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Authors: Marie-Sabine Roger

Soft in the Head

BOOK: Soft in the Head
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MARIE-SABINE ROGER

SOFT IN THE HEAD

Translated from the French
by Frank Wynne

PUSHKIN PRESS
LONDON

For Émile and Germaine,
Alice and Henri, Louis and Simone/the roots.
For Samuel, Antoine and Cécile/the fruits.

I

VE DECIDED
to adopt Margueritte. She’ll be eighty-six any day now so there seemed no point putting it off. Old people have a tendency to die.

This way, if something happened to her, like, I don’t know, say she had a fall in the street, I’d be there. I’d show up, elbow my way through the crowd and say:

“OK, that’s enough, you can all bugger off now. I’ll take care of everything, she’s my grandmother.”

It’s not like she’d be wearing a sign saying she was only adopted.

I’ll be able to buy a newspaper and a packet of mints for her. I’ll be able to sit next to her in the park, visit her at Les Peupliers on Sundays. Even stay for lunch if I feel like it.

Obviously, I could have done all this stuff before now, but I’d have felt like I was just a hanger-on. In the future, I’ll do it gladly but also out of a sense of responsibility. That’s the real difference: I’ll have family responsibilities. That’s something I figure I’ll be good at.

It’s changed my life, meeting her, meeting Margueritte. It’s weird having someone to worry about when I’m alone—someone other than myself I mean. I’m not used to it. I never had any family before her.

Well, you know what I mean. Obviously, I’ve got a mother, goes without saying. Thing is that, apart from being lumbered with each other for nine months, me and her had
nothing in common except bad times. If there were good times, I don’t remember any. And obviously I had a father. Not that I had him around for long, he did his thing with my mother and skedaddled. That said, it didn’t stop me growing up bigger and stronger than the average kid: 110 kilos of muscle, not a gram of fat, a metre eighty-nine in socks and built to match. If my parents had wanted me, I would have been their pride and joy. No such luck.

 

The other thing that’s new for me is that before Margueritte, I’d never loved another person. I’m not talking about sex stuff, I’m talking about the sort of feeling where you don’t end up in bed after. Tenderness and affection, and trust. All those things. I still have trouble saying the actual words since no one ever said them to me until Margueritte brought it up. Feelings that are decent and pure.

I want to make that clear, because I know people who would be dumb enough to say, hey, Germain, are you hitting on grannies these days? Copping off with OAPs?

The sort of people I’d happily give a smack in the mouth.

It’s a pity I didn’t know Margueritte when I would have got some mileage out of her, back when I was a kid, when I was into all sorts of devilment.

But there’s no point regretting things in this life: what’s past is behind us.

I’m a self-made man, built myself from the ground up. OK, maybe I didn’t follow the proper building regulations, but I’m still standing.

Margueritte on the other hand is shrinking. She hunches when she sits, bent over her knees. I’ll have to take good care of her if she’s going to last. She makes out she’s tough as old boots when really she’s fragile. She’s got the bones of a sparrow, I could snap them between two fingers easy. I’m just saying. Obviously I wouldn’t do it. People don’t go round breaking their grandmother’s bones, that would be sick. It’s just my way of explaining how frail she is. She reminds me of the spun glass figurines they sell at Granjean’s newsagents. Especially the little doe in the window. It’s tiny, with thin, wiry legs. No thicker than an eyelash. Margueritte is like that. Every time I walk past and see that doe, I think about buying it. Three euros, it’s not much, is it? But I know the minute I put it in my pocket it would break. And besides, where would I keep it? There’s not much in the way of shelves at my place. Caravans don’t have much space.

It was the same with Margueritte at first, I just didn’t have the room. I mean inside me. When I started to feel feelings I realized I’d have to make space for her and for my feelings. Because loving her came on top of everything else—all the stuff already cluttering up my head—and I hadn’t planned for it. So I did some clearing out. It made me realize there wasn’t much there I wanted to keep hold of. My head was a jumble of stupid rubbish. TV game shows, radio phone-ins, conversations with Jojo Zekouc at Chez Francine café-restaurant. Playing a couple of hands of belote with Marco, Julien and Landremont. And then there were the nights I went round to see Annette to dip my
wick and be all lovey-dovey. But that’s good for the brain, actually, because you can’t think when you’ve got blue balls. Or not properly, anyway, not deeply.

I’ll tell you about Annette another time. Things are different now between Annette and me.

 

 

T
HE FIRST TIME
I saw Margueritte, she was sitting on that bench over there. Under the big linden tree next to the pond. It was about three in the afternoon, the sun was shining and the weather was much too warm for the season. It’s not good for the trees: they start budding like nobody’s business and then if there’s a cold snap, all the flowers die off and there’s not much fruit.

She was dressed the same as always. Obviously, that first day I couldn’t know that she always dressed like that. You only find out other people’s habits when you get to know them. The first time you meet, you can’t know what’s going to happen. You don’t know if maybe you’ll fall in love. If you’ll even remember the first time later on. Or maybe you’ll end up screaming abuse and pissing each other off. Or maybe you’ll just become friends. With all the
ifs
and
ors
that go with it.

The
maybes
are the worst.

Margueritte was sitting there, doing nothing, staring into space. She was facing the lawn and the far end of the main path. She was wearing a print dress with grey and purple flowers the same colour as her hair, a tightly buttoned grey jacket and dark stockings and shoes. Next to her on the bench was a black handbag.

I couldn’t help thinking she was being careless. Leaving her handbag like that, I could nick it any time I wanted.
When I say
I
,
I
doesn’t mean me personally.
I
in this case stands for
people in general.
Well, chavs, anyway. Especially since she’s a little old lady, doing a runner would be a piece of piss. You just push her with the flat of your hand, a quick shove would be enough: she falls down with a little yelp, fractures her hip and lies there half dead while you—obviously I don’t mean you or me personally—you make a quick getaway, simple as, in fact by now you’d already be long gone. Don’t ask me how I know this stuff. Look, all I’m saying is that she wasn’t being careful.

 

I might just as easily not have been to the park the Monday I met her. I might have been busy, I might have been up to my eyes. What do you think I do with my time? Some days I’ve got things I have to do: measuring the trunks of the fir trees along the bypass using my hands to check for deforestation. (Half of them are going to die, I’m sure they are, that’s why I check. It’s hardly surprising they die when you see the botched job the guys from the municipal parks committee make of the planting.) Training to run for as long as possible, shooting tin cans with an airgun outside the caravan. It’s all about breathing and reflexes, I need to be ready in case I’m ever caught up in a terrorist attack, or if I have to save people or something. And there’s a bunch of other things. Different stuff. For example, I whittle bits of wood with my Opinel penknife. I carve animals and little figurines. People I see in the street, cats, dogs, anything and anyone.

Other days I go to the park to count the pigeons.

On the way, I write my name in capital letters on the marble plaque underneath the soldier on the war memorial. Obviously, every time I do, someone they send from the council cleans it off and gives me a bollocking. You have to stop with this shit, Germain, we’ve had enough—next time you’ll have to clean it off yourself!

I wouldn’t mind but the markers are supposed to be indelible—
impossible to efface or erase; see also: inerasable
—and they cost me quite a bit. In fact, I’m going to tell them down at the stationery shop that this is false advertising. The pack was clearly marked “for all surfaces”, I’ve been gypped. Marble is a surface—unless I’m very much mistaken, as Margueritte always says.

Anyway, as soon as my name has been erased, I’ve got no choice but to start over again. It doesn’t matter to me, I’m a patient man. If I keep going, they might end up leaving it.

Besides, I can’t see where the harm is, my name’s right down at the bottom. It’s not even in alphabetical order, and I could kick up a fuss because Chazes doesn’t come at the end, far from it. By rights I should be fifth on their list.

Between Pierre Boisverte and Ernest Combereau.

One day I said this to Jacques Devallée down at the town hall, he’s a civil serpent. He nodded, he said that basically I was right, that lists of names are made to have other names added.

Though it has to be said that he added: But there’s something you need to bear in mind…

“Oh, what’s that?” I said, all casual.

“Well, if you look carefully, you’ll notice that all the people whose names are engraved on the memorial have one thing in common: they’re dead.”

“Oh, right!” I said, “I see, so that’s how it is. So to be on the list you have to kick the bucket?”

“That is, in effect, about the size of it, yes…” he said.

He was giving me his best patronizing look, but I said to him that when I was dead, they’d be forced to add my name to their bloody list.

“And why is that?”

“Because I’ll write a letter to a lawyer. I’ll tell him to put it in my will. The last wishes of the deceased have to be respected.”

“Not necessarily, Germain, not necessarily.”

 

I don’t care, I know what I’m talking about. I thought about it as I was walking home: when I die (when the Good Lord calls me, His hour will be my hour), I want my name to be engraved. Fifth on the list. Fifth from the top, while we’re at it, no cheating. They can sort it out however they like, the bastards at the town hall. A will is a will and that’s all there is to it. Yes, I said to myself, I’ll do it, I’ll write that letter. And I’ll insist that it is engraved by Devallée personally just to wind him up. I’ll go and see Maître Olivier and we’ll talk about it. He’s a lawyer, he should know what to do, shouldn’t he?

 

 

B
UT THE FACT REMAINS
that on that particular Monday—the one when I first met Margueritte—I wasn’t thinking about the war memorial, I had other things on my mind. I’d decided to buy some seeds and walk through the park on my way home to count the pigeons. It’s more complicated than it sounds: even if you creep up quietly and stand completely still while you’re counting, it’s useless, they’re always flapping about and getting agitated. They can be a real pain in the arse, pigeons.

If they carry on like that, I’ll stick to counting the swans. For one thing, they don’t move around as much, and for another, it’s easier: there’s only three.

So, anyway, Margueritte was sitting on this bench under the linden tree in front of the lawn. When I saw this little old lady who looked like she was the sort to throw breadcrumbs to get them to come to her, my heart sank. Another day wasted, I thought. I’d have to put off my bird-counting until tomorrow. Or until some day appointed by the Lord in His wisdom.

Counting pigeons requires stillness, so if someone comes along and gets them all flustered, you might as well just give up. They’re very sensitive, these birds, they can tell when someone is looking at them. It’s incredible how touchy they are. You might say conceited. The minute you look at them they start hopping around, they flutter about, they puff out their feathers…

But as it turned out, no. Which just goes to show how wrong you can be. About people, God, old ladies and pigeons.

The birds didn’t do their usual song and dance for her. They stayed in a group, very well behaved. She didn’t toss them crumbs bleating
here chickee-chickee-chickeeeee
!

She didn’t stare at me out of the corner of her eye the way most people do when I count.

She stayed very still. But then, just as I was about to leave, she said:

“Nineteen.”

Since I was only a few metres away, I heard her perfectly. I said:

“Are you talking to me?”

“I was saying there are nineteen. That little one, with the black feather in his tail, do you see him? Well, he’s new. He’s only been here since Saturday.”

I was pretty impressed: she had the same total as I did.

I said:

“So you like counting pigeons too?”

She cupped her hand to her ear and said:

“What did you say?”

I yelled:

“So-you-count-ing-pige-ons-too?”

“Of course I count them, young man. But there’s no need to shout, I’ll have you know. Just speak slowly and articulate… Well, a little louder than normal if it’s not too much trouble.”

It made me laugh, hearing someone call me “young man”. That said, thinking about it, it wasn’t as dumb as it sounded. People think I look young or old, depending. Depending on who’s talking to me. It’s normal: everything is relative—
something that is true only when considered in relation to something else.

For someone as old as Margueritte, I was young, that was definite, as well as being relative.

When I sat down next to her, I realized she really was a tiny little old granny. People sometimes say things like “knee high to a grasshopper” without thinking. But in her case, it wasn’t much of an exaggeration: her feet didn’t even touch the ground. Whereas I’m forced to stretch my lanky legs out in front of me.

I asked her politely:

“Do you come here often?”

She smiled.

“Almost every day the Good Lord sends…”

“Are you a nun?”

She shook her head, startled.

“A nun? Good Lord no! Whatever made you think that?”

“I don’t know. You mentioned the Good Lord, so… I just thought, maybe.”

I felt a bit stupid. But it’s not an insult to call someone a nun. Or at least not for someone old like her. Besides, she didn’t seem annoyed.

I said:

“It’s weird, I’ve never seen you here.”

“As a rule, I tend to come a little earlier. But, if you don’t mind my saying so, I have seen you here once or twice.”

I said:

“Ah!”

I don’t see what else I could have said apart from that.

She said:

“So, you like pigeons.”

“Yes. Mostly I just like counting them.”

“Oh, that… that’s an onerous task. It requires repeated computations…”

She had a complicated way of talking, with more frills and laces than a tart’s knickers, the way posh people talk. Then again, old people tend to be more smooth and polished than young people.

It’s strange: as I said that I was thinking about river stones and how they’re
smooth
and
polished,
precisely because they’re
old
. Sometimes the same words can describe completely different things that turn out to be the same when you think about them for a while.

I know what I mean.

To show her I wasn’t a moron, I said:

“I noticed him too, the little one with the black feather. So I named him Black Feather. The other birds don’t really let him get at the food, have you noticed?”

“That’s true. So you give them names?”

She seemed interested.

Believe it or not, this was when I first realized what it felt like for someone to be interested in you. If you’ve never felt
it, I can tell you: it feels weird. Obviously, sometimes when I’m explaining something, people say: No, really? Are you serious? My God, that’s terrible… But I’m talking about things that are really about me. Like for example the car that took a wrong turn at the hairpin bend on the coast road, one dead, three injured (I live right opposite, I’m usually the one who calls the ambulance, one time I even had to help the paramedics put a man who’d been cut to ribbons into a body bag, and it’s a pretty crappy job let me tell you). Or I tell my friends that the men down at the factory have threatened to barricade the slip road off the motorway—I know this because Annette works at the warehouse—local news stories, you know the kind of thing. Current affairs. But the idea of someone being interested in
me
? Wow! I felt a lump in my throat like I was a little kid. I nearly burst into tears, that’s how bad it was. If there’s one thing that makes me uncomfortable, it’s crying. Thankfully, it’s not something that happens to me often, except this one day when I crushed my foot when Landremont and me were helping his sister move house and he dropped the chest of drawers and pretended like his hands were all sweaty. Anyone would have been in tears: it hurt like a bitch, even if it is only an anecdote. I’m talking real tears. Like when I came first in the regional finals in the orienteering race, just ahead of Cyril Gontier, a complete scumbag who made my life a misery all through primary school. Or the night I fell in love with Annette, which was pretty surprising because we’d been fucking for three months already. But
that night, it was so beautiful, coming with her, that I had tears in my eyes.

Long story short, I don’t know about you, but me, I’m ashamed to cry. My nose starts streaming snot worse than a two-year-old, my eyes piss tears like a fountain, I yowl like a bull in a slaughterhouse. Everything about me is in proportion to my huge size, which is good for the ladies, but it’s also true when I’m upset, which is bad for me.

This little old lady made me all emotional without even trying. I don’t know why, maybe it was the kindly way she said, So you give them names? Or maybe because she looked so gentle. And maybe it had something to do with the fact that I’d had a skinful at Jojo Zekouc’s fortieth the night before and only had four hours’ sleep. But like I said before, when you start with
maybes,
there’s no end to it.

So, anyway, I said:

“Yes. I give them all names. It’s easier to count them that way.”

She raised her eyebrows.

“Well, well… Excuse me if I’m being indiscreet, but I have to confess I’m intrigued: how do you manage to tell them apart?”

“Um, well… It’s a bit like with kids… Have you got children?”

“No. And you?”

“Me neither.”

She nodded and smiled.

“In which case it is indeed an astute comparison…”

I wasn’t really sure what this meant, but she seemed to want to know more, so I carried on:

“Actually, they’re all different… If you don’t really pay attention, you’re not likely to notice, but if you study them carefully, you see that no two are the same. They’ve got their own personalities, even their own way of flying. That’s why I said it’s like kids. If you had kids, I’m sure you wouldn’t get them mixed up…”

She gave a little laugh.

“Oh, if I had nineteen of them, I’m not so sure…”

This made me laugh too.

I don’t often laugh when I’m with women. Not old women, at any rate.

It’s strange, I felt like we were friends, the two of us. Well, not really, but something quite like it. Since then, I’ve tracked down the word I needed:
allies.

BOOK: Soft in the Head
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