Authors: Emma Becker
Translation by Maxim Jakubowski
A Herman Graf Book
First published in the UK
by Constable, an imprint of
Constable & Robinson Ltd, 2012
This edition published by Skyhorse, 2012
Copyright Â© Emma Becker, 2011
Translation copyright Â© Maxim Jakubowski, 2012
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'The worst tyrants are those who succeed in getting themselves loved.'
I bumped into Monsieur's first-born on Line One, at Charles-de-Gaulle-Ãtoile. Classes had ended and hordes of noisy schoolkids were laying siege to the trains. I had to get up from my seat to allow a new batch to fit into my already full carriage and it was only when I felt a sharp elbow dig into my back that I looked up from my book for the customary exchange of indifferent apologies, neither of us bothering to disconnect from our iPods. As ever, I was only half convinced of the need to apologize. Why should I? Because I just happened to be there? Because I was in the way?
I can't pretend that his voice, which I could barely hear, triggered it. For some reason, I looked up at him, and knew instantly, without any shadow of doubt, that it was his son. There was no magic involved, but the likeness between them struck me with all the power of a spell. With immense effort, I dropped my eyes from his. They were wide, heavy-lidded, weighed down by the sensuality he had inherited from Monsieur and of which he was no doubt unaware.
It's him it's him it's him it's him it's him
. I realized I was staring at him and pretended to return to AndrÃ© Breton â I couldn't think of anything else to do.
I had never thought it would be so painful to be close to him. I didn't even notice the train reaching my station â I could have followed him anywhere.
Charles. The eldest. That morning, in the blue room of a hotel in the fifteenth
, I had surprised Monsieur by listing his boys: Charles, Samuel, Adam, Louis and Sacha, the spawn of a life I could barely imagine. I knew things about the eldest that even he might no longer remember: the heated argument over dinner about some historical battle during which Charles, in a fit of rage, had slammed his fist on the table, almost earning himself a paternal slap; the afternoon when he had come in from school totally high, his thick black hair still smelling of grass. Monsieur loved him with a passion â beside which the tenderness he had once shown me was a drop in the ocean.
The train lurched and, again, Charles bumped against me. âSorry,' he said, with a pinched smile.
I recognized his father's dimples, the same white teeth. It was as if Monsieur was gazing at me, for the first time in six months, in a way that explained everything: his children, his wife, everything he had built his life on. I could have been kind, I could have been compassionate, but Charles was somehow unable to move away from me, offering a series of apologetic smiles (each evoking an image of Monsieur after our lovemaking). I wanted to scream,
I don't want to look into those grey eyes, which don't belong to you. None of your features truly belongs to you â not even the long nose your mother gave you. I was biting the inside of my cheeks, pressing my lips together tightly, avoiding the unformed questions in his eyes.
Who am I? My name is Ellie (which means nothing to you but, God knows, there was a time when it meant everything to
, more than drink, food, sleep and everything in between). I'm about your age, a couple of years older â I haven't changed much since the days when I was carrying my maths books around in a moth-eaten old rucksack, and I'm looking at you like this because you remind me so much of your father. In your dark eyes I recognize the same unconscious languor that once frightened me, the hunger for women that attracted me. Right now, I'm reminded of those eyes peering over his mask when I watched him operate at the clinic. Of course, Charles, I know it shouldn't affect me in this way: I'm almost forgetting you're just a rough sketch of him, but thirty years younger.
I was once his mistress and I loved your father with an all-consuming fire. I can imagine one random evening coming across you at a party, sharing a joint with you and watching your eyes cloud over, as his did, learning what makes you laugh and contemplating your so familiar lips. It would be so easy, so natural, to become your girlfriend and meet up with you every evening outside the lycÃ©e. I'm not too old for you, just old enough to help you discover the realities of life, but I feel twenty years older. I heard so much about you from your father that in my eyes you're almost a child, asexual. If I were now to kiss you, as I desperately want to, it would be with despair, because you are the son of the man I cannot forget, and your kisses would have the same effect on me as the methadone prescribed for a recovering heroin addict. I've encountered so many Almosts and Not Quite Rights since he and I parted . . .
Hi, Charles, I'm Ellie. You've never spoken to me and you'll probably never see me again, but I know the name of every member of your family because I have held your father, of whom you happen to be a disturbing copy, in my arms. So, although I don't really know you, I truly know you . . . It's like a Truffaut movie: a strange woman among thousands walks into the same MÃ©tro carriage as her lover's son. She recognizes him; his features are familiar from all the photographs she has seen of him, of his family. With your father, it could have been anyone, but it just happened to be me. It was me he would meet up with on Tuesday mornings when you'd all left for school; it was me he was already thinking of when he kissed the top of your heads. Me, with my Bensimon jeans and my ponytail. This face. These hands sweating over a paperback in the stifling atmosphere of the Paris Underground but which,
barely six months ago
, Charles, were digging their nails into another pair of hands, the hands you felt on your back when you were learning to ride your first bicycle in the Luxembourg Gardens. You know none of this, and you're peering at me in the way you probably do at all girls â but I should be the person you despise most in the world because all I want is to hide in your pocket and spend the evening next to him at your dinner table. Just to see him. To witness some of the moments you barely notice, like your conversations, his kiss before you go to bed, the first words he says when he crosses the threshold every evening. Just five minutes at a table with all of you. Five minutes of your comfortable life, you arguing with your father, who is so annoyed that he has stopped eating, your pretty mother sighing at this male aggression, your four younger brothers fearful of taking sides, and me, stuffing myself with images to conjure up when I'm alone.
At ChÃ¢telet, Charles shot me a final glance from beneath his long black eyelashes, then disembarked amid the flow of passengers. I watched his silhouette until he had disappeared among a hundred anonymous heads, walking, I knew, towards Line Four and, later, emerging onto the Ãle Saint-Louis. A door, a number, a key granting access to the large family apartment where his mother was listening to his brother Adam telling her all about his day in first year. Monsieur would get home at around nine, after the children had had their dinner. But they would cross his path in a thousand ways, brushing against him as they cleaned their teeth in the bathroom before the goodnight kiss. And Charles would fall asleep with no memory of me. The MÃ©tro carriage felt so empty now that he was gone.
Cry. Scream. Burst out laughing. Whistle. Get back to your book.
My chin quivered like that of a little girl whose hand had been smacked. I pulled my collar up, and all the way to Nation, serenaded by Offenbach's â
', I sobbed my heart out. It seemed the only thing to do.
âDear me, how beautiful you were on the
Sacha Guitry, Les Femmes et toi
, by Nabokov. A book that led me on the path to damnation. I don't think you could find a more guilty title in my library. I had journeyed through de Sade, Serpieri and Manara, Mandiargues, Pauline RÃ©age, but none had produced the itch that literally threw me into Monsieur's arms. I see it clearly now. I should have been kept well apart from the yellowing old copy that stood innocently on the shelf. It was there I learned all there is to know about a particular type of man, worldly but weary, whose gaze is invariably drawn to young girls, and how those men focus on bodies that are no longer children's but not quite women's. It's the book in which I learned about the inner voice that draws them to nymphets. I learned how to decipher the vice beneath their respectable appearance, their adoration of the tousled goddesses they name Lolita.
Lolita. Demanding beyond reason, possessive and jealous, drawn into an endless war (which she has already won) against all other females, looking down on them despite her diminutive stature, her slender limbs and her age: she is fifteen years old, the age at which Nabokov killed her. The men we are talking about, in their serious suits and oxford brogues, kneel at the altar of these little darlings, for reasons that are wrong, and sordid to many: their innocence and the softness of their skin; their arses and breasts, which defy Newton's laws of gravity; their fingers, which lack shame, their small hands manipulating in childlike fashion â hands that have probably held nothing larger than a Magnum icecream (isn't there playful appetite in the way they hold this new delicacy?); their eyes, which are like harpoons because invariably, with men, they hold their gaze, in the street, despite the presence of parents, because they have no sense of shame. I now know all there is to know of men's attraction to them, but does anyone know what the nymphet is looking for? What draws her away from long-haired boys towards men as old as her father? Nabokov never let us into what Lolita was thinking when she sat on Humbert Humbert's lap on that pale summer morning. Or why, a few pages earlier, she was jumping across his knees, deliberately mistreating him, knickers flashing, twittering while her worshipper attempted to stem an almost adolescent effusion. It's this parallel reading of the book that I missed, the impossibility of discovering how the story would have unfolded had Lolita been allowed to speak. It was with this in mind that in the previous October I had climbed into the bed of a forty-year-old man. I shall ignore the almost accidental frolic I had when I was fifteen with a young company executive: there are men, and then there are men in their forties. Should you consider the distinction insignificant, I can assure you that not a single member of my tribe has ever confused the two. Nymphets and forty-year-old men attract each other.
That man â what was his name? â hadn't left me exhausted with delight in the morning but neither had he killed my attraction to his sort. I will go further: it was his abysmal lack of
and sensuality that propelled me on my quest. Maybe I was too demanding; maybe I was hoping too much to fulfil all the perfect scenarios I had imagined: myself, bent to the strength, will, hands and words of a professor, open to anything and prey to every manipulation my body would allow him. I had no wish to talk, and neither of us said a word until four o'clock when I got tired of having him inside me. It was a world away from the excesses that had previously crowded my mind. It was while I was jerking him off that I realized the list of those who could worship me as I wanted was endless. I smiled when he came, thinking of the men in my future.