Translated from the French by
The rehearsal was to take place in the basement of a Notre-Dame-de-Grace synagogue. Gaby, his guitar and I took a ten-minute walk along Sherbrooke to grab the 166 that went up Guy Street. I’d never noticed that this bus turned on Queen Mary to continue toward the west. No need to transfer. It was like the mirror image of the two routes I took to go to school in my former life, the 165 south down Côte-des-Neiges, then the 51 west on Queen Mary. That was only a few stops, but it was just enough not to be practical on foot. Especially since the famous hill could be challenging, especially in winter. On the way down the descent was too fast, particularly if the sidewalk was icy; on the way back you could easily find yourself on your hands and knees in the slush if you didn’t watch where you put your feet. But we weren’t there yet: it was only the beginning of November.
Our route passed very close to Steffi’s. I craned my neck to get a view of the street in case I might glimpse her blonde mane on the arm of an orange mop. But no. For the first time in my life I was getting a sense of those temporal strata, each with a distinct reality, superimposed on the same urban space.
I suppose that’s to be expected if you live long enough in one city.
We went down a few more streets, in that blue twilight that bestows on all things a dreamlike softness before night falls. As soon as we crossed Décarie with its constant stream of cars, we entered into one of those bubbles of peace and greenery that do not come cheap. The synagogue was all yellow stone, with two large wings flanking a greystone stairway. Before pulling open the weighty door of solid wood, Gaby pulled out of his pocket a triangle of blue satiny cloth. He unfolded it briskly, to reveal a skullcap that he expertly popped onto his head.
“As you can see, it’s very modern here, very contemporary, even if the synagogue was completed in 1958,” he informed me with a sweep of his hand.
“How about that, that’s the year I was born!”
“The congregation was founded on Fairmount Street, but that was before your time, you couldn’t have known it,” he went on, teasing me as usual.
“Wait, you mean the old synagogue facing the Collège Français?”
“Yes, that’s it.”
“It’s my former school. I loved it there, but I only stayed two years. The Spanish lab was in that building, and also my ballet class.”
“Ballet class, eh? So you’re a young lady from a good family. Listen, you wouldn’t be a kind of black sheep? You were expelled, is that it?”
I went silent. Down in the basement, we crossed a large party room leading to a closed door through which we heard some artful arpeggios punctuated by pounding on a large drum. Gaby ushered me in and made the introductions. The pianist, pudgy and jovial, was called Sam, and the drummer, who seemed made from matchsticks, Adam. He just nodded his head and greeted me with a hearty kaboom! They too wore skullcaps.
The space was not very big, and seemed to serve both as a rehearsal room and storeroom. Three or four fluorescent lights flickered on the ceiling behind frosted glass panes. The two big instruments faced each other on the floor, on each side of a little angled platform, just big enough for the console, the amps, and two mikes. Gaby climbed on, plugged in his guitar, and did a sound test: check, check.
I just stood there, intimidated.
“You can take off your jacket, you know,” he told me.
He was right. I was hot. I obeyed, blushing, slid my scarf into one of the sleeves, and put everything down on a pile of chairs in the corner. Then I took a deep breath, braced myself, and climbed onto the platform to be beside him.
“Benjamin should be here soon,” he announced, after checking his watch. “He had an errand to do. Meanwhile, we can warm up with last night’s songs, okay?”
He started strumming the chords of Blowin’ in the Wind. I said okay, we sang together, then Gaby moved on to Me and Bobby McGee. The other two listened. By the end, everyone was smiling. I gave a big sigh and relaxed a bit. Just then, Benjamin arrived with a bass guitar that he too plugged in. They ran through a few numbers from their repertoire, and I sat on the edge of the platform, listening.
They did a bit of everything, from Bob Dylan (Lay Lady Lay, Along the Watchtower) to the Rolling Stones (Angie, where Gaby and Sam particularly shone), and including Creedence Clearwater Revival. They played Have You Ever Seen the Rain for a first time, then Gaby said to me:
“Come on, take a look, I’ve copied out the words. Let’s try it.”
The sheet of paper trembled a bit in my hand, but I could still read it.
We got through to the end despite my hesitations. I was glad that they didn’t stop at every little hitch, I wouldn’t have known what to do. Then there was silence and they all exchanged glances.
“Not bad,” smiled Sam, “except that you don’t have the right phrasing in the chorus. They go: ‘Iiiiiii wanna kno-o-ow, have you ever seen the rain, falling down on a sunny day…” and what you did was more like “I want! To know, have you ever…”
While he was talking, Gaby came down, planted himself in the middle of the four of us, and replied, looking me right in the eyes:
“I like it. It’s original. You have your own way of interpreting it. Kind of like your signature.”
I could have kissed him. Was he the leader of the group or what? The others nodded their heads for a minute, then they played it again my way. Afterwards we rehearsed it four or five times, stopping whenever there was a question of rhythm or harmony to deal with. And it was not always me on the hot seat.
“All right,” sighed Benjamin. That’s it for tonight? I have to take off, I’m starting at eight o’clock.”
“What do you do?”
“I’m a barman in a hotel downtown,” he replied, lying his bass down in its case.
But first, he took a little rectangular package out of the niche that served to support the neck. And he gave Gaby a nod. While the others pretended to look elsewhere, the package changed hands along with several twenty-dollar bills. So that was his errand! The guy who supplied Gaby with his excellent Moroccan hash, was his next-door neighbour! What a small world!
We shut off the lights, filed back through the big room, and once outside each went their own way. Rendezvous next week, same time, same station. My feet were not quite touching the ground, I felt as if I were glowing in the dark. Sitting on the bus, I began to hum: “Je veux! Savoir, as-tu déjà vu la pluie…”
In my head I was trying to follow it up with the right number of feet. But it wasn’t easy. “Tomber du ciel / quand il faisait soleil” almost rhymed, but seemed awkward.
It didn’t matter, I was just having fun.
When we got home (how I liked to pronounce those words), Gaby invited me into his room and rolled a little joint just for a taste, just for the two of us. It was much better than the first time, in both respects. After, we lay side by side smoking the same cigarette, and I asked him:
“Gaby, what’s it called, the skullcap you put on your head when you go into the synagogue?”
“A kippa. You wear it to show your humility before God.”
“It’s funny. The more I learn about Jewish customs, the more I’m aware of their absence in the life of my grandfather. I’m wondering if he gave all that up for the love of his wife? She was half Marseillaise and half Corsican, but Catholic through and through.”
“Maybe he just grew up in a family that wasn’t observant?”
“When I think back on it, it must have been a bit of both. It’s true that I never saw them wearing a skullcap or celebrating anything, him and his brothers, when they came to see us. On the other hand, he’d worn his old fez when he left Egypt for France. He kept it on a high shelf, in his closet.”
“Perhaps he felt more Egyptian than Jewish.”
“It’s possible. He had the look, in any case. You know the Egyptian show on TV? I’ve always found it hard to watch. First, I don’t understand anything, and then the host looks too much like my grandpa.”
“Why? You don’t like him?”
“On the contrary. I miss him too much ever since…”
But I couldn’t go on. I didn’t want to spill my guts right now. I shrugged my shoulders, still lying on my back next to him, then I stretched out my neck to rub my head against his.
“Tell me, have you given your grandparents any news of yourself since you’ve been rambling like that in the streets?”
“The street is not a ramble.”
“Okay, I grant you that, but will you answer my question?”
He passed me the cigarette, and I blew a big cloud to the ceiling before sighing:
“You don’t want to answer, or you haven’t given them any news?”
“I haven’t given them any news.”
“And has it never entered your mind that they might be worried about you?”
“Who do you take me for? At first I was too shaken up to think about it, and now… now I don’t want to be found.”
“That bad, eh?”
I nodded my head in silence.
“Look, you don’t have to give them your address, you could just write to reassure them.”
“Okay. I’ll see.”
That said, I got up to go and sleep in my bed. Here there wasn’t enough space for two, and I needed room to reflect.
Text and illustrations © Sophie Voillot 2021