Halfway down the Rue Vercingétorix, a tall man seized Mathieu by the arm: a policeman was patrolling the opposite pavement.
‘Can you spare me a franc or two? I’m hungry.’
His eyes were close-set, his lips were thick, and he smelt of drink.
‘You mean you’re thirsty?’ asked Mathieu.
‘No: I’m hungry, and that’s God’s truth.’
Mathieu found a five-franc piece in his pocket.
‘I don’t care which you are; it’s none of my business,’ he said: and gave him the five francs.
‘You’re a good sort,’ said the man, leaning against the wall. ‘And now I’d like to wish you something in return. Something you’ll be really glad to have. What shall it be?’
They both pondered: then Mathieu said:
‘Whatever you like.’
‘Well, I wish you good luck. There!’
He laughed triumphantly. Mathieu observed the policeman strolling towards them, and felt sorry for the man.
‘Right,’ said he. ‘So long.’
He was about to pass on, when the man clutched him:
‘Good luck isn’t enough,’ he said in a sodden voice: ‘not nearly enough.’
‘Well, what then?’
‘I’d like to give you something . . .’
‘I’ll have you locked up for begging,’ said the policeman. He was a fresh-faced, youthful officer, and he tried to assume a stern demeanour.
‘You’ve been pestering the passers-by for the last half-hour,’ he added, but there was no menace in his voice.
‘He wasn’t begging,’ said Mathieu sharply, ‘we were having a little talk.’
The policeman shrugged his shoulders, and walked on. The man was swaying rather precariously: he did not even seem to have seen the policeman.
‘I know what I’ll give you. ‘I’ll give you a Madrid stamp.’
He produced from his pocket a rectangular bit of green card, and handed it to Mathieu. Mathieu read:
‘C.N.T. Diario Confederal. Ejemplares 2. France. Anarcho-Syndicalist Committee, 41 Rue de Belleville, Paris II.’ Beneath the address there was a stamp. It too was green, and bore the postmark – Madrid. Mathieu reached out a hand:
‘Thanks very much.’
‘Ah, but look,’ said the man angrily. ‘It’s . . . it’s Madrid.’
Mathieu looked at him: the man seemed excited, and was plainly struggling to express what was in his mind. He gave it up, and merely said:
‘I wanted to get there, and that’s the truth. But it couldn’t be fixed.’
A gloomy look came over his face, and he said: ‘Wait a moment,’ and he slid a finger over the stamp.
‘All right. You can have it.’
Mathieu began to walk on, but the man shouted after him.
‘Well?’ said Mathieu. The man was holding up the five-franc piece.
‘Some guy has just slipped me a five-franc piece. I’ll stand you a rum.’
‘Not this evening.’
Mathieu moved off with a vague sense of regret. There had been a time in his life when he had strolled about the city and haunted bars in any sort of company, with anyone who cared to ask him. Now it was all over: that game never paid. The fellow had looked decent enough. He had wanted to fight in Spain. Mathieu quickened his step, and he thought irritably: ‘Anyway, we hadn’t anything to talk about.’ He took the green card out of his pocket. ‘It comes from Madrid, but it isn’t addressed to him. Somebody must have passed it on to him. He kept on fingering it before giving it to me, just because it came from Madrid.’ He recalled the man’s face, and the look with which he had eyed the stamp: an oddly ardent look. Mathieu in his turn eyed the stamp as he walked on, and then put the bit of cardboard back in his pocket. A railway engine whistled, and Mathieu thought: ‘I’m getting old.’
It was twenty-five minutes past ten: Mathieu was before his time. Without stopping, without even turning his head, he passed the little blue house. But he looked at it out of the corner of his eye. All the windows were dark except in Madame Duffet’s room. Marcelle hadn’t yet had time to open the outer door: she was leaning over her mother, and those masculine hands of hers were tucking her up into the great testered bed. Mathieu still felt gloomy, the thought in his mind was: ‘Five hundred francs until the 29th – thirty francs a day, or rather less. How shall I manage?’ He swung round and retraced his steps.
The light had gone out in Madame Duffet’s room. In a moment or two the light went up in Marcelle’s window. Mathieu crossed the road, and slipped past the grocer’s shop, trying to prevent his new shoes from squeaking. The door was ajar: he pushed it very gently and it creaked. ‘I’ll bring my oilcan on Wednesday and drop a little oil into the hinges.’ He went in, closed the door, and took his shoes off in the darkness. The stairs creaked faintly: Mathieu walked cautiously upstairs, shoes in hand, testing each step with his toe before putting his foot down. ‘What a game,’ he thought.
Marcelle opened her door before he had reached the landing. A pink iris-scented haze from her room pervaded the staircase. She was wearing her green chemise. Through it Mathieu could see the soft rich curve of her hips. He went in: he always felt as though he were entering a huge seashell. Marcelle locked the door. Mathieu made his way to the large wall cupboard, opened it, and put his shoes inside; then he looked at Marcelle and saw that there was something the matter.
‘What’s wrong?’ he asked, in a low tone.
‘Nothing,’ said Marcelle under her breath. ‘Are you all right, old boy?’
‘I’m broke: otherwise all right.’
He kissed her on the neck and on the lips. Her neck smelt of ambergris, her mouth smelt of cheap cigarettes. Marcelle sat down on the edge of the bed, and gazed at her legs while Mathieu undressed.
‘What’s that?’ asked Mathieu.
There was an unfamiliar photograph on the mantelpiece. He went up to look at it and saw an angular girl, wearing her hair cut like a boy’s, and a hard, nervous smile. She was dressed in a man’s jacket, and flat-heeled shoes.
‘It’s me,’ said Marcelle, without raising her head.
Mathieu turned round: Marcelle had pulled her vest up over her fleshy thighs: she was leaning forward and beneath her vest Mathieu caught the soft outlines of her rounded breasts.
‘Where did you find it?’
‘In an album. It was taken in 1928.’
Mathieu carefully folded up his jacket and put it in the cupboard beside his shoes. Then he asked:
‘Do you still look at family albums?’
‘No, but I had a sort of feeling today that I’d like to remind myself of those times, and see what I was like before I knew you, and when I was always well. Bring it here.’
Mathieu brought it to her, and she snatched it out of his hands. He sat down beside her. She shivered and drew back, eyeing the photograph with a vague smile.
‘I was a scream in those days,’ she said.
The girl was standing stiffly upright, leaning against a garden railing. Her mouth was open: she too was just about to say: ‘It’s a scream’, with the pert assurance of the Marcelle of today. But – she was young and slim.
Marcelle shook her head.
‘Such a scream! It was taken in the Luxemburg by a chemistry student. You see the blouse I’m wearing? I’d bought it that very day, for a trip to Fontainebleau we had fixed for the following Sunday. Good Lord . . . !’
There was certainly something wrong: her gestures had never been so brusque, nor her voice so curt and masculine. She was sitting on the edge of the bed, blankly naked and defenceless, like a great porcelain vase in that dim pink room, and it was almost painful to hear her speak in that masculine voice, and smell the dark, strong odour of her body. Mathieu grasped her shoulders and drew her towards him.
‘Do you regret those days?’
‘No,’ replied Marcelle acidly: ‘but I regret the life I might have had.’
She had begun to study chemistry, and had to give it up owing to illness. ‘One would think she bears me a grudge for it,’ thought Mathieu. He opened his mouth to ask her some more questions, but caught her expression and was silent. She was gazing at the photograph with a sad, intense expression.
‘I’ve got fatter, haven’t I?’
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