THE GULF OF THE YEARS
TRANSLATED BY EDWARD GAUVIN
Georges-Olivier Châteaureynaud is a French novelist and short-story writer, with over one hundred short stories and nine novels to his credit. He has been described as one of the most original contemporary French authors. His work has been compared to Kurt Vonnegut, Franz Kafka, and Julio Cortázar. This story was translated from the French by Edward Gauvin and published for the first time in English in the collection A Life on Paper in 2011.
In the train, the passengers spoke in hushed voices about the hard times. A young woman with a yellow star sewn to her breast briefly lifted her gaze from the dressmaker’s pattern she was studying. The boy across from her pulled the latest issue of Signal from a worn satchel and unfolded it right in front of her face. She lowered her eyes.
Through the window, Manoir watched the few cars, quaint and yet almost new, on the road beside the tracks. He started at the sight of a military convoy. He checked his watch, then settled back. It was still early. The bombing wouldn’t start till later that morning. Far away, young men were waking in their barracks … or were they on their feet already, assembled in flight suits before a blackboard with their wing commander? Early rising schoolboys of fire and death. They were twenty, in fur-lined boots and leather helmets, blue wool and sheepskin. They drank tea and smoked gauloises blondes. Manoir’s best wishes went with them. And yet, in a few hours, one of them would kill his mother.
* * *
Manoir got off at S. He walked up the Avenue de la Gare, turned left at the town hall, and passed the post office, then the elementary school. He hesitated, but not over which way to go. As a child, he’d pretended he was blind in these streets. He’d try and make his way to school from home with his eyes closed. Sometimes he walked right into a lamppost, or someone’s legs. He cheated, of course: from time to time he opened his eyelids just a bit, long enough to see where he was. But one night he’d managed to make it only cheating three times.
He checked his watch again. In five minutes, a little boy would emerge from his house a few streets away. On the front steps, his maman would kiss him as she did every morning. Satchel in hand, he would cross the small yard. With one last wave, he’d head through the gate and be on his unhurried way to school.
It was seven-fifty. School opened its doors at eight. Would it take him ten minutes to get there, or just five? If he missed him – God, what if he missed him? Manoir spotted a boy in a cape, then two more, an older one leading a younger one by the hand, and two more after that … they were coming out of the woodwork now. Still sleepy, eyes unfocused for the most part, pale and huddled against the cold morning, children were converging on the school. Manoir panicked. They were coming toward him down both sides of the street at once, the bigger ones sometimes hiding the littler ones from view. All he could see of some – hooded, wrapped up in scarves or balaclavas – was their eyes and a bit of nose poking out from the wool. He recalled a yellowish coat, maybe even a beret? Yes, he was sure of the coat. But two out of every three boys were wearing berets.
The crowd of children grew, overflowing the sidewalk for a moment. Manoir almost wept with frustration. None of these children were the one he was looking for! The flood slowed; most of the flock had passed. He’d missed him; he’d let him slip by beneath a brown coat or a black cape. All was lost. His heart broke. The street emptied. He ran into a few breathless latecomers … and over there, that shape! He dashed forward. An ugly yellow coat. A beret pulled halfway down his forehead. A loose-knit gray scarf. And that odd, moony walk, that dawdling step! He should’ve known. He slowed his pace, trying to still his beating heart. The boy was only fifteen yards away, now. Their paths were about to cross. The boy looked up at the man. Something – a familial air – had awoken his curiosity. Manoir stopped right in front of him.
The boy took a step back. “How come y’know my name? I don’t know yours.”
“You’re Jean-Jacques Manoir, aren’t you? Right? You don’t know me, but I know all about you. You’re eight years old, in third grade, and your teacher’s name is Mr. Crépon. He’s got a tiny mustache and is very strict. See – I know all about you!”
At once intrigued by the stranger’s omniscience yet worried about being late, Jean-Jacques hopped from foot to foot. “OK, but I’m going to be late. Mr. Crépon’s going to make me do lines!”
Mr. Crépon didn’t make him do lines as often as he might have. His customarily iron rule softened for the three fatherless boys in his class.
“C’mon, Mr. Crépon’s not as bad as all that. If he punished you every time you were late or busy daydreaming instead of working—”
So the stranger knew that, too! The boy gulped. “Wh-who are you?”
“I’m your cousin. Your father’s cousin. Don’t you think I look like him?”
“Yes, you do,” the child replied after looking him over. “But I still don’t know you. And my dad’s dead.”
Manoir nodded. “He died in the war. He was a hero. He got medals: a round one, with a green and yellow ribbon, and another with a green and red ribbon and little swords. Isn’t that right?”
“C’mon, I’ll show you something that’ll prove I’m his cousin. You know the ring your dad always wore?”
“A ring? I dunno…” Jean-Jacques blushed. Through the fabric of his pocket and the handkerchief he’d wrapped it in, the signet ring he’d brought in secret to show his friends seemed to be burning.
The cousin’s eyes gleamed with irony. “You must have seen it. A gold ring, with a little château on it, like your name – a manor.”
Jean-Jacques gave in. “Yeah, I’ve seen it before.”
“I’ve got the same one! Look!” The man took his hand from his pocket, fingers spread, and held it out to the boy. A signet ring, exactly like the one the boy had stolen from his father’s desk but moments ago, gleamed in the gray day. “See, there’s my proof.”
* * *
“Why, Jean-Jacques! Jean-Jacques, you’re really going to be late today!”
A woman stood before them: a neighbor, the same one who would come fetch the boy after school, after the tragedy. She was speaking to the boy, but looking the man up and down. She did her best to help the young widow: here a pot of broth, there some wool from an old, unraveling sweater. She’d believed the mother and child alone in the world. But who was this man who looked so much like poor Mr. Manoir?
“I’m a friend of the boy’s mother,” she said. “And you are…?”
“Manoir,” the stranger mumbled. “Jean-Pierre Manoir. Enchanté.”
“He’s daddy’s cousin,” Jean-Jacques announced. “I didn’t know him, but he knew all about me.”
The woman hesitated. If it weren’t for the resemblance … She didn’t dare insist, but she vowed to get to the bottom of this. “I’ll drop in on your mother, Jean-Jacques. You should hurry, or Mr. Crépon will yell at you again.”
The cousin had other plans. “Jean-Jacques isn’t going to school this morning. We’re going home together.”
“You know Yvonne, of course?”
“Jeanne, you mean? My poor cousin’s widow is named Jeanne.”
“Jeanne, of course. I’m losing my mind.”
“No, we’ve never met. The hazards of fate … But I’m eager to meet her at last. So, if you’ll excuse us—”
“Please. Later, perhaps? I’d planned to visit Jeanne this morning anyway.” The woman walked off, her fears allayed. Now it was curiosity that gnawed at her. Jean-Pierre Manoir, cousin of the deceased. He looked just like his brother. He’d turned up just like that, with his hands in his pockets, but where from? A cousin fallen from the sky … What if he were a Gaullist? A parachutist from the FFL? A terrorist? One didn’t quite know what to call them. Shouldn’t she stay away from Jeanne’s this morning? But then she’d never find out a thing!
* * *
Manoir took the boy’s hand. Jean-Jacques let him, and this act of trust overwhelmed the man. He quickly wiped his tears away with the back of his free hand. The excited child skipped beside him.
“Are you going to stay for a long time?”
“I don’t know. Do you want me to?”
“You’ll have to play with me.”
“Count on it. Do you have many toys?”
“A whole chest full! And comics, and a train – say, how come you know me if you don’t know maman?”
Manoir chuckled, stalling. “Well! You think of everything, don’t you! Look, the bakery’s open. Do you want some cake?”
“There is no cake.”
“Of course there isn’t. Some sweets, maybe?”
“It’s not real sugar. Maman says they make your tummy hurt.”
“I see. But you like them anyway, don’t you?”
Jean-Jacques smiled secretively. He didn’t really mind them so much, those fake-sugar sweets that made your tummy hurt.
Manoir walked inside the store. The baker watched them with curiosity from behind her empty glass jars. She saw the boy go by every day. Sometimes she sold him sweets made with saccharin. The father had been killed in 1940. The man looked so much like him! His brother, no doubt.
“Good morning, madame. We’d like some sweets.”
“Of course. Green? Yellow?”
“A few of each. Let’s see…” Manoir pulled the few coins he had left from his pocket. “As many as these will buy.”
“That’ll be a hundred grams.”
“Do you have ration coupons?”
“Coupons? Oh no, I – I hadn’t thought…”
The baker scratched her forehead. “A pity. I could give you the cracked ones? Without tickets…”
“Of course. Whatever you can spare.”
* * *
On the doorstep, Manoir handed Jean-Jacques the little bag.
“Call me Uncle Jean-Pierre, if you’d like.”
“Thanks, Uncle Jean-Pierre.”
They walked. Jean-Jacques crunched into the broken sweets with relish.
“You know what’s good? The raspberry ones.”
“And the hard mint ones, and the little eggs with liqueur centers. But—”
“Your father sent me your photo. I don’t have it anymore. I lost it in the war.”
“Oh. Was I a little baby in the photo?”
“No, not a baby really, or I wouldn’t have recognized you. You were five or six.”
They were getting close. At the next intersection, on the left, they spotted the house.
“Ow! You’re hurting me!”
“I’m sorry.” Manoir loosened his grip. Seized with feeling, he’d been crushing the child’s hand. His heart was pounding. His mouth was dry. They rounded the corner.
“What’s wrong? Are you sick?”
From this angle, the greenish grille, spotted here and there with rust, half masked the millstone and stucco facade. He’d remembered the building being taller, larger, perforated with broad windows like so many eyes wide open on Eden. In reality, it was tiny: the smallest house on the street, nestled in its few acres between two bulging villas that drowned it in shadow.
“C’mon, we’re here.”
Jean-Jacques dashed off and swung briefly from the handle of the bell. It let out a feeble ring. A minute went by before a window opened upstairs.
“Jean-Jacques? Why aren’t you at school? Who is that with you? What’s going on?”
“It’s daddy’s cousin. I met him on the street.”
Manoir reeled at the sound of his mother’s voice. He couldn’t, he wasn’t strong enough to see or speak to her. He’d faint, right there on the sidewalk. He had to get away. But his legs refused to obey. With one hand he hung on to the gate and closed his eyes. A thin figure appeared. He was trembling all over, his eyes clouded with tears.
* * *
Manoir desperately swallowed his tears and smiled. His mother was as old as she’d ever get: thirty. The bomb would crush a short young woman with even features and skin already dulled by grief and worry. She had but an hour left to live, and stood up straight in her seamstress’ blouse over which she’d slipped a man’s jacket much too large for her.
She, too, was trembling. This man looked so much like her husband! He’d never mentioned this man, but how could they not be related? He spoke. His very voice, his tone, awoke echoes. He introduced himself. He explained. He was in fact the only relative of the deceased. A few months before his death, he’d written his cousin; he’d even enclosed a photo of his young son with the letter. Manoir caressed Jean-Jacques’ hair. The boy let him. Unfortunately, Jean-Pierre Manoir had lost the letter and photo with his belongings near Sedan, in the chaos of the retreat.
Manoir ostentatiously underlined his words with gestures of his ringed hand. Jeanne gave a start.
“Pardon me, but that ring—”
At that moment, Jean-Jacques, who had been watching the two adults silently, chimed in. “Yeah, did you see it, maman? He’s got the same ring as Papa. The exact same one!”
Manoir held out his hand. “We ordered them together from a jeweler in P——. Michel drew the chateau on the setting himself on a page of his notebook.”
The truthful part of this new lie chased away whatever doubts lingered in the young woman’s mind. Her husband had indeed had his ring made in P——, from a sketch by his very own hand. Still, despite everything, it was strange that he’d never brought up this cousin, a dozen years his senior, whom he must have been close to in his youth, it seemed … But above all, she was inclined to rejoice in this visit that interrupted the monotony of her day and this revelation of a friendly presence in the desert of her life. She became suddenly aware of her unkempt appearance – this blouse, this shapeless jacket, really! She apologized; she’d been about to sit down to work at her machine. She did a little sewing; her war-widow’s pension was quite modest.
They went inside. The impostor’s throat tightened as he inhaled the old smells he’d never forgotten and staggering traces of which he sometimes came across by chance on the street. Quince cheese, a canary cage, wax polish, and vegetable soup, and from Jean-Jacques’ room, the slightly acrid reek of mouse droppings. The smell of secondhand clothes, for in these penurious times, Jeanne gathered, recut, and repaired more old clothes than she made new ones. The smell of the oilcan for the sewing machine. There it was. The big black Singer with its gilt chasing sat enthroned in the living room, amidst a mess of spools and needles, chalk and scissors. But he remembered a room reserved for special occasions, where you went only if you had to, in a pair of felt slippers … that was before, of course! Before the war, and his father’s death. The living room had been turned into a workspace, and the slippers peeked out from under a sofa.
Jeanne led them into the kitchen. He sat down in the chair she offered as though his feet had been cut out from under him. The walls, hung with plates, spun around him.
“Jean-Pierre? I can call you Jean-Pierre, can’t I? After all, we’re related. You look quite tired!”
“Yes. The trip—”
“Did you come a long way?”
“A very long way, yes.”
He was overcome with dizziness. He closed his eyes, opened them, tried to smile. She’d turned her back on him and was heating water. Then, standing before the pantry shelves, she pushed aside empty jars and gave each white tin box a shake beside her ear.
“Let’s see … No more tea, of course. No more real coffee, either. Herbal tea, then, or chicory.”
Bit by bit, Manoir’s dizziness wore off. The walls slowed their spinning, the plates grew still. There were three, covered with a thin film of grease and dust. The first showed an interior scene: a woman, like Jeanne at that very moment, busying herself in her kitchen. In the second a traveler from the last century, cane in hand, broad hat brim hiding his face, made his way through the woods. The last was a rebus. From where he was sitting he couldn’t see the elements very clearly. A note on a musical staff, a pond …
“There, it’s steeping. It’s lime-blossom. Oh, wait, I’ve got a treat after all.”
She pulled a plate from another cupboard. Manoir recognized the dark amber, almost brown sections she used to cut from a block of fruit jelly for his afternoon snack.
“I don’t make it as often as I used to. It takes too much sugar. But Jean-Jacques loves it. Where has that boy gone now? Jean-Jacques?”
A clatter of steps echoed in the stairwell. Jean-Jacques appeared.
“What were you up to?”
“I was cleaning my room so I could show Uncle Jean-Pierre.”
“But Jean-Pierre isn’t your uncle. He’s your father’s cousin.”
“Yes, but he said—”
“No, that’s fine,” Manoir interrupted. “I’m a bit too old to be a cousin.”
“And we’ll play, right? Like you said. I cleaned my room just so we could.”
“Leave Jean-Pierre alone. Here, have some quince cheese. You, too, Jean-Pierre. Help yourself.”
Man and boy started in. The pieces were a bit sticky. Jean-Jacques licked his fingers. Manoir hesitated, then, giving him a complicit glance, did the same.
“Am I going back to school today?”
“Well … not this morning, at least.”
“Not this afternoon, either!”
“We’ll see. I’ll see. Oh, the tea’s ready.” Jeanne had taken out two bowls. Jean-Jacques didn’t much like herbal tea, and he’d just had breakfast. It didn’t stop him from digging into the quince paste. For his part, Manoir was dying to have seconds but didn’t dare.
“Help yourself, Jean-Pierre! Really!”
“With pleasure. It’s delicious.” He took a broken piece from the plate.
* * *
“Hey, are you coming back?”
They were in Jean-Jacques’ room. Jeanne was working below. Jean-Jacques was lying on the linoleum near his toy chest. Manoir set down the little tin airplane he’d been studying.
“Of course, if your mother wants me to.”
“She does, I know she does!”
“And why is that?”
“Because you’re family. When you’ve got family, you visit, right?”
“I suppose so. I don’t really know. I don’t have any – except you two.”
“Just like us – all we have is you.”
Manoir leaned over the chest, and reached for a box of cubes. “But sometimes you live too far away to visit often.”
“Do you live far away? In the free zone?”
“That’s right. In the free zone.”
“So we won’t be able to see each other.”
Manoir had opened the box of cubes. He’d already found three faces that represented parts of a single picture. A rodeo scene, no doubt.
“Really? Neat! So we’ll see each other often, then? We could go boating. Maman won’t take me. But you will, right?”
“We’ll go everywhere! The circus, and the zoo, and the Ferris wheel at the fair.”
“The Ferris wheel! It makes me scared to look around even when we haven’t left the ground yet!”
“You won’t be scared with me, right?”
“No! Definitely not!”
Suddenly the sirens screamed. Man and boy froze.
“Hear that? It’s the bomb warning!”
Manoir checked his watch and nodded. Jeanne’s urgent voice reached them from below.
“Jean-Jacques! Jean-Pierre! The sirens!”
On the threshold, before closing the door, Manoir took one last look at his childhood room. The red eiderdown on the bed, the white mouse nibbling at the bars of its cage, the plaster coin bank in the shape of a dog on the dresser, the Kipling poem in its gilded pitchpine frame. Good-bye, good-bye forever this time.
They went down. Jeanne was waiting for them at the foot of the stairs. She wasn’t alone. The neighbor stood next to her. Curiosity had brought her over, and the sirens surprised her on the front step.
“Hurry up! Didn’t you hear the warning!”
“Yes, but it’s not for us. I bet they’re going to bomb the station.”
“We’re just next door! Come over, my cellar’s deeper underground, and my husband did a good job shoring it up.”
“We don’t have time,” Manoir cut in. “Listen – they’ve started!”
The engines’ roar had grown louder. In a few moments, the squadron would pass right over the town. Muffled explosions broke out.
“It’s the AA guns,” Jean-Jacques shouted. “Blam! Blam! Vrrr! Vrrr! Blammm!”
Jeanne grabbed the boy. She opened the cellar door and headed down the steps. Manoir stepped aside to let the neighbor by.
* * *
Jeanne lit a small lamp. They were seated on old crates. The ground trembled without stopping. With each detonation, shockwaves shook the walls. In a corner of the cellar, empty bottles clinked.
“They’re bombing the station. We have nothing to fear.”
“If you say so!” The neighbor was missing her reinforced shelter and her sandbags. Jeanne was quiet. After a momentary brush with fear, Jean-Jacques had regained confidence before “Uncle Jean-Pierre’s” demeanor. Manoir smiled. He felt great peace within. Events once gone astray were about to resume their rightful course.
Above, a bomber had been hit. It veered, losing altitude. To lighten the load, the pilot ordered all bombs to be dropped. For a moment, the bombs rocked in the air as though uncertain, then the wind on their fins stabilized them. They were falling straight down now, with a whistling that grew ever higher in pitch. The first ripped the street open two hundred yards from the house. The second crushed a gas truck at the corner of the street. In the cellar, the neighbor, the bearer of bad news, opened her mouth to cry out. Jean-Jacques pressed himself against Jeanne, his face buried in her breast. Manoir rose, threw himself upon them, and held them.