Geneviève and Jean-Paul Picard had given their eldest daughter a new bike for her birthday, an adult model, so they wouldn’t have to buy another one. The frame was painted in a dark purple that could have been mistaken for blue, so nothing in that color showed it belonged to a girl. Silly didn’t particularly like things that looked girly, she reckoned. On its frame it was written in red letters “Cycles Gitane,” and on another part, “Cité.” For it was a city bike, her mother had said, with practical handlebars and a luggage rack. When she discovered the bike in the garage, where they had come down on the morning of her birthday, Silly found it much too big.
When she got on it, her feet touched the ground only if she stood on their spikes. The saddle couldn’t be lowered any further, her father said while tapping it lightly. She rode a few yards on the sidewalk alongside their building. She stumbled because of the insane diameter of the wheels, but she finally got up to cruising speed, all the way down Farm Street, which was in a straight line. As she turned around, she saw her parents, standing next to each other, arms folded, busy watching her, and she found them unexpectedly small. She straightened up to show them that she was worthy of this gift. In a few pedal strokes she had accomplished an exceptional distance.
“You’re lucky to have such a beautiful bike, Silly. Handle it smoothly, otherwise you’re going to fall down the pit,” her mother warned her.
She tilted the bike as much she could and raised her leg very high to disengage from it. She almost
“It’s okay, I’ll get used to it.”
She didn’t know if she was happy with the gift. She would eventually get to tame it. She hadn’t wanted that oversized, almost-blue bike, and she hadn’t said an overwhelming thank you. Just thank you, from the tip of her lips, lowering her head, as she always did, in her subdued voice. She preferred to run the risk of being called rude, rather than being unnecessarily conspicuous. Geneviève Picard felt that the doctor’s son, who was Silly’s age, had that forceful way of greeting grown-ups. She had said so mockingly, adding why make such a demonstration of his so-called good manners. It’s true that when he said hello to an adult, he would nod as if he was putting on an act, lowering his body almost horizontally. But at least he was saying hello. Had he not done so, she would have condemned him for his lack of education. Silly went for this in-between, which did not totally protect her from bullying. She said thank you when she knew she was being given something and that it had required the benefactor to go out of his way, but had she ever felt thankful when she said that word? Her mother often said she was ungrateful.
The bike had to be stored carefully at the back the garage, so that it wouldn’t hinder the car from getting in and out. In the basement of their building, in addition to the garages, there was a boiler room, which housed a huge oil-fired boiler and that also served as a storage room. All around the machine, Silly’s mother had placed a large number of boxes and crates. She kept everything, not just the equipment that was used once a year, such as camping tents or Christmas balls. There was also a pile of shoe boxes, jars that she arranged by size, empty bottles of washing powder and shampoo, everything except for the old clothes she donated to Poland, she liked to say with such an air of compassion that whoever she was speaking to would at once feel guilty for not donating to Poland. A friend of Geneviève Picard organized a traffic of clothes and food for her family back in Krakow. While they were sorting and folding, she liked to pepper her conversation with Dantesque accounts of their living conditions under the dictatorship of General Jaruzalski, which did not fail to infuriate Geneviève. Silly liked the smell of this basement, with its fuel oil and gasoline smog that produced a soft heat, especially in winter when the boiler was running and humming. The air was thicker than upstairs, as if the dust and dirt particles of the whole building had all gathered there.
* * *
Clermont was neither a village nor a city, it was a “cité ouvrière,” a working-class town, but the adjective had disappeared from everyday language. In the 1980s there was no possible ambiguity with the sprawling building projects of the metropolitan suburbs, which were not called “cités” until many years later. In 1930 the cité of Clermont came out of the mind of urban planners who picked this area conveniently located on a sort of plateau ten minutes away from the ironworks. They methodically crisscrossed it and built cloned houses lined up as far as the eye could see, where the families of Usinor’s workers gradually came to settle. Initially the houses were semi-detached, but then the population increased and from Reservoir Street no fewer than four families shared massive collective buildings painted in a generous burgundy red on the first floor, and in a yellowy cream on the upper part. All of the cité’s buildings, school, church, houses, and stadium, were two-tone, and Silly’s housing block was no exception, covered with gray and blue cast in straight bands. In Clermont, even the church was recent, cemented and brushed with blue and white, and one never knew if the modernity of the cité enhanced or degraded the image that Madame Picard had of herself. Her ambivalent feelings towards her parents’ peasant origins made her bitterly regret her rural roots, which she considered more authentically laborious, but at other times her having embraced the cité enabled her to straighten her superiority over her ancestors who had stayed behind on the farm.
Silly lived in the so-called school pavilion, a group of three cubic buildings on Farm Street. The farm in question had been razed to the ground, leaving only a tin shed, from which a tractor sometimes came out. Each cube contained two apartments on top of each other, which were markedly different from the workers’ quarters. Silly took a secret pride in not sharing the same living conditions as her classmates, a pride due to her father’s status as a school-teacher, whose apartment came with his job, but in reality she felt a terrible shame because the greyish concrete cube that looked out onto the street, like a wart along the road, did not resemble any of the representations of a house that a child was entitled to make up mentally: no sloping roof, no smoking chimney, no garden however small, no illuminated front door, no shutters.
Across the street was a triangular green space lined with five spruce trees on each side and a stunted one in the middle. Obviously, Park Street ran along the park and led to Stadium Street. Were these absurd names the result of a misunderstanding? A decision-maker might have stamped the architects’ provisional notes on the blueprints by mistake, bypassing the commission for street names, which one would have expected to have been prodigal with Le Corbusier, Emile Zola and Jean Jaurès. Stadium street led to a disused football field on the edge of the forest, a more recent stadium having been built on the ruins of the farm. The former no longer had any ground markings or bleachers, and all that remained were the iron bars that younger children used to make hanging pigs. Silly seldom came here, and even though she loved the feeling of swaying upside down, it remained a terra incognita. Not only did she no longer have a visual on her home, but the stadium attracted groups of older boys who came on mopeds to play ball, attended by a string of girls who made Silly shiver in awe.
She stuck to the park, which everyone called the meadow. There, she and her sister Fanette played with neighbors, like Cédric Romano, who lived in the semi-detached house at the corner of Park and Farm Street. Before Cédric and Silly returned to Mr. Picard’s class on September 1st, when lavish daylight still allowed them to play outside at late hours, they set out to find a secret passage linking the park to the stadium, which was certain to contain a treasure. After they grew tired of peeling the bark of the skeletal spruce in the center of the meadow, they decided to dig a tunnel under it. Cédric said the project wasn’t unlike Indiana Jones’s; which he had seen it on his father’s VCR. Silly didn’t know what a VCR was, but she liked the idea and brought a plastic beach shovel that her mother kept in the summer section of the boiler room.
After several days they had dug a large hole. Cédric threatened to eat the pinkish earthworms that came out of it and the girls would scream in excitement and disgust. Very quickly they came across a concrete block that could be seen everywhere in the cité, especially among the enterprising workers who spent their time making low walls and terraces on the space that the planners had originally designed to maintain a small garden. This discovery had slowed their progress but not annihilated their project, and each breakthrough promised to produce new traces of a past life that it was their duty to interpret, a piece of terra cotta, an old nail, a small pulley that Cedric had identified as a ball bearing. The hole that secretly punctured the meadow proved that their efforts were of the highest importance and when evening came, they would cover their crime with a pile of branches and herbs.
In the morning, the girls would go and fetch Cédric at his place. They would not actually get into his house. In fact, no one ever actually get into anyone’s house in Clermont. With the door barely ajar, they could hear his mother say in an irritated voice: “Cédric! Cédric! Come on! Your friends are here! ” With one hand Mrs. Romano was holding the door, and with the other, the two sides of her dressing gown, which must have been pink or beige and had traces of coffee on it. Silly had never seen her otherwise than in this outfit. The oversized frames of her glasses emphasized her bluish dark circles and her lopsided features. She looked like a fly with exorbitant eyes resting on a thin and receding jaw. No one wanted to get closer to her, at the risk of seeing up close the ageless nightgown that imperfectly masked the body underneath. She was one of those people who were never neat, whose hair fell out in a mess, and whose clothes could never button up properly. She must have gone out sometimes to do her shopping, but Silly had never seen her anywhere but in the frame of that door, except once, in her kitchen, where they had exceptionally entered because of a rain shower. Her sister had found that it smelled like cake, but not the cake that is baked in the oven, rather an aggregate of crumbs and leftovers that could not be peeled off the furniture and floor. Silly didn’t need her sister to explain that to her. The fact that it smelled like cake simply meant that this unfathomable, pungent strangeness wasn’t utterly disgusting. This phrase had become a code to elicit the intimacy of others, made of sticky residues from accumulated meals and long overdue garbage cans. That day she had them standing by the door while Cedric and his sister were heard fighting upstairs and then in a big crash Cedric arrived, dressed in the Usinor tracksuit, which that year was petrol blue and sky blue. He was already very excited and wanted to get to the hole. He had found new tools that his father no longer wanted, or would never find again.
“We can’t. Look, it’s raining. We’ll go to the garage while we wait.”
And the three of them ran away, hardly hearing Mrs. Romano screaming that the door wasn’t for dogs.
“You’ve got a new bike?”
Cédric whistled, imitating his father when he wanted to show respect for a vehicle or a tool. Then he crouched down to get a better view of the tires. He always said that his father could have been a mechanic. But he had done like the others here, he had gone to the factory. Cédric was deciphering slowly.
“I do know Gitane, but Cité? Is it because of the Cité de Clermont”? His excitement made Silly nervous, slightly ashamed. She did not like to be noticed, and sometimes she even dreamed of owning this two-colored tracksuit offered to all the children of the workers of the Providence factory, every year around Christmas, to be like them.
“Let me try it.”
“When it stops raining.”
At the right corner of Cedric’s lips, a brownish, gelatinous mass could be seen moving as he spoke, and Silly wondered how this could leave him unwavering. A piece of chewed cookie had probably been wiped off with the back of his hand because there was a long, dried, comet-tail-like trace on the surface of his cheek. But there still remained a chunk of material proudly lodged in this crevice, which the hand had not been able to reach. Silly would never have been able to expose such negligence publicly without her mother having supervised her scrubbing and rinsing and drying. Cedric invariably displayed unidentified matter around his face, between his teeth, around his mouth, on the lenses of his glasses, in the inner corner of his eye, his nostrils of course, and one day she had even seen an old piece of dark brown wax balanced, like Humpty Dumpty, in the indentation of his left ear. But Silly pretended not to notice anything. He smelled like cake and his easy-going companionship would guarantee hours of joyful, uneventful, play. The days followed one another in a merry atmosphere of disbelief at the imminent start of the new school year, and all that prevailed was the smell of wet earth, pine sap and the feeling of scabs on the knees, which were so little compared to this intense and rare feeling of freedom. For nothing she did, she believed, was seen from Madame Picard. Of course she could see the dining room’s curtains move when she looked at the cube, but she didn’t pay any attention to them.
* * *
One morning Silly decided to go for a bike ride while waiting for the others to wake up. Carefully she opened the sliding door of the garage and drove her bike to the sidewalk. In spite of its size which forced her to raise her arms at the level of her chin to pull it to street level, it wasn’t that heavy. She found it easy to adjust her trajectory and felt herself growing wings. She often dreamed of leaving for a place unknown to her, engaging on a road without knowing where it might lead exactly, and moving away, in successive steps, from the cube. She was sliding along the familiar streets when she saw a temporary sign on Stadium Street that partially blocked the right side of the road. She would have to go around it. She realized that workers had dug a deep and wide trench, which they had surrounded by stakes connected by a white and red ribbon supposed to warn of danger.
For some unfathomable reason that would make her mope for days after the event, Silly forced herself to stay on the right side of the road. It seemed unthinkable to her to bypass the works on the left. However, she noticed a strip of earth on the gutted sidewalk which the workers probably used to support themselves to plunge into the hole. She would try that. Along the trench, the passage was no more than fifteen centimeters wide, and it would lead her to the other side of
Stadium Street. At that hour, there was no passersby to be seen, and this emboldened her. All she had to do was stay on her bike and ride carefully, like a tightrope walker. She engaged her front wheel on the narrow path. She immediately felt that the earth and pebbles of various sizes were coming to life under her tire. Her pedal stroke suddenly lost its strength. She had decided to look straight ahead rather than downwards, so she didn’t see the treacherous front wheel yielding to the furious pebbled carpet. And it deflected, irrevocably, to the left.
She found herself in the hole in a split second, with the bike on top of her. How heavy it was now. Part of the rear wheel was sticking out of the road like a spoon from its cup. All she could think of was: Get out, get out, get out of that hole as quickly as possible, and pretend none of this had happened. She managed somehow to climb to the surface and to lift her bike with a strength that she would never have suspected. The ribbons started to wrap themselves around the mudguard but she pulled them off in a flash and got into the saddle in a hurry, trembling, guided by the fixed idea of not being seen by anyone. She was covered with dirt. What was her mother going to say? Her heart was beating painfully. She could barely control her shaky legs. What if someone had seen her? She had fallen almost on Mrs. Demailly’s front porch. Everyone in Clermont was on the lookout, behind their curtains.
She was cycling like a madwoman and did not realize that she had reached School Street. The familiar place was quiet and deserted. She stopped her bike. A most acute feeling of ridicule seized her and wouldn’t leave her for days. She believed that no one had seen her fall into the hole, but she started to hesitate. Had there been a large hidden audience ready to laugh at her? She hadn’t been able to live up to this wonderful gift, she had taken a path anyone would have seen as treacherous. Take the village idiot, for instance, Mr. Racine. He was always to be seen walking at a brisk pace, his back bent, all over the cité. He walked because he had no car, which was the worst of all defects, worse even than his mental debility. And she, Silly, was no better. She had deserved her nickname. Her mother had always told her that it was affectionate. Nobody knew English anyway. It was a perfect little diminutive for Cécile.
She had even found a way to mess up the work of the workers, who would be beside themselves when they would realize that one of the iron stakes had fallen into the ditch and that the protective tape had been ripped off by vandals. Crying was out of the question. She looked around to make sure she was alone and began to dust off her shirt, her bare arms and legs. The bike had caused a cut on her tibia which had stopped bleeding without her feeling any pain. Her brain had spent so much energy fighting her shame that her body had been unable to record the injury. The mere thought of her bearing, ass over head in a hole, with her bicycle on top, set her small face on fire, from the hollow of her neck to the roots of her hair.
“Mommy, I fell down.”
Mrs Picard was focusing on the carrots she was peeling in an angry mood, standing in front of the big white kitchensink.
“With my bike.”
Mrs. Picard raised her head to examine her.
“Is it broken already?”
“No, no, it’s got nothing, it’s really strong, don’t worry. It’s just, it was, you know, the works?”
“Up the street. There.”
Silly stretched her arm out vaguely. Something inside was urging her to tell everything, even though she didn’t have to. She could have left everything in the dark, but if Mrs. Demailly happened to tell her about her daughter’s fall, she would be accused of lying. So she preferred to give herself up entirely to her mother, before things got any worse.
“There was a hole in the road. I fell through it.”
She resumed peeling and asked Silly if she had hurt herself.
“No, no, not at all, it’s just that…”
She didn’t know how to talk about her shame and ridicule. Her mother seemed not to hold it against her. Geneviève Picard never made it clear whether or not she was happy or content, but it was enough for Silly to listen to her talk or to glimpse at her. She could smile abundantly while nourishing the most terrible melancholy, and, on a good day, display her mournful face while feeling a sweet inner bliss. Silly was quite good at deciphering her, although there always remains some interpretative gap. With Geneviève Picard, the same causes did not always produce the same effects. This time, Silly was relieved of her indifference, even though she knew that she could very well bring back this story by finding it particularly distressing a few hours or a few days later, when she would look for a new bone to gnaw.
“I’m going to go change clothes.”
“That’s it. And stop the bike for today. I have green beans to fix. Tons of them. Phew. The parents gave me, not one, but five huge bags. They never give me anything, but their green beans. They wouldn’t have given all that to the other one, she can’t do anything with her ten fingers, that one. She’s got the strawberries. Phew. We never get strawberries. Are you even surprised? And they pick them on purpose after they’ve grown too big already. Green beans need be thin and small. Thin and small. Every year I tell them. Phew. What an idea they got into their head of wanting to plant acres and acres of them. I’ll have to make more jars.”
“Do you want me to go get some in the cellar?”
Geneviève Picard saw herself as a lifelong victim, and each contact with her own parents gave way to hateful abuse, and then she would brood for days. Her eldest daughter always tried to soothe her but to no avail. This time Silly’s misconduct had not diverted her mother from the day’s obsession, and for the time being this came as a relief for the little girl.
* * *
Over the next few days, Silly continued to dig, but she had grown disheartened. In the park, she turned her back to the street to avoid thinking about her fall, but the more she tried to chase the image of her collapse, the more fidgety she became. As a fire that feeds on the ambient oxygen, her uneasiness fed on all the glances she imagined on her, more and more numerous as the days went by. Her spirit remained trapped at the edge of the trench. She was looked at from every angle, she was buried in that thing, entangled, mired, while – what, there was room around it to pass, so what did she have to do that? She was such a clumsy oaf.
An authoritative emotion was imposing its empire over her, an empire she would endure in other, future falls. It looked like a black veil covering her panorama, a mute altering the clarity of her voice, an indefinable obstacle blocking her path. Meanwhile, the game was losing its meaning, and she made out that without her own motivation, her playmates could not reach the excitement of the previous days. She blamed herself for that as well and thought that her melancholy had contaminated them, without being quite sure. She sank into penitence.
“What is your father doing now?”
“He’s building a garage.”
Cedric lifted his head out of the hole, looking pleased. Next to his house, facing the park, there was a piece of land on which his father had put a sign “Construction in progress. Access to authorized personnel only”. He had started to work on the foundations and bits of trenches already showed. On the sides, fresh clods of earth were still covered with green grass. The construction site looked huge and extended over an area that must have been about the size of a double workers’ house. A large concrete mixer stood ready next to the sign and Mr. Romano was carrying wooden planks and covering parts of the broken ground.
“But don’t you already have a garage?”
“Yes, but much too small. With this one we’ll be able to store some material, and other things. In addition to the car.”
Silly couldn’t quite gather how the idea of a garage made him so proud. But she accepted his enchantment and came to respect it. Cédric drew a communicative joy from his dad’s project which helped Silly soothe her torments. Sometimes, in the morning, he would stand next to his father, leaning against the wobbly sign with his back to the road, and there he was hanging on his every word while watching the grand spectacle of the upside-down earth. For Silly this construction came to take on a particular mystery, and she looked towards the building site with a mixture of anticipation and incomprehension, not being able to imagine exactly how such walls would be built, how they would stand up and eventually hold together.
Mr. Romano looked like a child, busy as he was assembling his toy in his free time. His little moustache, his dark complexion and his proud demeanor made her think of Don Quixote, especially since he sported that confident smile that made him so different from his wife. That Cedric was attracted like a magnet to his father outside the house, Silly understood perfectly. She knew full well that they had no idea where they were going with this titanic project when she saw them talking like that in front of the vacant lot, making wide gestures – but in doing so she perceived that they were the most harmless bunch in the world, and this reassured her. Geneviève Picard never objected to Silly spending all those hours with him. Yet she unequivocally disparaged the Romanos’ lifestyle, the mother in her dressing-gown all day long, Cédric’s bad grades, his attire, this insane garage project. What was he doing with that concrete mixer and where did he get all this material, did they know all that, at the factory? Madame Picard saw Cédric as a brave ninny and she enjoyed letting it be known, when at snack time, he would come to her kitchen to gorge himself on buttered toast.
* * *
Fanette drew Cedric and Silly’s attention to a group of children moving noisily about the park.
“What are they doing there? Where are they going?”
“The two little Racine are there, it’s weird,” said Cédric. “And this one is at junior high, look.”
In the group, they noticed the short size of Jean-Luc, the youngest of the Racine brothers, with his blond hair, his glasses and his permanent smile. Silly had once asked her mother if he was a
Mongolian. No of course he was not. Well, she thought he wasn’t. They were simpletons, that’s all.
But Silly found that he had slanting eyes and protruding cheekbones, as well as that pointless, typical smile. From a distance, one could see he was restless. He walked sideways, and moved his head around, as if in a dance. His brother Jean-Marc looked quiet: he was already like his father, a little stooped but his eyes fixed on an imaginary goal along the road. He stood a bit outside the group, unlike his brother, who was sucked in by the magnetism of the pack, composed of bigger and taller boys, who spoke louder and better than he did.
* * *
One never saw Mrs. Racine, the mother. Silly imagined her a bit like Mrs. Romano, locked up in her house out of fear of the outside world, although she had no clear idea, at her age, why someone would be scared of the outside world. The one they saw most in that family was Mr. Racine, who was sweeping the streets of Clermont. He was employed by the town hall to do this job and Silly had always heard of him as a street sweeper. But was it a job that really existed, described in plain letters somewhere, somewhere other than in children’s stories or in novels from another century that Silly read carefully? Mr. Racine was either carrying his broom or big shopping bags. His constant motion disturbed Silly but did not make her uncomfortable. His silhouette was that of the Walking Man, describing very wide strides, leaning forward as if projected willingly into the world, but also slightly arched to protect his face from the weather. Why did he walk so fast and in such a determined manner? Perhaps because he had to walk many, many kilometers outside the cité, Clermont having no supermarket, only a small pharmacy and an even smaller grocery store. Was he going to drink at the pub on the border of the cité? Every time Mrs. Picard met him she greeted him emphatically, “Bonjour Monsieur”, which her accent made her pronounce “M’ssi-e”, her voice hanging over the second word. Ans she would add, for their daughters to hear, poor Mr. Racine, and without a car, he drives for miles, whether it rains or it snows.
Mrs. Picard felt Mr. Racine’s marginality as a pain inflicted upon herself. She repeated in a strangled voice, they are such poor people, and Silly had gathered that this was a definite and incurable curse. Perhaps by saying hello to him and crying over him in this way, she was performing the only act of sympathy that she was capable of, thereby soothing something that was tormenting her. Silly felt for that family with all her heart, and this caused her immense distress. For every time she saw him she could sense her suffering bulging at her chest, but until then she hadn’t been unable to name it precisely.
Mr. and Mrs. Picard shared the idea, which seemed to satisfy them greatly, that the physical aspect of people revealed their mental abilities. One only had to look at Mr. Racine. Although he was not properly deformed, his prognathic chin and black eyes showed that he was stubborn, according to Mrs. Picard.
“And look at him, the lad, he’s sweeping against the wind! He still hasn’t got it!”
Jean-Paul Picard repeated this verdict to anyone around, with that nasal voice he used to make fun of people. Mr. Racine had only one notion to master to do his job properly, but it was too much for him, the bugger. Silly’s father’s slander was unparalleled when he spoke of idiocy, even though he was not himself endowed with outstanding intelligence. But he was undoubtedly smarter than the people he met in Clermont and he exploited that position by often verging on perversity.
Jean-Paul Picard had seen several generations of idiots in his class of eighth and ninth graders, and he knew the particular traits of such and such family, and he would label his pupils tirelessly: donkey, lazy, fried whiting, head slapped, happy fool, runt, moon face. In his position it was easy for him to question the children about their families’ unsavory habits, and he took pleasure in recounting and repeating such and such anecdotes for bullying purposes. He would lecture his wife or gullible colleagues about the causal links between this morphological characteristic and that personality flaw: the crooked look, the repulsive breath, the rotten teeth, the open mouth of bliss or stupidity, always preferring to pick on boys rather than girls. He confirmed his verdicts with what he saw or thought he saw from the mother or father, and Silly and her sister had so well identified which children their father hated with all his heart that they had to contain themselves so that they wouldn’t become schoolyard bullies themselves. There was no lack of envy, but a pervasive wariness had protected them from this faux pas until then.
The Racines had two boys. Jean-Marc was in Silly’s class, already a year behind, and Jean-Luc was slightly younger than Fanette, but barely out of kindergarten despite being eight years old. Their compound names had always aroused a form of disdain among the Picards, who considered that the sophistication of the double first name did not suit their social condition, and that it did not resonate with the times, in any case. These surnames were reminiscent of the former generation, that of Silly’s parents, and stood at an odd angle with the Jeremys, Sébastiens, Cédrics and Florents who reigned in those years. What did they think with these first names, these light-hearted morons sweeping from father to son? Perhaps they wanted to aspire to something else, for once, without knowing exactly what.
Jean-Paul Picard, although condescending to little Jean-Marc, whom he already had in his class for two years, nurtured a strong impulse to protect him. Mockery was his privilege, and he made sure that it was, if not eradicated, then at least controlled within his classroom. His protective instinct went as far as corporeal correction, if he heard Jean-Marc being called a son of a bitch, or other bird names that always ended up referring to the mental state of the father and grandfather. He would call the culprit to his desk, on the platform, make him lie on his knees, head down; and grasping the flat, yellow wooden ruler that was used to draw lines on the blackboard during geometry lessons, he would strike wide, theatrical blows on his buttocks. The victim would eventually reemerge, reddened by shame and by the effect of gravity more than by pain, thereby reinforcing his willingness to attack the Racine family whenever the opportunity would arise.
* * *
Cédric, Silly and Fanette looked intently at the group of boys until they disappeared into Stadium Street, from where their exclamations could be heard for a few more moments. They had seen the shaved head of Laurent Amico, a fourth grader, accompanied by his brother Stéphane, who, although still in elementary school, had an ear pierced with a small ring. Next to him was little Tony Ferry, a nine or ten-year-old rascal who lived not far with a sibling group of four girls, and to whom the parents would occasionally associate other children for variable periods of time, because they had somehow received the approval of a foster family. For several months they had been hosting Davy, who was the same age as Tony, and who had become his doppelgänger. The long summer made these children nervous, especially as the beginning of the school year was approaching, and the need to find sources of entertainment was compounded by the inner violence that had taken them from fighting little boys to belligerent boys to delinquent teenagers. Silly knew that when they stopped somewhere in the cité, at the bus stop around the corner from the farmhouse or in front of the deserted bandstand, they always left a constellation of spittle on the ground, as if to sign the misdeeds they were about to accomplish.
Victims of a punitive commando, the two Racine brothers had been embarked in the group for a confusing story of provocation. Earlier in the afternoon, Jean-Luc had the misfortune of knocking down Laurent Amico by throwing a ball against his bicycle wheel. The other one immediately grabbed him by the scruff of the neck, as in the movies, telling him to apologize. With two fingers, he transferred the blood from his chin to one of Jean-Luc’s cheeks and then to the other. “You scumbag.” He bulged his chest as he thought he should do in such circumstances, and turned around and repeated, “What are we going to do to you, moron. Apologize, dickhead”.
Jean-Luc’s brother came along, his head lowered, while Mrs. Racine behind her curtain was watching. Then they were joined by the Amicos and the two Siamese Tony and Davy, who happened to be passing by. That day, his mother had put on Jean-Luc old-fashioned brown shorts that her neighbor had given away. The Racines were among the needy in the cité, who, because they managed to maintain a certain level of dignity, unlike the Ferry family, aroused a feeling of sympathy and generosity that was not entirely attributable to their acts. Thus the Racines had come to expect others to assist them, but they perfectly knew that there were always only a step away from losing that aura of respectability, which secured them, here, a car ride for a medical examination, there, a bag of used clothes for the children. Like Mrs. Picard, the Racines’s neighborhood had looked disapprovingly on the successive birth of the two boys who would inherit the mental dispositions of the father and grandfather, and many could not help thinking that in our time, all the same, they could have been better advised.
Mrs. Racine found these shorts very smart. She registered the insults against her son without thinking of resisting. Then the group moved away and she did not wonder why her two children followed them like that. She went back to her chair in front of the dining-room table. The grandfather had his eyes glued to the same page of the local newspaper since the morning, motionless on his chair. She turned on the television, which was broadcasting a quiz program. She didn’t understand all of it, but she watched it every day for its shiny-faced host, who invited women of her age, barely better dressed than she was, to appear on the bright set.
The boys were headed for the woods. Once past the stadium, they crossed a narrow wheat field to the edge of the woods. There they stopped in front of a large power pole, one of those made of raised concrete blocks, which from afar look like men with no arms, but with a big head from which their long, straight hair starts.
“You’re gonna apologize, aren’t you, sissy?”
Tony Ferry took out of his pockets a packet of brightly colored jelly beans.
“These won’t be for you, retard.”
Laurent Amico followed him by sliding something into his ear, and the other one jumped at once, his eyes brightened with excitement.
“You have to do it if you don’t want to end up like your father.” “I bet one bag, yeah, and a second one if your brother goes with you.” Jean-Marc tried to speak to no avail.
“If the kid wants to do it, that’s his business, let him.”
The little Ferry boy swirled his bag of candy with an authoritative air.
“He’s already got the war stuff on his cheeks. He’s ready. He looks like a, what’s it called in the movies? What’s it called, Davy?”
Laurent hit his own mouth several times with his right hand, going, “ou-ha, ou-ha, ou-ha.”
“That’s it, an Indian. A guy who does scalps, you know what it is, retard, a scalp?”
Jean-Marc shrugged his shoulders. He stared at the candy packet with his greedy eyes while receiving dry, rhythmic slaps behind his head from Davy who tried to pass the time by filling it with the incomparable pleasure of using another to let off steam. The little one behaved like four or five-year-old child, going from tears to laughter without ever anticipating or adjusting his reactions to those of his audience. Davy had instantly viewed him as a toy, a puppy at the most, who like one did not understand the world outside his known territory.
“Go on. It’s like the steps of a staircase. Just go up, it’s easy,” Davy said.
“I’ve done it before. Go on,” the little Ferry added.
“You’ve already done it, right? “asked Jean-Marc, who had stepped forward next to his brother.
Jean-Luc climbed the first step and there was no way to stop him. He climbed in the manner of a baby who has just started to stand up, but drifts about as if his moves were known since the beginning. He was both instinctive and easy, like a monkey, fixed on his goal, his eyes glued to the top.
“I’m going fast!”
He shouted out his joy. The others encouraged him. They had never been so kind to him. Stephane even sang a little song to remind him that the candy wouldn’t be his until he was upstairs. But his voice betrayed trouble.
The last time Jean-Marc saw his brother’s brown shorts moving on the pole, he was halfway there and he looked very small. His steady ascent evoked a glass elevator waiting to be dropped off at a safe place. Then Jean-Marc lowered his head and looked around. The other boys had disappeared. He hadn’t even heard them leave. How long had it been while he had been watching his brother? He was alone, standing in the field, a few meters from the post, in the middle of the cut stalks of wheat that were pricking his legs. Just as he wanted to call his brother and tell him that he had won and that he had to come down now, he heard a huge slamming sound that pierced his ears, and he fell to the ground unconscious.
Geneviève Picard was standing in the kitchen, rubbing a pan with a cloth worn down to the weft. Her gestures were of a rare precision, her fingers guiding the cloth into the recesses formed by the screws that fixed the handle to the tin container, as it was important not to let these parts rust. This junk oxidized so quickly, it wasn’t for lack of having asked Jean-Paul Picard to buy one with the new materials they were now using to prevent food from sticking inside. But no, he had come back from the store with that, because his mother had the same one. Her fingers operated independently and mechanically, while her eyes and all her attention were fixed on her husband.
Mr. Picard had his arms dangling, his head down, typical of those days when he didn’t know what to say in the face of a new situation. Despite the dark beard that masked his chin, one could see that his lower jaw was advancing, leaving his lips ajar.
“They couldn’t do anything, it was too late when the firefighters arrived.”
“But what, who gave him that idea? »
“Those crazy Amico brothers again.”
Mrs. Picard’s eyes were waving, and she was holding back her words.
” The poor kid.”
Mr. Picard repeated, “The poor kid.”
At that moment Silly came in and offered to help set the table. Both her parents looked at her solemnly.
“There’s been an accident. Not far from the woods there’s a power line going by, you know? » “Yes”.
“The youngest of the Racines, we don’t know how. He ended up climbing a power pole. It’s very dangerous. They made him climb it. He climbed up.
The mother took over.
” He didn’t have time to get to the top because he was electrocuted. He died. They found him still hanging from the pole. He was all black.
She repeated, “all black”, her eyes wide open, in a void.
* * *
In the days following Jean-Luc’s death, Silly found herself in a strange state where the lingering image of his bicycle fall was superimposed on the boy’s death. It made her feel ashamed to think about her fall into that ridiculous hole, while a boy had died nearby. She didn’t really know the Racine family, had never visited their house, or spoken to any of the children, let alone the parents, but his death lingered in her mind for a long time in the form of that electric pole jealously guarding its prey, halfway up the hill, when the birds reached its wires safely, free to land, fly away, come back. The pity she felt for him was verging on terror that made her nauseous and prevented her from falling asleep. The spectacle of a powerless and helpless being, seemingly sole responsible of his own destruction, at the mercy of the horde.
The shame intensified at the thought of the boy’s idiocy and the joy he must have felt when he had thrown himself to death, as if she had somehow been responsible for him. She wasn’t afraid that it would happen to her one day, no, she didn’t even think about it, it was so inconceivable. But this power to give death, or rather this power to let death happen, casually, without premeditation, without reason, was agonizing to her.
“Like that, or in some other way, what a difference”.
Geneviève Picard’s truncated phrases emerged like the tips of icebergs that hid beneath them blocks of thought that were much more potent, though outrageous, and that Silly could distinguish by coming up against their formidable inertia.
“What would he have done with his life anyway, huh?”
Her mother’s gaze remained full of pity, but as the days went by, it was tinged with something else. Certainly, there were culprits, those that no one had precisely identified but who had prompted this ascent. In her mother’s mind, the culprits would remain in the shadows and that wouldn’t be a problem. For if one followed her thought lodged under the surface but so easily sensed, Jean-Luc should not have existed, just as he shouldn’t have borne that name. People like them, it was better they had no descendants, she had always known that, it was better for everyone.
The investigation that followed the tragedy was noticeably short, some said to spare the parents, others because the Racine were what they were. None of the children who had been at the foot of the pole that day were interrogated. Perhaps a different kind of justice would condemn the Amico and Ferry brothers to further compensation, a life of sorrow, an untimely death. But would they ruin other lives and be tormented by the vision of their charred victim, which they had so quickly, and with such perfectly calculated anticipation, dodged? When Silly was in high school, the
Amico’s younger brother had fun throwing pebbles at Silly’s head every morning on the school bus. But every time she felt the bite, she ignored it, and she would think instead of Jean-Luc, asking him for forgiveness wherever he was.
For the funeral, Mrs. Racine dressed her son in brown Bermuda shorts that she had washed and ironed, and a short-sleeved checked shirt. Despite the damage caused by the burns, the face had been relatively spared and she had cleaned the remaining blood from his cheeks with a handkerchief that she had spat on beforehand, as she used to do when she saw that her sons’ cheeks were not clean. “What are you doing?” her husband had asked. He couldn’t see anything, where she saw blood. They spoke very little, and their child’s death did not change that either.
Cécile Seiller is an author based in Paris, writing fiction and non-fiction in French and in English. She is the mother of three children.