Translated from the French by
I’m writing you from my little room in Canada that I’m renting in the city’s centre, very near the Ritz! The “house in the courtyard” is very old, it was built during what we call the French Regime, (before the territory was lost to the English, in 1763.) I know that for France this is not so long ago, but here it seems very much like antiquity.
The first snowflakes started to fall today. Well, we’ve already had a few light snowfalls that didn’t even whiten the ground, but…
My little table is installed in front of the window, and as I write, a squirrel is grooming himself on the guardrail, it’s cute as anything.
I know that this letter will take a week to reach you, but if you only knew how eager I am to read your words and to hear your voice again, after all this time!
I have to tell you how our system works. It’s very simple. There are two steps to follow when you call me. First, you let the phone ring the number of times corresponding to my room number, that being three. Then you hang up and wait a minute or two before calling back, giving me the time to come downstairs. And that’s all there is to it.
Terribly contrite, I’d finally decided to phone Steffi after I got back from the post office. She wasn’t proud of herself either. Our falling out had begun with the battle of the books:
Among the second-hand books I liked to pick up on the cheap, I’d come across a pocket edition of the Dhammapada, a collection of aphorisms attributed to Buddha, whose reading brightened my nights. I’d tried to talk to her about it, but as luck would have it she had started reading Das Kapital, and swore only by dialectical materialism. Our ideas clashed, and no light was shed.
“Tell me, did you ever call your grandmother? She was so concerned, and I was in the dark, I had nothing to tell her…”
“Yes I did, yesterday. Oh Steffi, I suppose you know about my grandfather?”
“I’ve so much to tell you, what if you came over to my place?”
“You have a place now?”
“Yes, I’ve had one for a little while, I’ll give you the address, okay?”
“Gaby, do you have any scotch tape?”
“Here, but you’ll get it back to me, eh?”
Since the temperature was now below zero, the bell was frozen solid. It was the prehistoric kind, a sort of metallic knob with fins you had to turn clockwise to get it to bleat like a goat with a head cold. But only when it was warm!
Afraid that Steffi might ring without my knowing and leave without my seeing her, I went down to stick onto the glass a note I’d written by hand on a half-page of my notebook, starting over three times so as to properly centre the text.
Not so complicated. But I wanted it to be well done.
As a result, she knocked very hard, and I rushed downstairs to let her in. We both had red cheeks, me from emotion and she from the cold.
“So this is my room, here, put your coat on the bed. I’ll give you the tour, come into the kitchen, we’ll make some tea.
No oohs or aahs from Steffi, I think the quarters that were a cozy shelter for me suffered from comparison to the plush apartment she was used to. The stained teapot, the unmatched cups, the wobbly sugar bowl that up to now I’d found charming, seeing them through her eyes, I was almost ashamed. Almost. It was too much fun to be inviting my best friend to play tea party with me in my room, like in a perfect childhood. One lump or two?
We had a few sips, traded timid smiles, and then I launched into everything I had to tell her in chronological (and tragic) order. From my meeting with Gaby to the synagogue robbery (yes yes, a synagogue, yes, a group of Moroccan Jews), then the surprise of finding my father, and to conclude, how I learned about my grandfather’s death.
She took me tenderly into her arms and I wept a little, but the wave rose so high that the dam refused to break. After two or three tears, I quietly pulled away. Night was falling. With a sigh I lit the collection of candles, sat beside her on the edge of the bed, put my head on her shoulder, and Gaby knocked on the door.
“So that scotch tape? Oh, sorry.”
“No, that’s all right, Steffi, this is my neighbour Gaby, his room is at the end of the hallway. Come and sit, Gaby, there’s more tea. Gaby and I make music together, or at least we did, I was telling Steffi about the robbery, Gaby plays the guitar, eh Gaby? We met when I was singing in Phillips Square, that’s how I got here, and…”
A real chatterbox. It wasn’t at all like me to go on like that. In the right corner, my gentle gentile and in the left, my handsome Maghrebian Jew… I felt as if I were the only drop of water that could stop that powder keg from exploding.
As long as I kept spluttering on.
Bam, bam, bam! More knocking, down below. Gaby volunteered to go and see who it was. Meanwhile, I continued rolling the joint he’d begun.
“Hey, tell me, is Gaby your boyfriend?”
“Not really… He’s mainly a friend. It’s wonderful the way he got me in here. Aside from me, they’re all students, or mostly.”
“And there are roomers on the first floor too?”
She was making conversation, of all things. Had we really come to that?
“Yes, two, because under Gaby there’s a laundry room. But it’s funny, I never see them. I know there’s one who’s a medical student, and the other, I don’t know, maybe law. They’re always buried in their books.”
With that, an awkward silence, an angel drifting by. Steffi began toying with an invisible thread hanging down from her T-shirt’s hem. I had a decently rolled joint to tap on the table. Gaby was taking his time returning, and as I didn’t want to light it in his absence, I took my fingernail and dug out a tiny mahogany crumb. I gently impaled it on a blackened needle there for the purpose, and lit it deftly before handing it to Steffi.
“You’ll see, it’s really good, my other neighbour gets it from Morocco.”
She bent over, made an O with her mouth, pulling her golden locks back with her hand.
“Oh la la, open the window,” exclaimed Gaby on opening the door. “The police are down there, they want to speak to you.”
That’s it, they’ve found me! A cold chill ran down my spine, and I heard myself stammer:
“Yes, they’re questioning everyone about the instruments.”
Somewhat mollified, I had to brace myself to go down, a lump in my throat, short of breath, my knees shaking. Leaving the powder keg to its fate.
“Good day, Miss. May we ask you a few questions?”
There were two of them, one tall and one short, packed into the tiny entranceway. The stolen boots, the pinched candles, the forbidden smoke! They mustn’t come up to my room. Even if they were not linked directly to her, this was no time to be apprehended by the evil queen’s minions. I squeezed myself in between them and the stairway.
“Uh, yes. But I have friends up top.”
“In that case we can talk here, it won’t take long.”
To my surprise they left very quickly, after asking me a few innocent questions, none of which I can remember. I was too busy imagining that my ambiguous declaration might have suggested to them that I had friends in high places.
That it had succeeded in surrounding me with a protective aura which existed only in my clouded brain.
When I returned, I saw Gaby and Steffi turn in unison toward the door, well, toward me. Gaby gave me an inquisitive look.
“Your friend has been telling me about how you arrived in Montreal and why it is that you haven’t seen your father in a long time. Why didn’t you ever say anything?”
I sat down cross-legged on the bed.
“I don’t know… when we met, I didn’t even want to give you my real name, remember, I told you I was called Janis. I’m trying to live a different life. And it’s hard to talk about it all without seeming to exaggerate:
‘My mother kidnapped me when I was ten years old, I only knew we were leaving a few days in advance, I couldn’t even say goodbye to my father, then I spent most of my time shut up in my room except for going to school where I was registered under a pseudonym. What is more, because of that, there is no way for me to continue my studies. Officially, I’ve received no education here, and to top it all off, during all those years my younger sister and I were subjected to threats, intimidation and violence every day at home.’
But that’s the truth. I’m not inventing anything.”
I’d murmured those words amid a weighty silence that had taken over the room, just like every other time I’d told my story. Afterwards people didn’t know what to say, and it was up to me to clear the air with whatever came into my mind:
“So, are we going to smoke that joint?”
Steffi and Gaby surrounded me at once with a comforting bubble that I would willingly have made my nest for eternity, but Steffi was expected for supper, Gaby had to study, and I had a pool of tears to spill, all by myself in my bed, just like the nights when I was a child. Those were the only times I allowed myself to think about my Papa, my friends, the life before. I drenched with tears the teddy bear that had slept with me since I was very young, and that on fleeing I’d left behind with everything else. Except that today, I was saved.
I was found.
But that, my grandfather would never know.
And then one morning the telephone rang three times.
“Hello my dear, it’s Papa.”
“Oh, hello, my Papa!”
“It makes me very happy to hear you call me that, you know. Did you get my letter?”
“Yes, it arrived yesterday. Thank you for the money! Gaby took me to a currency exchange, it all went well.”
“I hope it will be enough for you to pay your rent and everything, until… well, look: I’ve decided to come and get you.”
“Hello, can you hear me?”
“Yes. Yes… you’re coming to Montreal?”
“That’s right! I reserved my ticket today, I’ll be there in a week. Do you have something to write on?”
“Wait. I’m going to get it and I’ll be right back!”
I took the staircase in three bounds, was back in an instant, not even out of breath.
“Here I am.”
“Good, I’ll give you the flight information… I don’t know if you remember Pierre, my lycée friend. Well, it turns out that his little brother lives in Montreal. His name is Patrice, take down his number and get in touch with him. He’ll come and get you in his car and you’ll meet me at the airport. Okay?”
“Oh la la, but that’s amazing… you’ll be here next week?”
“Yes I will. Is that all right?”
“Of course, I’m so happy. I’m pinching myself.”
“Me too. Well, then I’ll see you next week. Much love.”
“Yes, all my love.”
I hung up, bemused, aghast once more at my failure to communicate the intensity of my feelings over the phone. I climbed the stairs, slowly this time, almost in slow motion. My bed seemed the only stable place in the midst of a world that was moving far too fast.
Curb my vertigo, watch the snowflakes floating down outside the window, let well up in my eyes the intense emotion that has taken possession of me.
Never forget to breathe.
Text and illustrations © Sophie Voillot 2021