaddle about the soul, about memories we hold inside us for ever which give us strength, and about life which picks us all up again eventually.

Jerome admires her. How does she do it?

He always felt that Paula had unravelled the great mystery of … all the great mysteries, in fact. After the separation she bought herself a cottage in a picturesque village in the south. With a big lavender bush and a wisteria in the courtyard. She drinks rosé with her neighbours at sunset. He sometimes thinks about her, and the life she has made for herself a long way away from him. A successful, harmonious life. Through the grey days, and the weeks when the thermometer doesn’t get above minus five, he dreams of joining her. On the weather report in the evenings, he looks at the map of France, and there is almost always a sun over where Paula lives, while where they live, he and Marina, it’s all freezing fog, morning mists and unsettled periods brought on by a low front from the north-east.

What are they doing here? Why didn’t Marina leave with her mother when they separated? You would expect a daughter to go with her mother. He doesn’t remember discussing it, not with either of them. And all at once it comes to him: Armand. He and Marina must have been at school together. She was only little, but she was already in love. Marina didn’t choose between her mother and her father. Marina chose love. Jerome is sure of it. Yet he only recently discovered the boy existed. Marina is a discreet young woman. She had never brought anyone to the house, then one day, six months ago, she said she wanted to ask someone to supper.

‘I’ll do the cooking,’ she offered. ‘I’ll do a roast.’

And in the red of her cheeks and the ‘o’ of that roast, Jerome could tell. He could tell without really knowing. He didn’t say to himself my daughter’s got a lover, or she wants to introduce me to the boy she loves. He didn’t say anything to himself. His thoughts don’t produce sentences. They stop just short.

The bell rang at eight thirty. Jerome went to open the door. There was the boy, bottle in hand. Jerome remembers thinking he was tall. He had to look up to his face. What a good-looking boy. His skin … his cheeks … his thick dark eyelashes, the sparkle in his eyes …

Jerome is crying. He puts his head in his hands, for the space of two sobs. One for the bottle of wine in the boy’s hands, the other for his good looks.

Then it stops. No more tears. No more images.

The church clock strikes. Jerome stands up and looks out of the window. The hill dropping away outside, the road down below, right at the bottom, and the other hillside beyond going up to the woods. The rows of russet-coloured vines, the bare earth between their gnarled feet. The sun in the white sky. Sap freezing inside plants. Some tiny little purple flowers have opened in the shadow of the holly hedge. Jerome looks at them and thinks how Armand will never see them.

He remembers reading in some book about people putting bottle ends over the eyes of the dead before laying them in their coffins. He doesn’t remember the book’s title. Was it a novel? Maybe just a newspaper article. He can’t remember but he likes the idea. These eyes will see no more. Or only through bottle glass. Paradise is so far away, so high up, that you need a magnifying glass to see the earth.

Jerome wonders whether he should go to the funeral. Meet the in-laws who will never be in-laws. He feels awkward and shy. He’s afraid. He doesn’t know how you shake the hand of a bereaved parent. The physical contact strikes him as sacrilegious. I would never dare, he thinks.

 

The telephone rings. It is Paula.

‘How are you, big boy?’ she asks him.

Jerome’s heart swells in his chest. A hot air balloon between his diaphragm and his collar bones. I love you. I love you. I love you. That’s what he wishes he could say to his ex-wife, for whom he has only ever had modest feelings. Instead, he replies:

‘Not great.’

‘How about Marina?’

Jerome says nothing. Not a single word comes to him.

‘I’m so fucking stupid,’ Paula blurts. ‘Sorry, I’m so sorry. The funeral’s tomorrow, isn’t it? I’ll catch a plane and then the last train this evening. I’ll get there late. Can I sleep at the house? No, that’s not a good idea.’

‘Yes, yes, it’s a very good idea. I’ll leave the door unlocked.’

‘You are kind.’

‘It’s only natural.’

‘It’s awful.’

‘Yes.’

‘What exactly happened?’

‘I don’t know. No one knows. The bike caught fire. No one knows why, or how. Apparently he hadn’t been drinking.’

‘How will anyone ever know?’

‘There’s no way of knowing.’

‘What sort of boy was he?’

‘Perfect.’

Jerome is surprised by his own answer. Paula falls silent. She feels swindled. She never met her daughter’s perfect boyfriend. She herself only ever had awkward relationships. Her marriage? Nice, that was the word she most often used to describe it. As if to rub salt in her wounds, Jerome adds:

‘I’ve never seen anything like it. A … how can I put it? … a connection … a … you see, when they were together …’

‘Don’t do this to me, big boy. Don’t do it.’

She hangs up just as he is saying ‘lots of love’. He thinks of ringing her back just to say it, to say ‘lots of love’. As if it were important, as if their lives depended on it, world stability, justice.

I’m going gaga, he thinks, and smiles, because of the word, and the way he cradles the phone in his hand, like a frog, a mouse. A pleasant feeling suffuses him, a warmth, a very slight euphoria. For a moment he forgot Armand’s death because, instead of thinking about the catastrophe, he thought of woodland animals, the sort you come across on a walk, and catching their eye feels secret, furtive, incomparable. It was just a reprieve. His smile falls apart. He goes over to the door. Whoever it is has rung three times now.

Through the frosted glass he recognises Rosy’s silhouette. Rosy has always been fat. She and Marina have been best friends since nursery school. She has huge cheeks, like high Manchurian plateaux, Jerome thinks. He doesn’t know why Rosy has always been associated with the word Manchurian in his mind, perhaps because of her very dark, slightly slanting eyes, her small flat nose and her pony-like quality.

‘Hi, Jerome,’ she says, offering her unbelievable cheeks for a kiss.

‘Hi, Rosy,’ he replies, giving her a hug.

They hold the embrace for a moment, clumsily rubbing each other’s backs, then pull apart abruptly, embarrassed.

‘It’s good of you to come.’

‘Of course I would. How is she? I’ve brought her schoolwork.’

‘Oh, well, you know, I don’t think …’

‘No really,’ says Rosy very confidently as she sets off down the corridor, her huge body swaying from one leg to the other. ‘Mustn’t let go. Mustn’t let anything go.’

How does she know? Jerome wonders.

He watches her heading for the bedroom door.

He can still see them, her and Marina, when they were seven years old. One resting her head on the other’s stomach and saying, ‘I love you because you’re comfortable,’ and the other replying, ‘I love you because you always say nice things.’ He thinks they are both very good reasons for loving someone.

When the door opens, the din Marina’s making pervades the house. It is violent as a blast of wind. Jerome’s hands fly instinctively to his ears. This noise must stop. But the moment he is aware of his gesture, he orders his arms to drop back down. This is his child crying, not the asshole next door trimming his hedge.

Rosy doesn’t lose heart, she goes in and closes the door behind her. The sound level drops immediately. Jerome takes a few steps down the corridor, and listens. He hears Rosy’s voice. Then crying. Rosy’s voice again. Then nothing. Rosy’s voice singing a song in English. A deluge of sobs, gulps, a wail, sobs, several cries. Rosy is still singing. The crying stops. Rosy sings. Louder and louder. All of a sudden the door opens. Rosy catches Jerome with his ear almost flat against the wall.

‘I know this is a non-smoking house, Jerome. I completely respect that. But this is a bit of an exception. I think we need to smoke. I wanted to ask your permission. If we open the window?’

Jerome shrugs his shoulders, nods his head. Right now he would give anything to be able to smoke too. He has never touched a cigarette in his life. What a mistake! He should have started at fifteen like everyone else. If he hadn’t wanted to be all different, he could offer them one now, smoke with them – as Indians would a peace pipe – without a word. Not needing to talk to be together.

‘No probs,’ he says, because he heard a teenager say it a couple of days ago in the car park by the post office.

Rosy smiles at him, more Manchurian than ever, and closes the door again.

The stupid expression he has just used lingers in the house. Jerome goes into the kitchen and ‘no probs’ follows him. He opens a cupboard to make himself a coffee and ‘no probs’ pops out. He goes back into the corridor in the hopes that the crying will drown out its persistent echo, but there isn’t a single sound coming from his daughter’s bedroom now. This is the silence of a smoking session, the infinite calm of inhalation. ‘No probs’ bounces from one wall to the other along the corridor. Jerome hurries into the living room, unfolds the sofa bed, making all the springs creak, launches himself at the cupboard, throws it wide open, takes out a sheet, a blanket and pillows, and starts making up the bed like a chambermaid possessed by the Devil. He is sweating. He would like to make a lot more noise, but the fabrics slither and mould against each other mutely. Jerome can hear only the internal hubbub of his own body, heartbeats and the click of joints. ‘No probs.’

Luckily, Rosy starts singing again. She has a lovely voice, both high and rich. He doesn’t recognise the tune, a sad, heartbreaking melody. He would never have thought of that: singing a sad song to his weeping daughter. And yet it seems to be working: since Rosy arrived, Marina has stopped crying.[/private]

Excerpted from The Foundling by Agnès Desarthe, translated by Adriana Hunter, to be published by Portobello Books in February 2012, at £12.99. www.portobellobooks.com

Agnès Desarthe

Agnès Desarthe was born in Paris in 1966 and has written many books for children and teenagers, as well as adult fiction. She has had three previous novels translated into English: Five Photos of My Wife (2001), which was shortlisted for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize and the Jewish Quarterly Fiction Prize, and Good Intentions (2002) and Chez Moi (2008). The Foundling was awarded the Le Renaudot des Lycéens Prize on publication in France. www.agnesdesarthe.com.

Adriana Hunter has been working as a literary translator since 1998, and has now translated nearly 50 books from the French, including, for Portobello Books, Véronique Ovaldé’s Kick the Animal Out (a finalist for the French-American Foundation and the Florence Gould Foundation Translation Prize) and And My See-Through Heart. She has three children and lives in Norfolk.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *