Something has been forgotten, something important.
At first, she thinks it’s an object, a ring of some sort – steel smooth. She imagines it lying at the back of a cupboard or at the bottom of a drawer, so she clears the old newspapers from under the sink, takes out the cracked glasses and the china from the sideboard. She even empties the wardrobe, but it isn’t there.
At night, she dreams about it. She turns the thing over in her hands trying to understand what it is, how it works. Sometimes the object takes on a form that she recognises. It shrinks to the size of a washer half buried in the mud of her father’s yard, or it transforms itself into the Ferris wheel on the esplanade around which she travelled as a small child. From the top of the wheel she can see as far as the coast of England or if she turns inland, she can follow the loops of the Seine all the way to Rouen. But the fog from the marsh rises upwards and blocks her view, then it slowly swallows the wheel until she seems to be floating on air.
After these dreams, she begins to doubt that the thing for which she searches is an object at all. In her mind, it is no longer solid. It has taken on a vaporous whirling shape like sea mist or smoke rings. For some reason this image disturbs her. She tries to hide it deep down, among the small worries she keeps in her head. But everywhere she goes, from the butcher on the rue Lepic to Jeannine, her hairdresser on the boulevard Clichy, she sees an echo of the form. It is carved into the stone of the buildings, above doorways and windows. Or it is printed in patterns on the dresses of the women she passes in the street. It is definitely a circle, she thinks, a misshaped circle, closer to an oval perhaps.
She makes the decision on the evening of her birthday, as the rain slides down the dining room window and forms pools on the balcony floor.
The family have brought her a cake – a disc of sponge and mousse and blackcurrant glaze, and around the edge her daughter has placed candles and lit them. There are eight flames, one for each decade; they wave at her like small illuminated hands. She takes a breath, exhales, then one after another the lights go out. While her daughter cuts the cake into quarters and eighths, she sits back in her chair and peers at the blackened wicks. No more time, she thinks to herself.
She tells no one where she is planning to go. It is a trip to be taken alone, a hunt for the forgotten thing. She is certain now that she will never find it in her apartment, nor the city where she lives, for it is something that belongs to the past: not an object, but a memory, a thought, a word perhaps.
At night, she packs a small bag. In the morning, she takes the metro to the station and buys a ticket for the town at the mouth of the Seine. She has not been back since the end of the war. The last time she saw her home it was rubble. The walls of the building had been shovelled off the street like snow, and where the kitchen and dining room had once been grew Buddleia and Fireweed. The plants had pushed their roots straight down into the ashes of things, clothes and books, furniture and people.
On the train, she tries to recall the town before it was destroyed, but can only picture a fog trap, a basin of low mist penetrated by tall cranes and steamer funnels. She remembers standing on the hill above the town and noticing that the fog had edges. It seemed to hang directly over the buildings like a thick grey block.
She and her father used to cycle up the hill together on Sunday afternoons. Before the war they cycled everywhere together. He owned the bicycle shop on rue Gambetta, and the backyard was filled with Merciers and Peugeots and Motobecanes, and in the shed were Weinmann brakes, and derailleurs by Huret and Simplex. She remembers her father kneeling in the yard beside an upside-down bicycle. He pushed the pedals, examined the gears and the chain, then tested the wheel. He spun it round and round until the spokes became a blur and disappeared completely.
The taxi driver drops her at the corner of her street, and she stands where she stood more than sixty years before. Then she had searched for her father in the piles of plaster and stone while the dust and the smoke rose up from the ground like the fog in her dreams, making the solid things disappear. Now her street is another street. It still follows the same direction – north- west to south-east, it still possesses the same name, but every building – every apartment and shop facade – is younger than her. The stains on the render and the marks on the doors and window frames were made long after she had left. She is the oldest thing here.
Reaching out, she grasps the metal post of a road sign and steadies herself. Then she tries to recall her father’s face, and the faces of the tenants in the top-floor apartment above the shop – Madame Pichot and the boy. She remembers climbing the stairs to the Pichots’ apartment to look at the sea. They had a good view up there if the fog was not too thick. From the boy’s bedroom window one could see the port quite clearly. There were fishing boats and, in the distance, transatlantic liners. Later, of course, there were battleships.
The boy had a notebook in which he wrote down everything he saw. He noted names and numbers, departures and arrivals. Sometimes he drew pictures of the boats, and he made models too – waterline models that were ranged around his room, on the bookshelves and the window sill.
She imagines the back of the boy’s head as he leans over his desk to paint the cardboard sides of a battleship. Then she turns and sees Madame Pichot at the kitchen table flipping over the pages of a knitting magazine. Now she descends the stairs to her father’s apartment, peers through the window that overlooks the yard. And there he is, kneeling on the ground, running a cloth over the greasy chain of a bicycle.
Still gripping the metal post, she looks up at the sky and imagines the bomb falling, as it must have done, onto the house. She sees the explosion, sees everything thrown in the air: clothes, books, bicycle frames, Madame Pichot’s knitting needles, the boy’s model boats. She watches them all, circling in the sky, looping the loop in the light of a fire ball.
In the afternoon, she takes a room in a hotel by the sea. She lies on the bed, closes her eyes and listens to the noises in the corridor. Slowly the sounds seep away and are replaced by something else, by voices she hardly recognises, by fragments of a conversation. ‘Leave me alone,’ she says aloud.
But the boy was always just behind her: in the street, on the landing, in the yard at the back of the shop.
‘Leave me alone, Antoine,’ she says.
She can see his reflection in the hall mirror. He is leaning against the opened door to the apartment and is watching her smear lipstick around her mouth. It is called Coral Blaze; she is sure of that. In her dream, she is able to turn the lipstick tube upside down and examine the round label stuck on the bottom: Coty No.6 Coral Blaze. And yet, she cannot recall the boy’s face, only the colour of his hair which was pale yellow. It used to flop into his eyes when he moved and he would flip it away with his fingers.
He was a restless boy; he never stayed still for long. As a small child, he was constantly coming and going: running back and forth down the street, up and down the stairs, in and out of the bicycle shop. When he grew older, he went on longer journeys: down to the sea or the port, or up to the path along the cliffs. Twice a month, the boy made the round trip to his brother’s farm on the hill above the town. He spent the afternoon in the country and returned to the apartment in the evening with canisters of milk and soft salty heart-shaped cheeses wrapped in paper. The journey to the farm took over an hour by foot and sometimes he asked if he could borrow her bicycle, but she always refused.
In the last year of the occupation, he made the trip to the farm more often, although he no longer brought back the milk and cheese. She used to see him walking home with a canvas bag over his shoulder that appeared to contain nothing more than his identity papers and the notebook in which he had written the names of the boats in the port.
That was the year he bought her a rose for her birthday. It was wrapped in tissue paper, and wound around the stem was a pink satin ribbon. Attached to the package was a card with gilt edges on which he had written, ‘Happy Birthday Séverine, kisses Antoine.’ The gift had embarrassed her. After all he was young – only fourteen. She never thanked him for the flower.
The hotel room is over heated. Now she lies on top of the covers dreaming about the small round forgotten thing. She holds it in her hands again, but this time it is malleable and warm. She can squeeze it like soft clay into different shapes and when she presses it gently it seems to squeal. She is ashamed of the sound that it makes. She would like to throw the thing away or hide it somewhere, but now it seems to be attached to her skin. It has become part of her.
Dreams are stupid things, she thinks when she awakes, they make no sense. But still the thing bothers her. It is there in the morning when she looks in the bathroom mirror, it is half concealed in the creases of her face. She taps her skin with the tips of her fingers as if she is tucking the thing back inside the tiny gathers around her lips and eyes.
She orders breakfast in the hotel dining room: a croissant and a bowl of coffee. Outside it is raining and the fog has begun to fall. She knows that she is too tired to search anymore. There are blisters on her feet and there is pain in the crooks of her arms and in the stringy muscles at the backs of her legs which reminds her of the stiffness she felt after cycling up the hill out of the town all that time ago. She stirs her coffee, remembers the shape of her calves as she pressed down on the pedals. Her muscles are arched and her skin is smooth. She can see her hands gripping the handlebars, knuckles like a ridge of tiny mountains. Now she tries to picture the bicycle.
Was it red or was it blue? There was black tape around the handlebars which had begun to peel, and the saddle was brown.
She lays down the teaspoon on the paper tablecloth, breaks the croissant into two.
It was her father who had forbidden the boy to use the bicycle. He stood in the yard and said, ‘Don’t lend him your bike, we don’t want trouble.’
And that was what she had repeated to the boy. He would always slouch away, hands deep in his pockets, the canvas bag hanging loosely over his shoulder.
She leaves the hotel earlier than planned and catches a bus to the railway station. At the far end of the concourse she discovers a small waiting room with rows of benches, and she sits facing the departures board. She follows the lines of illuminated letters that slip away into blackness after each train has left the station. Then she half-listens to the announcements, the lists of destinations: Yvetot, Fecamp, Rouen, Paris. But the voice of the announcer seems to change. The tone grows softer, more intimate, as if he has crept towards the bench and is standing just behind her.
‘What happened to the boy?’ he asks.
She turns to see whether anyone else has heard then, grasping her ticket and the handles of her bag, she rises from the bench and walks as quickly as she can along the concourse. But the plaintive voice echoes behind her, ‘What happened to the boy? What happened to the boy?’
On the train, she chooses a seat by the window, as she always does. The fog has fallen now and she has to press her face against the glass to see the warehouses and factories that she does not recognise. Then she sits back and examines her reflection. The faint vertical and horizontal lines of the buildings cut through the softness of her face.
‘What happened to Antoine?’ she whispers.
He took her bicycle. It was May, a year before the end of the war. She remembers looking through the kitchen window into the yard and noticing that it had gone. She remembers muttering a few words under her breath. She swore perhaps, for she needed the bicycle that afternoon to carry something back from her cousin’s house. Now she would have to take the tram.
She was standing in the hall putting on her lipstick when she saw the men reflected in the mirror. There were two of them in the doorway. They wore uniform: blue berets, blue coats. One of them she knew. He played billiards in the café opposite the shop; she had seen him leaning over the table with a cue in his hand. Close up, she noticed that a scar ran down his cheek like a narrow trench. The second man was taller with finer features, paler skin.
He smiled at her. She smiled back. They were looking for the boy, he said gently. Could she tell them where he was?
The train lurches as it changes tracks. She grips the handles of her overnight bag, holds her breath. Did she tell them? She knew the route; she had cycled it herself from time to time. Did she say, ‘He’s gone to his brother’s; he’s taken my bike without asking’?
But the incident is like a scene from a silent film. She can see her lips moving and the men watching from the doorway, but can hear nothing of the conversation.
She loosens her fingers from around the handles of her bag. She is almost certain that she didn’t tell them where the boy had gone that afternoon. She is almost certain that they didn’t find him. She peers at her reflection in the window of the train; then she takes out a paper handkerchief from her bag and dabs at her nose which has begun to drip.
It was a sack of potatoes. That was why she needed her bicycle the day the men came. The sack was heavy and without her bike she had to carry it all the way back to the tram stop.
It wasn’t late, but the fog had dropped and the sky was almost dark. On the tram, she chose a seat next to the window, as she always did. Then she took out a tube of lipstick from her bag and, using the reflection to guide her fingers, she circled her mouth with Coral Blaze. When she had finished she cupped her hand against the glass and looked through the window. In the distance, out of the fog, she saw a boy wheeling a bicycle along the pavement. The tram was grinding slowly towards him and, just for a second, as she passed the boy, she pulled her face away from the glass. When she looked again, back into the fog, she saw the men. She saw the billiard player grasp the boy’s shoulder. She saw him lean towards the boy and whisper into his ear. Twisting round in her seat, she saw Antoine scowl. She saw him drop the bicycle on the pavement. She saw its wheel spinning round and round. The boy turned away slowly and it was only then, when she saw the back of his pale yellow head between the two blue berets that she really began to understand what she had done.
‘No,’ she said aloud. But the figures had disappeared and now all she could see was her own reflection staring back – skull-like. Her eyes were as black as the fog outside, her cheeks and forehead were grey. Only her fleshy lips stood out, screaming orange against the darkness of the window.
‘No,’ she said again, and saw the reflection of her treacherous mouth covered in the slick of Coral Blaze.
‘No,’ whispers the old woman, for she can see her own thin lips reflected in the window of the train. They seem to form a circle, a misshaped circle, closer to an oval perhaps.