In the Metro

Issue 4/1995 | Archives online, Fiction, Prose

Extract from the collection of short stories Tidig tvekan (‘Early doubt’, 1938). Introduction by David McDuff

– Mademoiselle! You’re late this evening. Was there overtime again? I’ve put a newspaper aside for you. I saw you were in such a hurry in the morning that you didn’t have time to take it. The fashion page is in today, so I thought you’d like to see it. There’s nothing to thank me for, nothing at all. You see, I seem to have got a bit of a secret liking for you. One gradually learns to pick out all the people who come this way in the morning and go back again at night. And you, you see, I noticed you right from the very first day. You looked so frightened, and then you always smiled at me in such a friendly way. I got the idea that you were someone who wasn’t at home here and who was possibly using the underground in the morning rush hour for the first time.

Yes, if you don’t mind my saying it, mademoiselle, there was something about you that reminded me of myself, when I was young and a newcomer here in town. That’s a long time ago, longer than you have lived, it’s all of forty-four years, I was only seventeen when I arrived. Oh, I know very well that it can’t really be true, what I said about you looking like me when I was young, you are a high-class young lady who probably works as a secretary in an elegant office, I was only a cleaning woman. And yet – I couldn’t help playing with that idea a little. For I could see that you were a foreigner and so I thought perhaps your home was in some country district in some foreign land somewhere, or at any rate in a town so small that it didn’t have a metro. When you came in through the swing door you always blinked your eyelids in surprise that way, so it almost looked as though you felt pain when the light stopped so suddenly. I imagined you were thinking that the next time you came out here there wouldn’t be any light left to see, and that then you remembered the people in your home town, who had to ride or walk to their work, and told yourself that this was really a great comfort. Oh, I also know that the room you work in must be a very nice one with big windows and a lot of daylight, and yet I couldn’t help imagining it being completely dark, perhaps even down in a basement. For when that is so, one gets awfully keen on light. I was from the country myself, mademoiselle, when I got here. I suppose I’d been used to having to work more or less all day, all my life, and yet there was a very big difference. I’d had such dreams about this city, you know. I nearly tormented my parents to death with my pleas to be allowed to come here. Well, and so at last I set off, still almost against their will. And I certainly can’t say I regret it. But at the beginning I suppose it was quite hard. And the hardest thing was the metro. It may perhaps sound strange- I spend more than twelve hours a day down here, and for thirty-four years I’ve been here most of the time. I’ve spent nearly my whole life in the underground, imagine that. I don’t think I would ever have guessed that I’d come to like it, when I was seventeen and first started to use the train. Because you see, I almost had a kind of terror of it, in those days, yes, and it hasn’t even completely gone now, I sit here for whole days, but my home is quite close, so I don’t need to use the train. I really never do. If I have to go far into town, I take the bus, I afford myself that luxury, mademoiselle, rather than go by underground, and after all it isn’t often that I need to do that, perhaps once every five years. The metro is certainly nothing to be afraid of, I can assure you, mademoiselle. – But when I was young, I always had such a strange feeling down there, rather like when one has a feeling that something nasty is about to happen.

You know, back home in the country I couldn’t imagine that fresh air would be so important. For I always had it entirely within reach. And working at home is also different from working with strangers. I remember it as if it were today, the first time I went down to my job, it was cleaning the rooms in the basement of a big shop. I was in such a good mood when I went out, spring was in the air, and it was like being at home in the country, the wind seemed to move in towards my body, caressing it and enticing me to laugh. I would have liked to have walked and walked, all the way. But I couldn’t, I had to take the first train in order to get there. It seemed to me that it took far too little time to get down to the train. I worked it out later, it took only a minute – a minute can be very long, if you really watch it all the time, I know, but that day I thought it was just like the blinking of an eye. And then I was down there. No, I’m not complaining, millions of people do the same thing every single day of their lives, but it felt so peculiar, and that was perhaps also because you knew that millions of people did it. It would have been easier if it had only been oneself. You also looked around you in surprise the first time you came down here, mademoiselle, that was what made me think that perhaps you’d just arrived from the country, like me. I could never really get used to the way people looked as they stood down there. Perhaps it’s different when it’s not the morning or the evening, when people are going to their work and leaving it, but it was precisely then that I thought there was something sinister about it. I had thought, for example, that everyone smiled at one another in such a friendly way in this city, and they do up there, it’s true, isn’t it, mademoiselle, you must admit. But down there, when one stands packed together down there, there is such a strangely threatening atmosphere. One is like a great mass, and yet each person is like a threateningly bitter or greedy will. And they all look so sullen and hostile. The men stand there reading their newspapers, I used to wonder how they had room to open them, but perhaps they did that before they came in, they were always open at the politics or the sports pages, and in the evenings the women always had a novel, but only in the evenings, in the mornings they just stood there and stared in front of them with a sullen, indifferent look. And in the midst of it all you might think that your stocking had laddered, but when you bent down to feel, your hand met another hand, and when you looked up, there was usually a very young boy, and his face was still like a child’s, except that his eyes were like two tormented fires trying to conceal themselves. And that was almost the only physical contact that people tried to make with one another in the mornings. It also used to surprise me that the women took the trouble to wear makeup and have their hair done nicely so early in the morning, but one day one of them turned to her female friend and said in that hard voice people have at that time of the morning in the metro, almost as though they were having a quarrel, or insulting someone: ‘This is the second morning I’ve woken up too late to curl my hair. I’ll soon be getting the sack, you know, Yvonne.’– After that, I wasn’t surprised any more.

I was sometimes seized by such a strange fantasy in the mornings, the kind of fantasy that is really a part of tiredness, but sometimes one is already tired in the morning. I used to catch myself staring at that sign above the through doors, I read ’25 Seated and 5 Standing’, and then I began to add and multiply. Think, 110 people in just one carriage, and there were perhaps ten carriages in one train, that made 1,100 people, and in three minutes another train just the same will come along filled with the same number of people, right now a train will race by in the opposite direction filled a with thousand people. I seemed to see millions and millions of people who were spewed out of those black tunnels merely to be put away in dark cellars. And when I then thought of my home in the country, mademoiselle, that on the earth there were sunshine and flowers, and grass and sea, I was sometimes seized by downright rage, yes, I suppose it was silly, but I thought that the person who had invented all these ingenious underground passages must have been a devil – a devil like the one who sits thinking up all those murderous weapons that are used in war. Yes, I know that it’s really a very useful invention, which saves people time and money, and that if the trains didn’t go through the earth, they would have to go through the air, and perhaps that would be even worse, for think what the noise would be like for everyone who had to live near them. And it’s not true either that the metro is horrible through and through. Nice things also happen. Sometimes people joke with one another and talk. I remember that for a long time there were two particular stations that were bright spots for me. At one of them a young man got on, always in the same carriage as the one I was in, at the other a young girl. They never said anything except good morning, but then they stood very close together and looked each other very touchingly in the eye, at l’Opéra she got off, while he continued and changed trains at the same station as I did. It was perhaps the only hour of the day they had time to meet apart from Sundays. I think that kind of thing made me understand that all those people didn’t just travel to and fro by metro, that they must have also have seen things like the countryside, and flowers, and grass.

– Yes, you’re right, in a way it’s even more melancholy when you’re coming back.

But at least you know that you’re going home this time, don’t you? If it wasn’t for that thing about the light. Do you know, when I first came to Paris, I found it so hard never to see the light that I used to go to bed in the evening almost immediately after work, and so I woke up at four or five in the morning. It almost became an obsession. I thought the whole day had been ruined, I thought I quite simply could not go on living, unless I was able to lie awake for an hour in the morning and just look out at the light. I nearly became a genuine hermit because of it. But later I got married and no longer got the time to go to bed so early that I would be able to wake up just for the sake of that.

But you know yourself that it’s hard at first, before you get used to it. And it’s true that when you’re coming back tired after work, you’re assailed by all sorts of peculiar desires. You sit there with your newspaper, if you have one, but you don’t feel like reading it, you sit staring into the darkness so you won’t have to look at the others, and the only change is when the walls begin to stand out against the lamplight and the Dubonnet advertisement becomes visible. You swallow it as a command, that thing about the apéritif, ‘Dub- , Dubo- , Dubonnet – Vin tonique, – Dubonnet – Dubo- Dub’, that is, if you haven’t instead got a very great dislike of it. Sometimes, when you come up out of there, you spend your dinner money on a drink. You walk as in a hallucination, but think you have to work up an appetite for a dinner you can scarcely afford to eat. Actually, I did that only once, for it just made me dizzy and sleepy, but I know many who always do that, who quite simply can’t live unless they do.

For me it was more dangerous to stand near the door, I always used to try to avoid that. You know, when something is written in large letters somewhere and you haven’t anything else to look at, you mechanically start to read it, over and over again. Once I stood there staring at what’s written above the door-handle, you know: ‘The doors close automatically. Do not prevent the doors from closing.’ And suddenly I couldn’t help repeating it over and over again: ‘The doors close automatically. Do not prevent…’ I wanted to stop it, but I couldn’t, and I thought I would go mad unless I did stop it, but instead the whole metro, the wheels, the rattling of the window panes and the people began to cry in chorus: ‘The doors close automatically. Do not prevent…’ I no longer repeated it myself, but a cold sweat ran down my body and I pressed my lips together and dug my fingernails deep into the flesh of my hand. I thought I had to do it, you understand, I had to throw myself between the doors and prevent the train going any further. – Oh, mademoiselle, can you comprehend why it’s always something like that you always get a mad desire to do when you’re tired, why it hurts so much inside that everything keeps on moving and moving, you think that the world around you ought to have the sense to stop, just because you yourself can’t manage any more… In the end I became so afraid of myself that I rushed out at the next station and then sat and waited while three trains went past before I dared to stand up again. – How I could hate the metro when I was young, mademoiselle, no one can comprehend that. I hated it so much that it hurt.

– How I came to apply for a job down here… Yes, you see, that’s another of the things one can’t really explain. I gradually got used to it, and it’s really nothing to be afraid of, that was what it was I wanted to tell you. I had a husband and three children. The eldest was only seven years old when it happened. My husband died, mademoiselle, it was after that I applied for this job. After that, the metro tunnel almost became like a home to me.

You see, he was seized by one of those strange impulses, caused by tiredness, like the one I had felt when I wanted to throw myself between the doors. At least, that is the only way I can explain it.

His friends at the factory have told me he was in a good mood when he went home that day. It was pay day, and when he bought his newspaper, before he went into the tunnel, he had also bought a Marie-Claire and said: This is for the wife. She always enjoys Marie-Claire…’ And then – it happened when he was about to change trains, he must have been standing there waiting for the other train, when it seized him, right there by the arch. He ran into the tunnel, mademoiselle, into the tunnel… straight towards the train that was rushing in…

– Oh, it’s all right, mademoiselle, it’s so long ago now, and tears don’t do anyone any harm, it took me a long time to learn how to cry. And that was the terrible thing. I sat down here, I must have looked a proper sight, people must have thought I was very rude in those days. I never smiled and I never said please or thank you to people, but you see, I really couldn’t. I kept seeing it all before me him rushing away – him standing there with that strange, bitter expression on his face he sometimes had completely alone, people didn’t notice him, they didn’t see him suddenly start to run… If only they’d seen, if only someone had been there to pull him by the arm and make him come to his senses. It was one of those desires that can last a minute, but once you’ve given in, it seems that you can’t go back. – If only I had been there. The fact that one knew it all depended on one single minute, that was perhaps the most difficult part – one minute, it’s so little, that was what made it so unreal, I thought I ought to be able to wipe that minute out. It became a habit with me, in the midst of everything, down here and at home, even at home, and there I surely ought to have been able to control myself, for the children’s sake, you understand, but I couldn’t, in the midst of everything I had to take out my watch and count the length of a minute –I noticed then that a minute is really a very long time, but I had to convince myself of it over and over again for several years – and so, even though you think it’s a very long time when you’re counting it, when you look up everything is actually just the same as it was before… But the children looked so frightened. I suppose that was what finally made me stop it.

Oh no, mademoiselle, I’m well provided for nowadays. My children are all grown up now and are able to look after themselves. And I sit here. I don’t think about all that so much anymore. That was the other thing I wanted you to know: the metro is nothing to be afraid of. Look at me, for example: I feel so at home here. That may be because I think I’m somehow closer to him here. But it’s also because I’m so fond of the twilight here. There is something so gentle and merciful about this kind of darkness. When I see the light, as you see it from down here, in brief glimpses, when the door opens and people run down, I think that it’s as beautiful as before – but up there, there is something almost cruel, wounding about it… I sit here and sometimes think about the things I used to think about before, and then I think that they are almost more beautiful than before, I mean things like light, flowers, children and grass… yes, sometimes, mademoiselle, when I think about things like that I seem to hear a distant music. – But it’s only down here that I hear it… It’s like with the light – it is as though it wasn’t the same light there is up there above the city – it’s as though it were a light above a great ocean, mademoiselle, or as if it were a light that tolerates only itself…

No, now you really must be allowed to get on your way, it’s shocking how long I’ve held you up with my chatter, and you still look so tired, too… But the thing was that you always looked at me as though you really saw me. And you often looked so frightened. Yes, I think that was what I wanted to say above all: the metro, dear mademoiselle, is nothing to be afraid of, not at all, quite the opposite. It’s the single minute you must be afraid of. If only I knew that you wouldn’t take it badly, but I would so terribly much like to give you a piece of advice: you see, you sometimes have a look in your eyes just like my husband had, when he stood there alone and forgot everything around him because of his bitterness. I mean, mademoiselle, that if ever it should happen that you come near to a dangerous minute like that, take out your watch, think of me, and take out your watch and count the seconds, there are sixty of them, but when you say ‘one’ a second has passed, when you say ‘two’ another, and when you get to a hundred and twenty, two minutes have already passed. And so, mademoiselle, perhaps at that very minute someone is sitting waiting for you – perhaps you don’t know him yet, perhaps he is different from the one you are thinking of, but there is always a person somewhere who is waiting just for you, who needs just you…

Thank you – thank you, mademoiselle. – But anyway, you forgot to take your news­ paper. Perhaps you feel like reading it later, when you’ve eaten and rested. Good night!

Translated by David McDuff

Tags: ,