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Authors: Pascal Garnier

Too Close to the Edge

BOOK: Too Close to the Edge
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Praise for Pascal Garnier:

 

The final descent into violence is worthy of J. G. Ballard.

The Independent

 

This often bleak, often funny and never predictable narrative is written in a precise style; Garnier chooses to decorate his text with philosophical musings rather than description. He does, however, combine a sense of the surreal with a ruthless wit, and this lightens the mood as he condemns his characters to the kind of miserable existence you might find in a Cormac McCarthy novel.

The Observer

 

For those with a taste for Georges Simenon or Patricia Highsmith, Garnier’s recently translated oeuvre will strike a chord … While this is an undeniably steely work … occasional outbreaks of dark humour suddenly pierce the clouds of encroaching existential gloom.

The Independent

 

A brilliant exercise in grim and gripping irony.

Sunday Telegraph

 

A master of the surreal noir thriller – Luis Buñuel meets Georges Simenon.

TLS

Too Close to the Edge

Pascal Garnier

Translated from the French by Emily Boyce

To Nathalie

Papa, papa…

Serge Gainsbourg

As the peeled potato fell into the pan of water, it made a loud
plop
which rebounded off the kitchen walls like a tennis ball. Holding the peeler still in her hand, Éliette paused to savour the moment; this – she was certain – was pure happiness.

Buffeted and battered by a year of uncontainable sobs, her heart had at last steadied itself like the green bubble in a spirit level. There was no particular reason for this new-found calm, or rather, there were a thousand: it was May, the rain was beating against the windows, there was baroque music playing on France Musique; she was making her first vegetable jardinière of the season (fresh peas, lettuce hearts, carrots, potatoes, turnips, spring onions, and not forgetting the lardons!); the Colette biography she had picked up the day before at Meysse library was propped open at page 48 on the living-room table; she wasn’t expecting anyone, and no one was expecting her.

All these little things along with countless others meant that for the first time since Charles’s death she did not feel lonely in the house by herself, but one and indivisible.

 

The France Musique presenter introduced the next programme in a voice which called to mind a priest with a pickled liver. Éliette opened her eyes and set to work on the last potato, challenging herself to peel it in one continuous
length. Then she cut the carrots and turnips into perfectly evenly sized pieces, gave the lettuce a shake and plunged her hands into the colander of peas with a sigh of pleasure. The sensation of the little green marbles rolling between her fingers was as enjoyable now as it had been in childhood, when she helped Mémé Alice shell peas. It was the reward for her hard work.

Her grandmother’s kitchen was like a women-only hammam. The windows were clouded by aromatic steam. Mémé Alice’s gnarled arthritic fingers resembled moving tree roots as they sliced vegetables, trussed chickens and kneaded dough as soft and white as the flesh of her arms. There was no talking in Alice’s kitchen, only singing. Edged with a thick layer of grey fluff, her upper lip quivered as she hummed ‘Les Roses blanches’, ‘La Butte rouge’ or ‘Mon vieux Pataud’.

With her sizeable girth straining against the front pocket of a huge black apron, Mémé Alice strongly resembled the cast-iron stove which seemed to blaze constantly. Indeed, such was the affinity between the two that you almost wondered in whose belly her dishes had been baked, stewed or roasted as she brought them to the table, huffing and puffing like an old steam engine.

Despite the fact she now had three grandchildren of her own, Éliette would never be a Mémé Alice. The children called her Mamie – probably because she was not old or fat enough to be a Mémé, her hair not long enough to pin up in a taut bun like a cartoon elderly aunt. These days, old age was regarded as an insult, an ugly omen from which children
should be shielded. It brought to mind visions of prolapse, support stockings and many other repulsive things besides, as hideous a prospect as death itself. Éliette was sixty-four.

She was one of those people who had always been and would remain attractive in a wholesome, obvious sort of way. She had never needed to give nature a helping hand. Just a touch of lipstick now and then when she and Charles went out of an evening, purely for the raspberry-flavoured kisses. Even the few wrinkles gathered around her eyes brought a new charm to her face. It was as though time had polished her with beeswax. Only Charles’s passing had slightly dulled the sparkle in her eyes, and placed her smile in permanent parentheses.

The two of them had shared forty years of untarnished love before Charles was suddenly carried off by cancer two months before he was due to retire. They had already started packing for their move from the Parisian suburbs to this house in the Ardèche, where life was supposed to be a never-ending holiday.

They had bought the former silk farm thirty years earlier. Year after year, they had spent every spare moment doing it up to turn it into the haven of peace that sadly she alone now enjoyed. After Charles’s death, Sylvie and Marc had tried to put her off going through with the move.

‘It’s madness, Maman. What are you going to do with yourself, stuck down there in the back of beyond? It’s a nice place to go on holiday, but living there full-time is another story.’

‘But I won’t be on my own. The Jauberts are here!’

‘The Jauberts! I mean, they’re decent people and everything, but all they do is go on about tractors and frosts and their disappointing onion crop. And as far as neighbours go, that would be your lot. You haven’t even got a driving licence and the nearest village is eight kilometres away. How are you going to do your shopping? On a bike?’

‘Why not?’

‘And what if you’re ill?’

‘I’ve got a telephone.’

‘It’s ridiculous, completely ridiculous!’

For a few months Éliette had been undecided, kicking about the flat in Boulogne with nothing on the horizon but the TV schedule and the possibility of a Sunday visit from her children and grandchildren. Then one day …

‘I’m selling Boulogne and moving to Saint-Vincent.’

Marc rolled his eyes and Sylvie, as usual, burst into floods of tears. Of course it was madness, but that was exactly what she was missing: a touch of madness to stop herself sinking into reason.

 

She moved house in late spring. For the first few months, Éliette quelled her doubts by indulging in an ever increasing range of activities, some more productive than others: she repainted doors and shutters that didn’t really need doing; planted vegetables and flowers, most of which died of boredom before they had even budded; set out to learn Italian on a tape recorder she never quite worked out how to use; spent considerable sums on subscriptions to lifestyle magazines –
Grow Your Own Veg, Sew Your Own Curtains,
Learn
to Love Yourself
, and so on; and started a diary, but never got beyond the first three pages. Then autumn came along.

Until this point, Marc and Sylvie had taken turns helping out with her screwball schemes, but they had their own lives, families and jobs to get back to, and at the beginning of September they both returned to Paris, leaving their mother in the care of the Jauberts, who lived on a farm two kilometres away.

Rose and Paul Jaubert were slightly younger than Éliette, but looked a good ten years older. Although on the face of it they did not have a great deal in common, thirty years as good neighbours had forged a true friendship which Charles’s death and Éliette’s permanent move to the silk farm had taken to a new level. The Jauberts now saw themselves as Éliette’s protectors, an arrangement as well meaning as it was burdensome.

Almost every evening until late November, Éliette was obliged to join them at their Formica-topped kitchen table for a supper washed down with generous helpings of whatever happened to be on TV. It was almost impossible to wriggle out of these nightly invitations without causing offence. She eventually did so on the pretext of needing time alone to collect her thoughts, an excuse the Jauberts accepted without understanding, but which must have come as a relief to them as much as to her.

Thus Éliette had won the freedom not to watch TV but to listen to the radio, read or, most often, lie in bed for hours on end, stiff as a corpse, willing sleep to hurry up and come.
At times like this, the Mogadon pills always had the last word. Not that she was complaining: there is nothing worse than having to share your solitude with other people. In any case, she still saw the Jauberts almost every day, especially Rose.

‘Here, I brought you some soup, a bit of salad, some onions and courgettes. I’m going shopping; do you need anything?’

Éliette’s fridge was constantly filled with vegetables that regularly ended up on the compost heap. No, she didn’t need anything, or if she did, that would be the one time Rose stayed away. This was how the idea of a microcar came about. She had spotted a few of them on the winding roads near her home and envied the septuagenarian couples calmly crawling along at a snail’s pace, unfazed by the honking horns and flashing headlights of furious motorists on the verge of shunting them into the ditch.

‘For crying out loud! Those things should be banned! Honestly, I could go faster in my tractor!’

Éliette held her tongue while she and Paul overtook one on the way back from the market, but secretly she could picture herself at the wheel of one of those smart little motorised buggies. She thought about it during the day and dreamed of it at night, like a child longing for a big toy for Christmas. It took all her skills of persuasion to convince Paul to take her to a dealer.

‘Éliette, why don’t you just take your driving test? Then you could buy a real car. My cousin’s selling his Renault 5, in perfect condition.’

‘No, I’d be bound to fail.’

‘But Rose took hers at forty-five!’

‘Well, I’m sixty-four. And anyway, it’s what I want.’

‘But Éliette, it’s not a car; it’s a toy, and an expensive one at that!’

‘Exactly, it’s a toy I’m after.’

Thanks to Charles’s pension and the sale of the flat, she could easily afford to indulge her whim. Paul reluctantly agreed to drive her to Montélimar, where she purchased a magnificent top-of-the-range cream Aixam. It took a little while to get used to driving it up the dirt track that led to her house, but after a few days she was able to go backwards and forwards, left and right without too much damage to the bumpers. Her first solo expedition (a round trip of about twenty kilometres) gave her as much of a thrill as if she had piloted a plane. Window down, hair blowing in the wind, she sang at the top of her lungs: ‘
Je n’ai besoin de personne en
Harley Davidson …’

The vehicle had changed her life. To begin with, Rose had seemed put out, as if Éliette had taken a lover. But in the end everyone got used to the idea, and even laughed about it.

‘Ah, there goes Éliette in her bubble car!’

 

Yet Madame de Bize was hardly in the first flush of youth. The lines on her face, hollowed by constant smiling, heralded the impending onset of her forties; her fulsome hips, whose immodest curves had once been celebrated by friends of both sexes, were becoming heavy …

She was interrupted in her reading of the Colette biography by the sharp ring of the telephone. It was midday, so it could only be Sylvie. This was her regular slot. She called once a
week from the office, just before going for lunch.

‘Hello, Maman? It’s Sylvie.’

‘Hi, darling. How are you?’

‘I’m all right, just knackered. Justine’s got measles.’

‘Poor little thing!’

‘What’s the betting she’s going to pass it on to Antoine?’

‘You did the same to me, you and your brother. Do you think you’ll make it down for Whitsun?’

‘Oh, yes. She’ll be better by then.’

‘Are you still planning to arrive on Friday?’

‘That’s the idea. Anyway, how are you?’

‘Fine. I’ve just made myself my first vegetable jardinière of the season.’

‘You lucky thing! Richard and the kids don’t like veg. I’m jealous!’

‘I’ll make you one when you’re here.’

‘With lardons and crème fraîche?’

‘Of course. And how are things with Richard’s job?’

‘Oh, you know what the property market’s like at the moment … He’s got a few things in the pipeline. He’s been travelling a lot. Are you sure you’re OK?’

‘Absolutely! It’s been stormy the last couple of days, but it’s supposed to cheer up in time for the weekend. I’m reading Colette’s biography and very much enjoying it. What about you? What are you reading?’

‘Oh, I don’t have time to read. When I’m not working or looking after the kids, doing the shopping …’

‘I know, darling. We ought to retire when we’re young and work when we’re old.’

‘You work all your life and then look what happened to Papa! Sorry, Maman. I’m just so stressed at the moment. I can’t wait to see you and have some home comforts.’

‘Don’t you worry. I’ll look after you and you can put your feet up. What about your brother? I haven’t heard from him. Have you arranged things with him?’

‘Oh, I never know what’s going on with Marc. He always has all the time in the world. Everything’s always hunky-dory. I’ve no idea how he does it. Actually, I do know: it’s Sandra who does everything – the kid, the house – always with that vacant smile on her face. The perfect housewife!’

‘Don’t be unkind about your sister-in-law. She’s very nice.’

‘Very, and I think that’s what annoys me most about her. She never lets that mask of domestic bliss slip. It’s easy when you don’t have a job.’

‘That’s not fair. Sandra’s very … traditional. Your brother earns a good living; she likes looking after the house. What’s wrong with that?’

‘You’re right, yes. She’s very traditional. Anyway, let’s talk about something else. No issues with your little car?’

‘None at all. It works like a dream!’

‘Maman … are you happy?’

‘Of course I am, sweetheart!’

‘I don’t understand how you do it, living in the middle of nowhere. How does anyone manage to be happy in this lousy world? You know, just the other day …’

Éliette was no longer listening. She loved her daughter, of course, but at this precise moment she could not care less
about the little one’s measles, or Richard’s problems at work, or what Sylvie thought of her brother or sister-in-law or this lousy world.

‘Sorry to interrupt you, darling, but I can smell something burning in the kitchen.’

‘Oh, OK. We can talk about it another time. I’ll call you if there’s a problem, but we should be there on Friday evening.’

‘Bye, love.’

Nothing was burning in the kitchen. There was just the reassuring
blub-blub
of the jardinière simmering gently on the stove. Éliette pushed back a log which had slipped in the grate. The smouldering embers glowed like the ruby-red seeds of a ripe pomegranate. It was not cold, but the rain and the pleasure of reading by the hearth had given her the urge to light a fire. She returned to the sofa and let out a sigh.

BOOK: Too Close to the Edge
10.22Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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