nice car, spoil your children – and your friends, added Danièle. You’d get a new wardrobe, you’d go round the Paris boutiques, you wouldn’t think twice about the expense, and, well, if you felt guilty you could always make a donation to cancer research. Or multiple sclerosis, or whatever. I shrugged my shoulders. I can do that without winning the lottery, I said. Yes, but it’s not the same thing, they replied. Not the same thing at all. You can’t . . .
A customer came in, and that shut us up; made us stifle our laughter.
She looked without much interest at handles for bags, tried the feel of one in her hand, then she turned round and asked me how Jo was now. I reassured her and thanked her.
I hope he liked my waistcoat, she said. The green one with wooden buttons. And then she started to sob and told me that her grown-up daughter was in hospital dying of the horrible flu that was going round. I don’t know what to do, what to say to her. You use such lovely words in your blog, Jo, what can I say to her when I say goodbye? Can you give me some words? Please.
Danièle and Françoise disappeared. Even if they’d had eighteen million euros, even if we’d all had eighteen million euros, still we’d have nothing, face to face with this mother.
When we got to the hospital, her grown-up daughter had been moved to intensive care.
I ’d hidden the cheque under the insole of an old shoe.
Sometimes, at night, I’d wait for Jo to start snoring before getting out of bed, tiptoeing over to the wardrobe, putting my hand into my shoe and taking out the paper treasure. Then I’d lock myself in the bathroom, sit down on the lavatory lid, unfold the cheque and look at it.
The figures made my head spin.
On my eighteenth birthday, Papa had given me the equivalent of two thousand five hundred euros. That’s a lot of money, he’d said. You could use it to pay the deposit on an apartment, you could take a nice holiday, you could buy all the books on fashion you want, or a little second-hand car if you’d prefer that. And I had felt rich. I realise now that I was rich in his confidence, which is the greatest wealth of all.
A cliché, I know. But it is true.
Before he had the stroke that has imprisoned him ever since in a loop of six minutes of the present, he worked for over twenty years in the ADMC, the chemicals factory in Tilloy-lès-Mofflaines, four kilometres from Arras. He supervised the manufacture of didecyl ammonium chloride and glutaraldehyde. Maman made sure that he took a shower as soon as he got home. Papa smiled, and accepted her insistence with good grace. While glutaraldehyde was indeed soluble in water, the same couldn’t be said of didecyl ammonium chloride. But the tomatoes we grew never turned blue, our eggs did not explode and no tentacles grew on our backs. Obviously good Marseille soap worked miracles.
Maman taught drawing to primary-school classes, and took a life class at the Museum of Fine Art on Wednesday evenings. She had a wonderful way with a pencil. Our family did not have a photo album but a notebook full of drawings. My childhood was like a work of art. Maman was beautiful, and Papa loved her.
I look at that damn cheque, and I can sense it looking back at me.
I know that you can never do enough for your parents, and by the time you’re aware of that it’s too late. To Romain, I’m only a phone number stored in his mobile, some memories of holidays in Bray-Dunes and a few Sundays at the Bay of Somme. He doesn’t indulge me, just as I didn’t indulge my parents. We always pass on our faults. With Nadine it’s different. She doesn’t talk, she gives. It’s up to us to decipher her message. To receive it. Since last Christmas she’s been sending me her little films from London over the Internet.
The latest is a minute long.
There’s only one shot, and some rather violent zoom effects. You see an old woman standing on a platform at Victoria Station. She has