La Chamade (12 page)

Antoine woke early in the morning and his body recognised, before his mind, Lucile's presence in the bed, wanted it, even before he opened his eyes. Sleepily, smiling, he edged closer to her, torn from his last dreams by a little moan of Lucile's or the clutch of her hand on his body. He slept deeply, heavily, like some men and most children, and nothing pleased him more than these slow, voluptuous awakenings. As for Lucile, her first sensation in the morning was one of pleasure and she recovered consciousness surprised, delighted, and vaguely annoyed by a semi-rape that deprived her of her usual awakening: opening, then shutting her eyes, refusing or accepting to face another day, the tender, confused little battle she fought against herself. Sometimes, she tried to cheat, to awaken before he did, but Antoine never slept more than six hours and always forestalled her. He laughed at her furious expression, he delighted in tearing her from the darkness of sleep to plunge her so quickly into the darkness of love, he liked most of all the moment when she opened her eyes, bewildered, undecided and finally understanding, then shutting them at once, as though obliged, as she slipped her arms around his neck.

Lucile's suitcases were piled on top of the wardrobe and only two or three dresses, Antoine's favourites, hung side by side with his two suits. On the other hand, the bathroom clearly showed a woman's presence by the numbers of small jars, most of them unused, that were displayed. As he shaved, Antoine indulged in lengthy commentaries about the use of herb masks in eliminating wrinkles, and other facetious remarks. Lucile retorted that he would be glad enough some day to have it available, that he was ageing by the minute, and that he was, in fact, quite ugly. He kissed her. She laughed. It was particularly fine that summer in Paris.

He left for his work at nine-thirty and she stayed quietly in the room, longing for a cup of tea, but incapable of making the effort to go to the corner café. She picked up one of the hundred books stacked in every corner of the room and read. The church clock that had so made her suffer one afternoon struck each half-hour and, at present, she loved its booming sound. At times, when she heard it, she put down her book and smiled into space, as at a recaptured childhood. At eleven, or eleven-thirty, Antoine would call up, his voice often casual, but sometimes with the quick, decided tone of a man overloaded with work. In that case, Lucile answered gravely, though laughing inwardly, for she knew him to be lazy and a dreamer, but she had reached that stage in love where one feels as much tenderness for the other's comedies as for his verities, or even, on the contrary, his half-truths, because they are recognised as such, and appear as a sign of ultimate confidence. At noon they met at the swimming-pool at the Concorde and ate a sandwich together in the sun. Then he went back to work, unless the sun, the contact of their slightly tanned, naked bodies, their conversation took them to his room, their room, and he would return late to his office. Afterward, Lucile began her long, idle walk through Paris, she met friends or vague acquaintances, drank tomato juice in sidewalk cafés. And everybody talked to her because she looked happy. In the evening, there were movies, the hot road around Paris, the half-empty cabarets where she taught him to dance, all the unknown, tranquil faces of the city in summer; and all the words they wanted to speak and all the things they wanted to do.

At the end of July, they ran into Johnny by chance, at the
Flore
, who had just returned from an exhausting weekend at Monte Carlo, and accompanied by a curly-haired young man named Bruno. Johnny congratulated them for looking so content and asked why they did not get married. They laughed heartily and pointed out to him that they were not the sort to worry about the future and that the idea itself was ridiculous. Johnny agreed and laughed with them. But after they were gone he murmured, 'It's a pity' in a tone that puzzled Bruno. In answer to his questions, Johnny offered only a strange, melancholy look that the boy did not recognise, and said: 'You wouldn't understand, but it was too late', an answer that amply satisfied Bruno whose rôle it was, in fact, never to understand anything.

August came and Antoine had a month's holiday. But he was short of money and, consequently, remained at home with Lucile.

It suddenly turned very hot in Paris that August, the air was oppressive and sultry, and brief, violent showers left the streets exhausted but fresh, as convalescents or young mothers after childbirth. Lucile spent most of three weeks in a dressing-gown, on her bed. Her summer wardrobe consisted of bathing-suits or cotton slacks designed for the balmy days at Monte Carlo or Capri where she usually went with Blassans-Lignières, and there was no question of changing it. She read extensively, smoked, went out to buy tomatoes for lunch, made love with Antoine, discussed books with him, and went to sleep. The storms, of which she had such fear, threw her into his arms and he would comfort her, giving long scientific explanations and sombre stories about cumulus formations that she only half believed, and he called her 'my little pagan', emotion in his voice. But he could not manage to make her share his emotion until the last clap of thunder had long since disappeared. At times, he glanced at her, furtively, inquiringly.

Lucile's laziness, her enormous capacity for idleness, never looking ahead, her faculty for happiness—to pass days so empty, so lifeless and monotonous—at times seemed to him fantastic, almost monstrous. He was sure that she loved him, could no more be bored with him than he with her, but he felt that this mode of life was what came closest to her real nature, while he knew that it was only passion that caused him to support this perpetual vacuity. It seemed as though he had come across a mysterious animal, an unknown plant, a mandrake. Then he would turn to her, slip between the sheets, never tired of their pleasure, their blended perspiration, their exhaustion, and he proved to himself, in the most precise manner, that she was only a woman. They had gradually acquired an exact knowledge of their bodies, had all but made a sort of science of it, a fallible science, as it was based on a concern for the pleasure of the other, and it often disappeared, disarmed and powerless, before one's own pleasure. Such moments made it seem impossible that they had not known each other for thirty years. And a day could not die when they were not obliged to admit to themselves, again and again, that nothing else was true, nothing had value except the moment that they were living then.

So August went by like a dream. The night before the first of September, toward midnight, they lay side by side and Antoine's alarm clock, useless for a month, had resumed its frantic march. It would ring at eight o'clock. Antoine lay on his back, motionless, and his hand, holding a cigarette, was hanging outside the bed. The rain had begun to fall in the street, slowly, softly, and he guessed that it was warm, he even imagined that it was salty like the tears dropping quietly on his cheek from Lucile's open eyes. He had no need to ask the reason for these falling drops, neither of Lucile nor the clouds. He knew that summer was over and that it had been the finest summer of their lives.

 

Part Three   Autumn

 

I saw that all beings are fated to be happy. Action is not life, but the means of squandering vigour, a nervous irritation.

-       Arthur Rimbaud

 

CHAPTER EIGHTEEN

Lucile impatiently awaited the bus at the Place de l'Alma. It was a particularly cold and rainy November, and the little bus shelter was crowded with shivering, sullen, almost aggressive people. She had preferred to wait outside, her wet hair sticking to her face. What was more, she had forgotten to take a waiting-number when she arrived. And there was, of course, a woman who snickered nastily when Lucile remembered it, six minutes later. At that moment, she bitterly regretted her car, the sound of rain pattering on its hood, the uncertain curves that she took on the wet cobblestones. The only real charm of money, she thought, was that it permitted one to avoid all this: the exasperation, the other people. She had been to the Palais de Chaillot film library, where Antoine, annoyed by her indolence, had, in an almost imperious tone, advised her to see one of Pabst's masterpieces. The film really was a masterpiece, but she had been obliged to stand in line for a half-hour with a band of boisterous, impudent students, and she asked herself why she had not stayed quietly at home and finished the book by Simenon that so fascinated her. It was now six-thirty, she would arrive later than Antoine and perhaps this would cure him of a deplorable mania he had developed: involving Lucile in outside activities. He said that it was not normal, not healthy, that, after having led an agitated social life for three years, with what he termed human relations, she now shut herself up in a room, with nothing to do. She could not tell him that she was beginning to discover that a city, even Paris, became terrifying, with only some bus tickets and two hundred francs in your pocket when you were accustomed to living otherwise. It would have humiliated him almost as much as it did her. She recalled having lived like that at twenty, and she did not care for the idea of beginning again at thirty. A bus arrived, the first numbers, far from hers, were called and the poor wretches who did not get on the bus returned to their glass rabbit-hutch. A kind of animal despair overcame Lucile. In half an hour, with a little luck, she would catch the bus that took her within three hundred yards of Antoine's room, three hundred yards that she would walk in the rain and she would arrive tired, ugly, dishevelled, to join a man as weary as she was. And if he asked enthusiastically what she thought of Pabst, she would be tempted to tell him about the crowd, the buses, the infernal regime to which workers are subjected, and he would be disappointed. A bus went by without stopping. Suddenly, she decided to walk home. An old lady walked up to the machine that dispensed the tickets. Lucile impulsively offered her own:

'Here, take mine, I'm walking home.'

The woman gave her an inquiring, almost hostile glance. Perhaps she thought that Lucile acted out of charity, because she was old, or Heaven knows what. People were becoming distrustful. They were so full of worries, problems, stupid television and hysterical newspapers, that they no longer had a notion of largess.

Lucile was almost apologetic: 'I live quite near, I'm already late and the rain has let up a bit, hasn't it?'

The 'hasn't it?' was almost a plea, she thought, as she glanced insincerely at the sky, for it was raining as hard as ever. At the same time, she thought. 'What do I care if the woman disapproves of me? If she doesn't want the ticket, she can throw it away. I really don't mind if she waits another half-hour.' She felt totally helpless: 'What came over me? I should have done like everyone else: thrown it away. What is this mania to want to please, to establish affectionate relations on the Place de l'Alma, at six-thirty in the evening, in front of a bus? To want everyone to love me? Affectionate relations, great sentimental outbursts with strangers take place between two whiskies, at people's homes if they can afford it, or in a secluded bar, or during a revolution.' At the same time, she desperately wanted to prove herself wrong. The woman stretched out her hand and took the ticket.

'That's very kind of you,' she said, smiling.

Lucile returned her smile and moved away. She would follow the quay to the Concorde, cross the river and walk down the Rue de Lille. She suddenly remembered having taken the same walk one evening, the first evening, when she had met Antoine. But spring had just begun then, the young man was a stranger, and they had wandered of their own free will in the warm, solitary night, ignoring the taxis for other reasons than those which prevented her from hailing one now. 'I really must stop grumbling,' she thought. What were they doing tonight? They were supposed to dine with Lucas Solder, a friend of Antoine's. Solder was a fervent and garrulous journalist with a marked taste for abstract ideas. He amused Antoine and would have amused Lucile if his wife, who had been left behind long ago, had not always tried to engage Lucile in conversations that ranged from the latest bargain sales to female disorders. Moreover, Nicole, who liked to do things herself, concocted economical, uneatable dinners. 'I should have been happy to dine at the
Relais-Plaza'
muttered Lucile as she walked on. 'I would have had a frozen daiquiri with the barman, and ordered a hamburger and a salad. Instead of a thick soup, the revolting stew, dried cheese and the three sorts of fruit that are waiting for me. You'd think only the rich had a right to light meals ...' She lulled herself for a moment with this image, the half-empty
Plaza
bar, the affable waiters and she, sitting alone at a table, idly reading a newspaper and watching American women in mink coats as they went by. A little sick at heart, she realised that the image did not include Antoine, that she had imagined herself without him. It had been a long time since she had had a meal alone, it was true, but she felt guilty. She ran down the Rue de Lille and up the stairs. Antoine lay on the bed, reading
Le
Monde
—she apparently was fated to live with men who read
Le
Monde
—,
he sat up and she threw herself into his arms. He was warm, smelt of cigarette smoke, and looked immense stretched out like that on the bed; she never tired of his bony body, the light eyes, the strong hands that brushed aside her dripping hair. He muttered something about crazy women who wandered about in the rain.

'Well,' he asked at last, 'what about the film?'

'It was magnificent,' she said.

'Admit that I was right in sending you to see it.'

'Yes, I admit it,' she answered.

She was standing in the bathroom, admitting still, a towel in her right hand, and she saw suddenly, in the mirror, a mysterious little smile. She was disconcerted for an instant, then slowly passed the towel over the glass, as though wiping away an accomplice who should not have been there.

CHAPTER NINETEEN

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