Human Freedom

Issue 2/1986 | Archives online, Fiction, Prose

Mika Waltari. Photo: SKS Archives

Mika Waltari. Photo: SKS Archives

Extract from lhmisen vapaus (‘Human Freedom’, 1950)

‘Where are we?’ Yvonne asked. ‘This isn’t the right street either. Somewhere between Alma and Georges V, they said. But there’s no sign of an aquarium.’

‘Talking of aquariums’, I suggested, ‘there’s a dog shop near here where they wash dogs in the back room. If you like, I’ll take you to see how they wash a dog. It’s a very soothing experience.’

‘You’re crazy’, said Yvonne.

My feelings were hurt. ‘I may sleep badly’, I admitted, ‘but I love you. I walk up and down the embankments all night. My heart aches, my brain is on fire. Then comes blissful intoxication, and for a little while I can be happy. And all you can do is to keep nagging, Gertrude.’

She wrinkled her brow, but I went on impatiently, ‘Look, Rose dear, just at present I have the whole world throbbing in my temples and in my finger-tips. Age-old poems are bubbling up within me. I am grieving for lost youth. I am boggling at the future. For just this one moment it is given to me to see life with the living eyes of a real human being. Why won’t you let me be happy?’

‘I have walked two hundred kilometres’, said a low, timid voice at my elbow. I stopped. Yvonne had stuck her arm through mine. She, too, stopped. We both looked down and saw a little man. He doffed a ragged cap and bowed. Flushed scars glowed through a grey stubble of beard. He was wearing a much-patched battle-dress from which the badges had long since disappeared. His face was wrinkled, but the little eyes were animated and sorrowful.

‘I have walked two hundred kilometres’, he repeated patiently. ‘I have slept in sheds and barns, in order to get here. A few francs would be of great assistance. It would be a real kindness, monsieur.’

Under his arm he carried a bundle of sacking, neatly tied. His shoes were gaping.

‘You must have walked much further than two hundred kilometres’, I said accusingly.

He shrugged his shoulders and said apologetically, ‘Two hundred kilometres this time, monsieur. I had to walk much further before that. Perhaps two thousand, perhaps three. I didn’t keep count. But I don’t want to be a nuisance.’

‘Where do you come from? What’s your trouble?’ I asked.

The little old man looked at the ground and shuffled his feet uneasily. ‘I’m only a refugee’, he said. ‘That’s all. It doesn’t matter where I come from. A human being, if you like. I don’t ask much. A cigarette, a crust of bread, that’s a lot in itself. But I’m not hungry. I’ve arrived here. That means more than physical hunger.’

‘But why?’ I insisted. ‘You’re an educated man. What’s it all about?’

‘Human freedom’, he said, and the scars on his face began to glow. ‘Human freedom.’ That is what the refugee said to me, on an icy spring morning at the corner of a side-street off the Champs-Elysées. And the way he said it set my eyes on fire.

Yvonne shifted nervously. ‘Give him twenty francs’, she suggested. ‘Or fifty, if you like. Then let’s go.’

Obediently I held out fifty francs to the refugee. Yvonne made as if to move on. But I didn’t budge. The little man smoothed out the note with his cold blue fingers and said earnestly, ‘Bless you, monsieur. Bless you, madame. This will help me a great deal.’ Fumblingly he undid a button, slipped the note inside his jacket and did up the button again, keeping his eyes on me all the while, as if he still wanted to say something.

‘Women will be women’, I said, to reopen the conversation.

He sighed gratefully. ‘You are a sensible man, monsieur’, he said, looking at me intently.

‘Don’t let’s exaggerate’, I parried.

‘Come on, let’s go’, Yvonne insisted, tugging at my sleeve. The icy wind brought a scent of flowers from the open door of a florist’s. It was the smell of graveyards. It was still cold weather for sleeping in barns and sheds, although it was spring.

‘All right, let’s go’, I agreed readily. ‘There’s a bistro a few paces further up the road. If you permit, I’d like to stand you something. Coffee. Glass of wine. Sandwich. Hard-boiled egg. Anything you like.’

‘What, again’, sighed Yvonne reproachfully, rather like the peasant in the story, when he was about to throw his perfectly good axe down the well.

‘I’m not going to drink anything’, I said indignantly. ‘I don’t need it: I’m happy now. No need to drink then – not much anyway.’

‘If madame disapproves – ‘, the little man began, the scars reddening on his face. I clapped my hand on his shoulder and propelled him along with me. Yvonne followed, a step behind … but she followed.

The bistro was a few steps away. Almost in front of it stood a gigantic cart-horse, harnessed to a greengrocer’s dray. As we went in it raised its head and looked me straight in the eye.

The floor of the bar had been strewn with sawdust and sprinkled with water. The patron was busy cleaning the place up. I leaned my elbow on the zinc-covered counter and laid one hand on Yvonne’s thigh, to prevent her from escaping. ‘Rose darling’, I said. ‘You’re not cross, are you?’

Without answering, Yvonne took a hard-boiled egg from the stand and absent-mindedly began to crack the shell on the zinc counter. The patron reluctantly abandoned his bucket and broom and came over to wipe the counter in front of us with his apron. He glared with bulging eyes at the diminutive refugee as though he were some repulsive insect. The refugee’s grizzled head seemed only just to reach above the level of the counter. He was still gazing at me as though he wanted to ask me something. I couldn’t look him in the eyes. I ordered him a coffee and sandwich. As the patron began to saw viciously at the loaf with a flashing knife, I felt in my trouser-pocket. Just as I thought. ‘Half a minute’, I said, and went out into the street. I had some sugar in my pocket. Every afternoon at tea-time I had been secretly collecting the sugar that was left over – from Yvonne’s saucer too. It was quite unnecessary. There was plenty of sugar about. But the habit had stuck.

‘Here you are’, I said to the horse, and held out the lumps of sugar. The horse lowered its head eagerly, but checked itself and said, ‘Excuse me, monsieur, but you can’t do that.’ I wasn’t in the least surprised. Only when it added ‘Pardon me, but I was here first’, did I realize that it wasn’t the horse that was speaking but a sunburnt young man who had walked up on the other side of the animal. For some reason he was wearing a camel-hair ulster. He caressed the horse’s rough mane possessively and observed once again, rather aggressively, ‘No offence, but I was certainly here first. Don’t you speak French?’

‘On the contrary’, I replied, ‘I don’t speak English, if that’s what you mean. Not much, anyway. Forgive me for not answering straight away, but my thoughts were elsewhere. I thought the horse was speaking. Are you American?’

‘So what?’ he asked, with youthful spirit. ‘It’s nothing to be ashamed of. But how did you know right away?’

‘It’s the way you hold yourself, the way you stand’, I explained. ‘There’s something relaxed and free about your movements – as if you’d never in your life wondered what to do with your hands and legs, as we do in this hemisphere of bodies and ruins. Athlete?’

‘Entomologist’, he corrected. ‘And you?’

‘I’m a Finn’, I confessed.

His expression brightened. ‘Nurmi, sauna, Sibelius’, he cried, and opened his clenched fist. He, too, had a fistful of sugar lumps. ‘I was going to give them to the horse’, he explained. We exchanged a glance of unspoken mutual understanding. But the horse regarded us with eyes full of soft equine sorrow at the fatuity of man.

‘Look at my harness’, ‘it seemed to be saying with its eyes. ‘Look at this awful cart I am tied to. I do my work, I submit, I cannot help my slavery. Get to hell with your lumps of sugar!’

The American met the horse’s reproachful gaze. ‘Good God’, he said, blanching.

‘Assuming that he exists’, I confirmed. ‘The horse is getting jumpy. After you. You were first, I don’t wish to quarrel about it. In my country we are taught by bitter experience not to quarrel with those bigger than ourselves; I do my best to carry on the tradition. So carry on, he’s all yours.’

The young American promptly held out his palm and the horse scooped up the whole handful with its great soft lips, turned its head and began to crunch hurriedly. The entomologist took a handkerchief from his ulster pocket and surreptitiously wiped the horse’s spittle from his hand. He looked at me inquiringly. Against the tan of his face his eyes were forget-me-not blue.

I shrugged my shoulders and said. ‘There’s a bistro just here. Come along in. But I won’t answer for the consequences. No-one else ever answers for the consequences in this world of ours. We’ve got to go in, all the same. The gateway to the future. Only let’s remember: “Abandon hope, all ye who enter here”.

‘After you’, he urged politely.

‘Not a bit of it’, I replied, with some heat, ‘I’m not as old as all that. You go first. Fiat iustitia, pereat mundus.’

‘Amor omnia vincit’, he contributed, for the honour of his university. We went in, and I introduced him. Yvonne smiled. The American uttered a long whistle, sought support from the zinc counter and asked in a faint voice,

‘What’ll you drink?’

There was a silence and we looked at each other. The little grizzled man had got halfway through his sandwich. He was chewing the same mouthful over and over, unable to swallow any more. Tears were in his eyes. He apologised: ‘When I was young and poor I was a student here in Paris. Occasionally I had a little glass of kirsch in a cabmen’s cafe. If you don’t mind, I should like a small glass of white kirsch. It’s cheap. In memory of a poor young student.’

‘Fruit juice for me’, said Yvonne. I was silent.

Disgustedly the patron produced a small bottle of fruit juice from beneath the counter, splashed it into a glass and pushed it in front of Yvonne as though he hated everything and everybody. More calmly, he then took down a bottle of white kirsch from the shelf behind him and skilfully filled the glass brim-full. Then he paused and looked at me challengingly. I am a weak man. I looked at Yvonne, but Yvonne said firmly, ‘No’.

‘No’, I said, the tension dropping. ‘Nothing for me, thank you.’ The patron transferred his unsmiling gaze to my American friend.

The tan deepened on his face. ‘A drop of red wine never hurt anyone’, he said. ‘I have always dreamed of Paris, but I’ve never been here till now. In Paris they drink red wine, don’t they? Nothing wrong in that.’

The patron filled a glass and hesitated for a moment. Then the sluices were down. ‘Lovely day to-day, madame, messieurs’, he said.

‘Her name is Gertrude’, I observed.

‘You don’t say’, cried the young American in surprise. ‘I thought you said Yvonne just now.’ He looked at me, and fell silent.

The little grizzled man put out a trembling hand for his glass. Reverently he sniffed at his transparent, fiery drink, and took a sip from the edge of the glass.

‘Youth, happiness, the past!’ he whispered, and his wrinkled face began to shine in the semi-gloom of the bar.

‘As a matter of fact I’m only passing through on my way to Switzerland’, the young American explained apologetically. ‘There’s a tropical institute in Basle. But I couldn’t resist the temptation to stop a few days in Paris. The Venus of Milo, Mona Lisa, Napoleon’s Tomb, the Tabarin, I’ve seen them all. It’s great!’

We looked at his young, glowing face, the grey-bearded refugee and I. The ruins of Europe burned in the old man’s scarred face. What was burning in my face is another question. ‘Et ego in Arcadia natus’, I said, anyway, and tried to make my voice express all my envy of his youth.

To my astonishment the little man laid his bundle at his feet, took another sip at his glass, raised both hands and began to declaim, his whole face shining, ‘O fons Bandusiae – splendidior vitro.’ He recited the poem right through, only faltering once or twice. The star in his eye deepened to a red glow, a faint flush rose to his grey cheekbones, and he went on to recite a Greek ode from memory.

The young entomologist and I listened respectfully, fascinated by the rhythm of the ancient tongue, the unique, rich, amazing speech of a bygone civilisation. I felt as though the bells of lost Atlantis were tolling in my ears. Perhaps it was just sleeplessness. But I thought: ‘the death-knell of our civilisation’. The little man stopped. The radiance vanished from his face.

‘No’, he said. ‘My memory is full of holes, like a net. There’s nothing to draw on, it’s all gone.’

‘Not at all’, I said. ‘There are drops glistening on the knots of the net. The springs have not dried up. Isn’t the whole anguish and pride of humanity just that: drawing up the living water of eternity in a sieve? It’s all that is left to us: our privilege. Human freedom, as you said; the only human freedom.’

‘Beautiful’, said the young American. ‘Everything is beautiful to-day.’

‘Beautiful in a cruel way’, I agreed. ‘Like me with Rose.’

‘Rose?’ he repeated in wonder. He looked at me, and then at Yvonne. ‘Just now you said – ‘ He took refuge in his glass and sipped gingerly.

‘What is your line as an entomologist?’ I asked.

‘It’s a bit hard to explain’, he said, glancing at Yvonne, but went on manfully: ‘Lately I’ve been studying pathological strictures in the rectum of the female of a certain tropical insect. It’s a far-reaching subject.’

He smiled generously as though not expecting us to understand. But the little refugee quickly put in: ‘Of course. There’s nothing small in science. The most insignificant problem leads on to the biggest ones of all: the origin of life – sickness – death – the mechanism of evolution. Science is great even in the small things.’

‘And small in the great ones’, I followed up. Once again the American and I looked at each other with unspoken understanding. Deeply moved, I reminded him: ‘We’re forgetting the horse.’

The entomologist and I made simultaneously for the door and rushed out. The little grizzled man followed us in curiosity as far as the door. Yvonne munched her egg abstractedly. Her painted nails gleamed in the semi­ darkness of the bar, rose-pink against the deathly white of the eggshell. It was the most beautiful thing I had seen for a long time.

In the street the horse turned in alarm to look at us. We stopped and glanced at each other, my American friend and I. ‘He must be thirsty’, he suggested wistfully.

‘We’ve got a bistro’, I said. Without another word we set about carefully unharnessing the horse, he taking one side and I the other. The horse looked at us in turn, twisting its head round as ‘far as it would go. We heard the clatter of wooden soles. The driver came running across from the doorway of the hotel opposite, an empty vegetable basket under his arm. We ignored him. Observing our calm, he dropped his angrily clenched fist.

‘Messieurs’, he cried. ‘That’s my horse. I carry on a legal trade, I’m a poor hard-working man. I pay heavy taxes. The Government has gone out of its mind. You have no right to hurt my horse.’

‘He’s thirsty’, I said. ‘You must be thirsty too. Come along with us. A glass of red wine wouldn’t come amiss, I’m sure, and never harmed anybody. We are peaceable men.’

‘You’re mad!’ he shouted. He shouted worse things too. ‘I’ll call the police. My God, hasn’t a poor man any rights in this country?’

But the American was already leading the horse into the bistro. The horse followed him confidently, trying its best to squeeze its bulky frame through the narrow doorway. All the same I heard the tinkle of broken glass.

‘We’ll pay’, I said hurriedly, ‘He’ll pay. Or me. One of us. Or both. Don’t worry. We won’t hurt your horse. Just come along in.’

A rending sound came from the direction of the door and the horse’s hindquarters disappeared from view. The driver flung away his basket and plunged in after them. I followed, closing what was left of the door behind me.

The glass had fallen with a crash from the patron‘s hand. Yvonne moved up to make room for the horse. ‘He’s a bit clumsy’, the American apologised.

‘He’s terribly large, if that’s what you mean’, Yvonne observed disapprovingly.

‘Of course he’s large. Mary darling’, I retorted crossly. ‘You are never satisfied. Always trying to pick a quarrel. Of course the horse is large. What did you expect, a pony?’ Though I had to admit to myself that the horse did look immense in the dimly-lit bar.

The patron went purple in the face, he tore at his shirt with both hands, fighting for breath, and exploded. ‘This is too much!’ he roared. ‘I’ve had enough of this. I’m going to send for the police. Crazy, drunken, foreign tramps! Was it for this we stormed the Bastille? Citizens, to arms!’

‘Are we going to yield to force?’ I asked challengingly, and supplied the answer myself. ‘NO! It would be unworthy of a human being. Or of a horse’, I added after a moment’s reflexion.

The little grey-bearded man crawled excitedly out from under the table. ‘Never!’ he exclaimed shrilly. ‘No, it would be unworthy of humanity. No surrender to force!’ He paused for a moment’s reflexion, and added: ‘That is why I am here.’ I began to understand why he had had to walk two thousand kilometres.

The driver was shouting too, but his frenzied objurgations suddenly brought the patron to his senses. He leaned forward, rested his swollen palms on the counter, and hissed in a voice that quivered with rage: ‘You idiot, you lunatic, you – person! What right have you to insult my guests? Do you not understand, monsieur, that they are Americans? All of them!’ Furiously he fished out a grubby lump of sugar from under the counter and tossed it on to the zinc in front of him. The horse lowered its head gratefully and cautiously took it between its soft lips. Still shaking with passion, the patron spread out his hands and said ‘Well, what are you having?’

The driver instinctively made the sign of the cross and heaved a profound sigh. ‘A glass of red wine, then’, he said, to save what he could from the wreck.

‘One for you too’, I suggested to the patron. His hand was still shaking as he filled the glasses, breathing stertorously. The American patted the horse’s neck and asked amiably, ‘What’ll he drink?’

‘O, my God’, the driver whispered between sobs. ‘He did drink some cider once. He’s one of those Normandy horses. But don’t kill him. He’s the only horse I’ve got. I’m a poor man.’

The horse pricked up its ears. ‘Cider, then’, ordered the entomologist. ‘But with plenty of water. We don’t want any drunkenness here.’

‘He doesn’t want any drunkenness here!’ moaned the driver, giving us a nasty, meaning look. But the patron ignored him and went into the back room. He came back carrying a pail, into which he proceeded to pour the yellowish cider from two bottles simultaneously. A sunny, cidery smell filled the room.

‘To France!’ I said. ‘Paris is the last refuge of humanity on this earth.’

The driver looked at me quizzically. ‘What?’ he exclaimed. ‘Everything’s going to hell. War after war, and every time the glasses get smaller and the wine gets dearer. It’s the one thing you can be sure of beforehand.’ He twiddled the stem of his glass, scornfully.

‘It is a tribulation’, nodded the grey-bearded refugee. ‘But it is not an insurmountable one. One can suffer worse things.’

‘France is good’, I said. ‘But one shouldn’t regard any country as better than the rest, not even one’s own. That is the root of all evil. One can love one’s own country, of course.’

‘I am a citizen of the world’, said the refugee, fingering his worn-out battle-dress. ‘There’s nothing else for it. The world is my only country now. So I ought to love the whole world. Man is man’s only brother. Men ought not to kill one another.’

‘You’ve said it’, I agreed. ‘But what can be done about it?’

‘Freedom, good will’, whispered the little man, with tears in his eyes.

‘And beautiful nonsense’, I suggested. ‘There’s room for a certain amount of beautiful nonsense too. Mankind can’t get on without it.’

The American was giving the horse a drink. He looked up from his pail and asked with interest: ‘How long have you been married?’

‘Yvonne and me?’ I asked in surprise. ‘Getting on for twenty years.’

‘But – ‘, he began, glanced at me suspiciously and fell silent. The patron muttered something unimaginable under his breath.

‘Have a drink of warm milk’, Yvonne suggested. ‘It’ll make you sleep.’

‘Some warm milk for me, please’, I ordered. For the first time in weeks I felt the sleep welling up, dark and warm, behind my forehead and my painful eyeballs. ‘I’m less happy than I was just now’, I grumbled.

‘Splendid’, said Yvonne.

The patron turned off the gas-burner and slopped the warm milk over to me. ‘I’m a patient man’, he said in a quivering voice. ‘I pay crippling taxes without a murmur. I don’t even curse the Government, because every fresh Government is worse than the last. But teetotallers I hate. Fanatics. Ever since the war the young people have been drinking nothing but lemonade. Fruit juice, warm milk, pah!’

‘Don’t let’s hate anyone to-day’, I begged him. ‘To-day is a good day. Let’s just be five human beings. Friends. Not hating anybody.’

‘Five human beings and a horse’, remarked Yvonne.

‘One woman, four men and a horse’, the patron could not help pointing out, because he was French. ‘Another round’, he urged, waxing enthusiastic. ‘On the house.’

‘No more for the horse’, said the American anxiously, for the horse was behaving in a very peculiar manner, bashing the empty pail with its forehoof and tossing its head to and fro with a faraway look in its eye.

‘Osh’, remarked the driver contemptuously. ‘That’s nothing. It’s not the first time he’s had a drop.’

‘But he has four feet’, I objected.

‘He’s not drunk’, said Yvonne protectively. ‘He wants to say something.’ And indeed I too had the impression that the horse was struggling vainly to express something.

‘I didn’t know till to-day how beautiful life could be’, said the young entomologist. ‘If we could only live and let live.’

‘What did you do in the war?’ I asked.

‘Studied tropical insects’, he replied. ‘To prevent disease’, he added, as though in excuse.

‘I wrote’, I said, and hated myself again for it. Sleep was on its way, and the happiness was draining out of me like blood from a wound. ‘And you, monsieur?’ I asked the old refugee.

‘Ah, don’t let’s talk about it’, he said. ‘I don’t blame anybody. Not even myself. We’re just human beings. But it’s better to walk two thousand kilometres than to go on.’

‘Go on with what?’ I asked. But he did not reply. The star in his eye merely glowed more deeply.

‘Don’t think I don’t understand’, said the American earnestly. ‘I may be young, but I know what I am doing. A paper two or three pages long about disturbances in the digestive tract of a tropical insect may lead to anything: the discovery of a fatal disease; the cure for it; even the way to harness it to the forces of destruction. There’s a limit somewhere. After that science will have to be walled up. But a human being must go on. Otherwise it’s not worth while living. That’s what I think.’

‘What it is to be young’, I said.

‘But the boy is right’, sa1d the refugee. ‘Even philosophy can be used for destructive purposes. Yet a man must pursue his ideas to the bitter end. Otherwise he wouldn’t be human.’

‘Yes’, I said. ‘Even poetry can kill. We should have to throw everything overboard, if we refused to go on.’

‘Even wine?’ the driver asked in bewilderment. ‘It’s true, though. Sometimes I can’t help feeling that all the statesmen must be drunk. I’m thinking of my own country in particular’, he added pacifically. ‘No offence.’ At this point the horse lifted up its head, stretched its neck to its full extent, and uttered a neigh which resounded so powerfully through the little room that the walls of the bistro seemed on the point of collapsing like those of Jericho. We all gave a jump, and stared at the horse.

‘The horse is right’, I said. ‘There’s a time for everything, all good times come to an end, the fumes are evaporating and death is man’s only certain portion. I’m delightfully sleepy. Let’s go, darling.’

‘What, just when the party is going so well?’ complained the young American.

‘Sleep’, I said languidly. ‘Behind my eyes. In my stomach. Time to go to bed, Yvonne, my only dear one.’

The patron and the driver exchanged a meaning glance and laughed. Fortunately my American friend didn’t grasp the reason for their laughter. The driver saw my reproachful expression and said at once: ‘If you permit, madame, messieurs, I should be delighted to drive you to your hotel.’

Despite its powerful resistance we managed between us to drag the horse out through the narrow doorway. Out in the street it stretched its neck haughtily and neighed again. Unknown to us, a whole crowd of people had gathered outside the bistro to watch the course of events. We paid for the broken door. We went fifty-fifty. ‘Less than four dollars apiece, said the entomologist in genuine astonishment. The patron hurriedly took up a position outside the door, whence, with folded arms, he stared contemptuously over the heads of the crowd. The crowd, for its part, watched in respectful silence while the horse was manoeuvred between the shafts. The driver lowered the back-flap. ‘Madame, messieurs, if you please’, he urged.

‘I have been too much trouble already’, said the little grizzled man hesitantly. ‘But there is something I should very much like to ask of you. I should like to drive along the Champs-Elysées.’

‘Suits us’, said Yvonne readily. We lifted him up into the cart, and then helped each other up, in brotherly fashion. The driver put up the back-flap and slipped the iron bolt into position with a clank. Then he climbed up to his own seat and the horse moved forward with stiff solemnity, and with only the slightest slither of the hooves. At the corner of the Avenue Georges V and the Champs-Elysées it neighed for the third and last time.

We drove along the Champs-Elysées in the middle of an endless stream of hurrying motor-cars. Behind us the Arc de Triomphe glowed bluish-white. We leaned our elbows comfortably on the sides of the cart. We had a splendid view.

‘The reality is stranger than dreams’, said the refugee, wiping the tears unashamedly from his grey beard. ‘Even in my dreams I have not remembered that Paris is so beautiful.’

We passed the Rond Point. In the park, yellow bushes were bursting into flower. We saw cross old Clémenceau, tirelessly hurrying forward on his stone slab, the bronze horses rearing up on their hind legs on the Grand Palais roof; and the gilded sculptures on the bridge in the distance flashed sunlight at us. No-one to speak of glanced our way. The little refugee clutched his bundle of sacking under his arm.

‘I’ll take him to the barber’s, and buy him some better clothes’, the American suggested to me.

‘No, no’, said the little man anxiously. ‘The less I have of my own, the less there will be to lose. I have seen the Champs-Elysées once more. That is enough. Anything more would be superfluous.’

‘None of us have anything of our own’, I said in a sleepily argumentative tone. ‘It’s all just a loan. One day we’ll have to give it all up. Sooner or later. That much at least we’ve learned, I suppose the bombs have taught us. And then there’s the taxes. We’ve nothing that belongs to us any more, except our capacity for work!’

‘Bravo!’ said the American. ‘Long live the capacity for work!’

‘And hurrah for idleness’, I added. By the time we reached the Louvre and the bookstalls on the river bank I was sound asleep.


Some time the next morning I opened my eyes and felt very unhappy again. She was up already and was combing her hair abstractedly in front of the mirror. She was wearing a wine-coloured dressing-gown, made of corduroy. I was very fond of that dressing-gown.

‘I am the most miserable worm in creation’, I confessed in a weak voice. She came over and bent down to kiss me on the forehead, just by the left eyebrow. ‘You’ve had a good sleep’, she said.

The dream-dust had fallen from my eyes, as I looked into hers. But to me she would always be beautiful and lovable, although she was already middle-aged, stoutish and wrinkled about the eyes. ‘Rose, darling’, I asked her. ‘How have you managed to stand me for twenty whole years?’

She stood by my bed, stroked my hot brow with her long, beautiful fingers, smiled to herself and said, ‘Yesterday my name was Yvonne!’

I was so ashamed that the gall rose to my throat. But I pleaded: ‘You know very well that you are always Yvonne to me!’

‘And Gertrude’, she reminded me.

‘And Rose. And Mary. And Elisabeth’, I hastened to admit, to forestall awkward questions. ‘Don’t remind me of them. You know perfectly well that you are the one woman I have ever loved. The only one. In a way.’

‘Have you regretted?’ she asked.

‘Never’, I swore. I felt my spiritual equilibrium returning. ‘Only two or three times a day for the last twenty years or so. To tell you the truth, the only thing I have never regretted is that we married young. And you?’

‘Sometimes I could kill you’, she said, and stroked my throat with her finger-tips.

‘I can well believe it’, I conceded, yawning luxuriously and lying back to stretch myself.

‘And now?’ she asked. ‘Now that you’ve had a good sleep?’

‘Now?’ I pondered. ‘Now I should like to grow flowers in a little garden by the river. Quite a small garden and quite a narrow river would do. But we won’t grow anything there except flowers. And perhaps trees’, I added. ‘The main thing is, not to grow anything useful. There are far too many people growing useful things already. Someone has to think about the useless things as well.’

‘And what are we going to live on?’ she asked, with infuriating commonsense.

‘I shall do some writing from time to time, of course’, I said irritably.

‘More nonsense?’ she asked ironically. ‘You are quite good at that already.’

‘Of course’, I replied. ‘It’s not what you put on paper that counts, so much as what can be read between the lines. People are cleverer than we think.’

She rested her chin – both of them – on the palms of her hands, looked at me with all the gentle wisdom of her sex, and asked innocently: ‘Are we going to have a horse in our garden too?’

‘No’, I said firmly. ‘No more horses, I promise you.’ But I dared not look her in the eye. Instinctively, I had already begun to wonder how a kangaroo would look. That is, if ever I could get hold of one.

Translated by David Barrett


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