Translated from the French by
I’d developed a taste for pilfering. I don’t know if it was the challenge of getting away with it, the satisfactions in defying authority, a way of claiming the luxuries to which I felt I should be entitled, or just a way of attenuating the solitude of my room, but for a number of days I rarely went out without coming home with a candle. Round or square, scented or not, the only requirement was that they be thick enough to stand on their own, without needing a candlestick.
As soon as dusk fell, I lit them all at once. The sight of them delighted me. I stretched out on the anonymous bedclothes that came with my bed, and I widened my eyes to drink in my swag of light and heat. The only drawback was the drippings of wax onto the chest of drawers, but I’d learned to peel them off, once they were well cooled, by prying them up with the blade of a plastic knife.
The telephone rang, I jumped, and the flames began to tremble. Even if it came from the bottom of the stairs, the sound seemed to originate just outside my door. I had early on acquired the habit of counting the rings, having adopted the ingenious system into which each new tenant was initiated upon arrival, identifying the recipient of the call.
This time it was clear as day, not only did the caller not know the code, but the words “hang up” were not part of their vocabulary. I went down to answer.
“Hello, this is Sergeant Hébert of Station 20”, droned a robotic voice. “Can I please speak to Gabriel Azo… Azoulay?”
This was the first time I’d heard his second name. It sounded strange, as though it concerned someone else entirely. At this hour Gaby was certainly at the yeshiva, the Talmudic school he attended several nights a week.
“He’s out, can I take a message?”
“Tell him to call me when he can. It’s about a robbery at the Chevra Kadi… Kadisha synagogue.”
“Yes, I know the synagogue, I’ll tell him. What was taken?”
“Well, among other things, an electric keyboard, percussion instruments…”
Right after my first rehearsal! Really, this was a bit much! But then I thought…
“This is a joke, right? Is that you, Benjamin?”
“I assure you that I’m very serious, Miss. Tell Mr. Azoulay to get in touch with me as soon as he can.”
And he hung up after having dryly reeled off his number. I sat down on the steps’ cracked linoleum, I was cut off at the knees, had a hedgehog in my throat. What was this terrible misfortune that was always dogging my steps? Was I being punished for my thievery? Was life really the product of a great cosmic pendulum’s swinging back and forth?
Nature was always raining on my parade. It was now officially too cold for me to play outside. My body’s response to this frigid blockade came down to my stomach shrinking itself into a hard little ball. But at least I never felt hungry. Still without papers, I had no idea what I was going to do. All roads seemed barred, and the only promising outlet that I thought had been opened up for me was now gone.
And so without thinking twice I leapt up, grabbed the receiver again, and dialed zero. You couldn’t make long distance calls on that line, but I’d just remembered about what in France was called a PCV call, or in Quebec, reversed charges.
The local operator talked to a téléphoniste over there who replied, sounding like a flight attendant, “Hold on, please.” Then I heard the familiar ring, long and monotone, and imagined the white telephone in Enghien, sitting on the little table on the house’s first floor landing, or what’s called the second floor in Montreal, nothing is simple.
“There’s no answer, should I let it ring?” asked the operator after two minutes.
But just then, I heard the voice of my little grandmother.
She always answered like that.
“A reverse call, from Josée in Montreal, do you accept the charges?”
“Talk, Miss, you have France.”
“Jo… Josée, is that you?”
“Yes, Mamie, it’s me, how are you?”
“I… that is… I was sleeping… it’s two in the morning.”
“Oh la la, excuse me, I totally forgot about the time zones!”
“Uh, listen, can you call me back tomorrow? At… call at five, no, six o’clock in the evening, is that all right?”
“Your time or mine?”
“All right. Sorry to have wakened you.”
The line went dead with a series of clicks. No outpouring, no emotion at all, hardly any reaction… it hadn’t gone at all as I’d imagined it would ever since Gaby had put this idea into my head.
“It must be because you got her up in the middle of the night,” he said to me the next morning, to reassure me, in the bus taking us to the synagogue. “You’ll see, things will go better next time.”
Except for the platform and the pile of chairs, nothing was left in the little room but a few electric wires tossed onto the floor. Everything else was gone: the console, the amps, the mikes, the piano, the drums, and even the two chairs that went with them. Planted there like bowling pins, the boys shot sad glances into every corner. I couldn’t see anything because of the rain.
“Do you think they’re going to suspect us?”
Benjamin’s voice echoed bizarrely in the empty space. Gaby shrugged his shoulders.
“Why would we want to steal our own instruments?”
“I don’t know… the insurance?”
“But that’s impossible,” cried Sam, waving his arms. “It happened Saturday night. And I don’t know about you, but me, I don’t carry anything on Shabbat.”
He’d pronounced the final T as if he were advertising a beer: Nothing beats Labatt. And they all nodded their heads, both perplexed and reassured. It wasn’t one of them.
Me? I didn’t count. They hadn’t even had time to give me a key.
“You have France.”
It was a man’s voice, but it wasn’t my grandfather.
“Hello? It’s Josée.”
“Yes, good evening my dear. Do you know who I am?”
“It’s Papa. I’m your Papa.”
“Hello, can you hear me?”
In France, in those days, that question was on everyone’s lips whenever you tried to make yourself understood through that infernal contrivance.
“Yes. Yes. I hear you, oh la la… Papa?”
“Yes, my dear, your Mamie called me this morning, she told me about last night, she asked me to come over tonight after work… and here I am. But you, where are you, still in Montreal?”
I leaned over to check through the lace curtain on the front door to my right.
“Still in Montreal.”
“And you ran away from your mother’s… how long ago exactly?”
“Since August 1. A bit more than three months.”
“Still. Three months with no news. You’ve held out for a long time, haven’t you? But you and I, it’s been a lot longer than that, eh? Six years.”
“I think about you all the time, you know. Every day.”
I spat that out like I was a hoarse trombone. My vocal chords refused to vibrate. I thought perhaps it was the hedgehog’s spines loosening their hold.
“Listen… you must be wondering what I’m doing at your grandmother’s.”
I cleared my throat with a rusty rake I kept nearby.
“Ahhh, no, I don’t know. I’m a bit in shock.”
“Me too. Listen, I have to tell you something.”
“It’s… it’s about your grandfather.”
The hedgehog stopped cold.
“He got sick suddenly and… I’m afraid he died. About three weeks ago. A liver cancer that came on very fast, there was nothing to be done.”
“Hnhnhnh…”, the bristled ball was grinding away.
My throat was too constricted, I couldn’t cry.
“I’m sorry, my dear. Your grandmother tried to find you, to let you know, she even left a message with your friend Stéphanie, but she had no news of you either.”
I had not even called Steffi since I got here even though I had a telephone at hand. Things had become strained between us, but there was no point thinking about that now it was clear what was weighing on Mamie. She had asked my father (my Papa!) to go to her house so he could give me the news. She couldn’t bring herself to tell me in the middle of the night, point blank, just after having been wrenched from her sleep. Perhaps even numbed by a sleeping pill, given the circumstances.
Suddenly my knees gave way. My stomach turned. I tried to sit on a step but although the earpiece, on its twisty wire, just barely managed to reach me, the microphone couldn’t make it to my mouth. I pulled myself up and collapsed against the wall, but couldn’t reach the floor without letting go of the handset. I had no choice but to take it all in on my feet.
What I told no one, is that the message had indeed got to me through Steffi, when I was living on Wolfe Street with Denis. Your grandfather is very sick, you must phone France. And then everything collapsed, and in my anguish, far from forgetting this dark cloud that weighed more and more heavily on my head, I forced myself to ignore it because I was frightened. Terrified at the idea that it was a trap. That my mother, in cahoots with the police, was waiting for me to phone my grandparents in order to track me down with her supernatural radar, launch a quasi-military operation, and clamp her claws down on me forever.
So I didn’t listen. I didn’t obey. And there we were.
My Papy died during that bizarre period following on Denis’s death, before I came to Phillips Square. An elusive chapter, a no man’s land where my memory had nothing to hold on to: no water, no air, no sound and no light. Only the wind to sweep me up and carry me off.
Oh Papy… can you see me from where you are? Have you found me in the whirlwind? Caring as you are, you must have your eye on me. It’s perhaps you, my Jewish Papy, who put me on the trail of this tall dark man with a gazelle’s eyes who swears only by Ehyeh-Asher-Ehyeh…
“May God bless you, my dearrr,” he repeated to me every day, or almost every day, in his Egyptian accent. “My little chérRrrie. May God bless you.”
“I have to hang up, my dear, every minute costs money.”
All this time, my newly-found Papa had remained silent on the other end of the line.
“Yessss, I understaaand…” I managed to gasp.
“Listen, do you remember your grandparents’ address?”
“Yes. I know it by heart.”
“Good, so write me here, then I’ll answer with my own address, and we’ll plan for the future, all right? But meanwhile, give me the one where you are now.”
It was not the same with him. The likelihood that he would surrender my address to the ogress was less than absolute zero.
“So yes, it’s rue Drummond, dé air u aime aime oh haine dé, but after that you have to put “the house in the courtyard, room 3.”
“Very well, la maison dans la cour, good, and that’s where you’re calling from?”
“Yes, there’s a public phone in the entranceway, but it’s complicated to call me, I’ll explain it to you when I write.”
“Very well my dear, courage, your grandmother hugs you, we’re thinking of you, you’re no longer alone now, all right? We’ll keep in touch.”
Text and illustrations © Sophie Voillot 2021