Authors: Francoise Sagan
A novel by
JOHN MURRAY ALBEMARLE STREET, W.1.
First published in Great Britain 1960
© Françoise Sagan 1959
English translation © 1960 by John Murray (Publishers) Ltd., London, and E. P. Dutton & Co., Inc., New York Printed in Great Britain by Butler & Tanner Ltd., Frome and London
gazed at her face in the mirror and studied the accumulated defeats of thirty-nine years, one by one, not with the panic, the acrimony usual at such times but with a detached calm. As though the tepid skin, which her two fingers plucked now and then to accentuate a wrinkle or bring out a shadow, belonged to someone else, to another Paule passionately concerned with her beauty and battling with the transition from young to youngish woman: a woman she scarcely recognised. She had stationed herself at this mirror to kill time only to discover— she smiled at the thought—that time was gradually, painlessly killing her, aiming its blows at an appearance she knew had been loved.
Roger was due at nine; it was now seven she had plenty of time. Time to lie back on her bed with her eyes shut, to think of nothing. To give way. To relax. But what was so engrossing, so taxing about her days as to warrant rest in the evenings? And well she knew this uneasy listlessness which drove her from room to room, window to window. It belonged to the wet days of her childhood.
She went into the bathroom and bent down to feel the water in the bath, and suddenly the gesture reminded her of another . . . Nearly fifteen years before. She was with Marc, they were spending their holidays together for the second year running and already she felt it couldn't last. They were on Marc's sailing-boat; the sail fluttered in the wind like an uncertain heart; she was twenty-five. And suddenly she had felt overcome by happiness, accepting everything in her life, accepting the world, realising in a flash that everything was fine. And to hide her face she had bent over the gunwale, trying to dip her fingers in the racing water. The little craft had heeled over; Marc had given her one of those dead-pan looks he was so good at and, inside her, happiness had at once been replaced by a sense of irony. Of course, she had been happy afterwards, with or by means of others, but never in the same total, irreplaceable manner. And in the final analysis it was like looking back on a broken promise.
* * *
Roger was coming; she would explain to him; she would try to explain to him. He would say: "Yes, of course," with the particular satisfaction he invariably showed in laying bare life's impostures, a real enthusiasm for expatiating on the absurdity of existence, of their stubbornness in prolonging it. Only, in him all this was compensated by boundless vitality, keen appetites and, at bottom, a vast natural contentment which only sleep interrupted. Then he would drop off at a moment's notice, hand over heart, as attentive to his life in sleeping as in waking. No, she could not explain to Roger that she was tired, that she could stand no more of this freedom imposed like a law between them, this freedom of which he alone availed himself and which for her represented mere loneliness; she could not tell him that sometimes she felt like one of those ruthless, possessive females whom he so hated. Abruptly her deserted flat struck her as odious and useless.
At nine o'clock Roger rang and, opening the door, finding him there, smiling and rather massive, she told herself resignedly, all over again, that here was her fate and she loved it. He took her in his arms.
"What a wonderful dress you're wearing . . . I've missed you. Are you alone?"
"Yes. Come in."
Are you alone
... ? Suppose she had answered: "No, you've picked the wrong time"? But in six years she never had. He still asked and occasionally apologised for disturbing her, exhibiting a guile which pained her more than his inconstancy. (He could not even admit the possibility of her being lonely and unhappy because of him.) She smiled at him. He opened a bottle, poured two drinks, sat down.
"Come over here next to me, Paule. Where would you like us to eat?"
She sat next to him. He too looked tired. He took her hand and squeezed it.
"I'm up to my neck in problems," he said. "The business world is crazy, people are too stupid and spineless for words. Oh, for a quiet country life . . ."
"You'd be lost without your Quai-de-Bercy and your warehouses and your lorries. And your long nights in Paris . . ."
At this final phrase he smiled, stretched and flopped out on the divan. She did not turn. She looked at the hand he had left in hers; a broad, open hand. She was familiar with
bit of him, his thick, sleeked-down hair, the exact expression of his somewhat prominent blue eyes, the curve of his mouth. She knew him by heart.
''While we're on the subject," he said, "while we're on the subject of my midnight orgies, I was run in like a hoodlum the other evening. I'd got into a brawl. Me... in my forties ... taken round to the station. I ask you!"
"What were you fighting about?"
"I can't remember. But the other fellow got the worst of it."
And as though the memory of this show of strength had given him new life, he leapt from the divan.
"I know where we'll go," he said. "The Piemontias. Afterwards we'll go dancing. If you're ready to allow I can dance."
"You don't dance," said Paule, "you shuffle."
"That isn't everyone's opinion."
"If you're referring to the poor young things you enslave," said Paule, "that is another matter."
They laughed. Roger's little adventures were a great joke between them. Paule leaned against the wall for a moment before reaching for the banister. She felt thoroughly dejected.
In Roger's car, she absent-mindedly switched on the radio. For a second she caught a glimpse of her hand, long and beautifully kept, by the wan light of the dashboard. The veins stood out on the back, campaigning up towards the fingers, mingling in an irregular pattern. Like a picture of my life, she thought, then at once reflected that the picture was a false one. She had a job she liked, a past she could look back on without regrets, good friends. And a lasting alliance. She turned to Roger.
"How many times have I done this before— turned on your car radio as you've driven me off to dinner?"
"I couldn't say."
He shot her a sidelong glance. Despite the passage of time and his certainty of her love for him, he remained astonishingly sensitive to her moods, always on the alert. Just as in the early days. She checked a "Do you remember?" and decided to keep close watch on her sentimentality for the rest of the evening.
"Does the action feel stale?"
"No. It's I who feel a bit stale at times."
He reached towards her; she clasped his hand in hers. He was driving fast, the familiar streets raced beneath the car, Paris shone with autumn rain. He laughed.
"I wonder what makes me drive so fast? I'm afraid it's a case of acting young."
She did not answer. He had been acting young for as long as she had known him. It was only lately he had confessed as much, and this very confession scared her. She was becoming increasingly scared of the rôle of confidante into which—from fondness, understanding—she was slipping. He was her life, he was forgetting the fact and she was helping him to forget it, with commendable self-effacement.
They dined quietly, discussing the worries which were bound to arise in a road transport concern like Roger's, then she told him two or three amusing anecdotes about the shops she was decorating. One of Fath's customers was crying out for her to make something of her flat. An American, fairly rich.
"Van den Besh?" said Roger. "That rings a bell. Oh yes . . ."
She raised her eyebrows. He wore the sprightly look which memories of a certain category always aroused in him.
"I used to know her in the old days. Before the war, I'm afraid. She was always dining in 'Florence's'."
"Since when, she's been married and divorced and all the rest of it."
"Ah yes," he said dreamily, "her name was, er . . ."
He was beginning to get on her nerves. She had a sudden desire to dig her fork into the palm of his hand.
"Her Christian name is of no concern to me," she said. "I believe she has a fair bit of money and no taste. Exactly what I need to keep the wolf from the door."
"How old is she?"
"In her sixties," she said coldly, and seeing Roger's expression she burst out laughing. He leaned across the table and looked her in the eyes.
"You're perfectly horrible. You go out of your way to depress me. I love you just the same, but I shouldn't."
He liked making out he was hard done by. She sighed.
"Anyway, I'm calling on her tomorrow. Avenue Kléber. I'm getting alarmingly short of money. And so are you," she added briskly as his hand moved upwards.
"Let's talk about something else," he said. "Let's go and dance for a while."
In the night club, they sat at a small table far from the floor and watched the procession of faces without a word. She held his hand in hers, she felt perfectly secure, perfectly attuned to him. The effort of getting to know someone new would be altogether beyond her, and she derived a doleful happiness from this conviction. They danced. He held her firmly, advancing the length of the floor without rhythm, looking very pleased with himself. She was very happy.
Later they drove back, he got out of the car and took her in his arms in the porchway.
"I'll let you sleep. See you tomorrow, darling."
He kissed her lightly and drove off. She waved her hand. He was letting her sleep more and more often. Her flat was empty and she meticulously arranged her things before sitting down on the bed with tears in her eyes. She was alone again tonight, and her life to come appeared to her as a long succession of lonely nights, in sheets which would never be rumpled, in the unimpeachable dullness of a long convalescence. In bed, she reached out instinctively as though there were a warm flank to touch, she breathed softly as though for fear of waking somebody—man or child. Anyone who needed her, needed her warmth awake and asleep. But nobody really needed her. Roger, perhaps, on and off . . . But not really. Not in the purely physiological, passion-free way in which she had sometimes known need. She brooded gently, bitterly on her loneliness.
* * *
Roger parked his car outside his door and walked for some time. He took deep breaths and gradually lengthened his stride. He felt good. He felt good whenever he saw Paule, he loved no one but her. Only, tonight as he was leaving her he had sensed her sadness and had not known what to say. That she was confusedly asking him for something, something which he could not give her, which he had never been able to give anyone, he knew well enough. No doubt he should have stayed and made love to her; that was still the best way of reassuring a woman. But he had a hankering to stretch his legs, roam the streets, go prowling. He had a hankering to hear the sound of his footsteps on the pavement, to watch over this town he knew so well, maybe to catch its late-night windfalls. He made for the lights down by the river.
woke dog-tired and late, and left in a rush. She had to call on that American on her way to the office. At ten o'clock she entered a half-empty drawing-room in the Avenue Kléber and, since the lady of the house was still asleep, quietly went over her make-up in front of the mirror. It was in the mirror she saw Simon coming. He was wearing an outsize dressing-gown; he was tousled and strikingly handsome. Not my type, she thought, still without turning, and she smiled at herself for a moment. He was very slim, very dark, with limpid eyes— rather lanky.
He did not see her at first and made for the window, humming to himself. She coughed and he turned guiltily towards her. For a moment she thought this must be Mrs. Van den Besh's latest fancy.
"I beg your pardon," he said, "I didn't see you. I'm Simon Van den Besh."
"Your mother asked me to call in this morning and take a look at her flat. I'm afraid I've roused the whole household."
"Ah well, one has to get up sooner or later," he said sadly. And she thought with weariness: he's the whimpering kind.
"Do sit down," he said, solemnly seating himself opposite her and pulling his dressing-gown closer about him.