Two days passed. I was treading water and tiring myself out. I couldn’t free myself, I was obsessed – Anne was going to trash our existence. I didn’t go looking for Salil, because he reassured me and gave me happiness and I didn’t want that. I just collapsed into questioning myself with impossible questions, remembering the before time, fearing the days that were to come. It was so hot – my room was shadowed, my shutters closed, but that wasn’t enough to drain away the heaviness, the stickiness in the air. It was unbearable. I stayed on my bed, head thrown back, eyes on the ceiling, barely moving and if I did, only to find a bit of cold sheet. I didn’t really sleep, I put the old digital radio on at the foot of the bed, found a synthwave channel, where they were playing their slow tracks, almost melody free, just a kind of beautiful rhythm. I smoked a lot. It was decadent, and I liked it. But all this playing around couldn’t distract me. I was still sad and disoriented.
One afternoon the cleaner knocked on my door and warned me with a mysterious tone that ‘There’s someone downstairs.’ Straightaway I thought of Sal. I went down, but it wasn’t him. It was Elsa. She warmly held my hands. I was surprised at how beautiful she looked. At last she had freckled all over, to the point where they overlapped so much you couldn’t make out individual freckles. Her skin was soft and she was just shining with youth.
– I’ve come to pick up my suitcases, she said. Juan bought me a few dresses to get me by, but I’ve decided it wasn’t enough.
I asked myself for a moment who Juan was, then remembered the South American from the Casino. I was really pleased to see Elsa – she brought with her the ambience of the good life, of bars and simple hangouts which reminded me of happier days. I said I was pleased to see her, and she said that we would always be friends because we had things in common. I hid a light shiver and suggested that we go to my room, so she could avoid meeting Anne and my father. When I mentioned him, she couldn’t suppress a little head movement and I thought – maybe she still loves him… even after everything that happened. I also thought that three weeks before I would never have noticed that little movement.
In my room, I listened to her talk with intense brightness about the mad social life that she’d been leading along the coast. I felt some vague ideas come to me, curious ideas, which were inspired by this new side to her. Finally she stopped talking about herself, maybe because of how quiet I was being. She took several steps around the room, and without looking round asked in a detached voice if Raymond was happy.
Immediately I felt something click, and I understood why. Crowds of ideas began mingling in my head, plans rose up, and I felt myself give in to the force of my arguments. Just as quickly I knew what I should say:
– Happy? That’s a joke, right? Anne never lets him think for himself. She’s very good.
– Very! sighed Elsa.
– You’ll never guess what she’s decided to do. She’s going to marry him.
Elsa looked at me, horrified.
– Marry him? Raymond… Raymond wants to get married?
A sudden need to laugh took me by the throat. My hands trembled. Elsa seemed completely lost at sea, as if I’d smacked her on the head. I couldn’t let her think, she might get the idea that it was due to his age, that he couldn’t spend his entire life with girls like her. I leaned forward and for impact I suddenly lowered my voice:
– It doesn’t have to happen, Elsa. He’s already in trouble. It just can’t happen, you understand?
– Yes, she said.
She appeared fascinated, which made me want to giggle and my trembling grew.
– I waited for you, I continued. Only you have the body to fight against Anne. Only you have the class.
She obviously wanted to believe me.
– But if he’s marrying her, he loves her, she objected.
– Come on, don’t give me any of that, I said, softly, It’s you that he loves, Elsa. And you know it.
I saw her eyelids flutter, and she turned away to hide how pleased she was, to hide the hope that I’d just injected into her. I was acting with a kind of giddiness, seeing clearly each thing I needed to say.
– It’s like this, I said. She gave him a taste of the balance of marriage, of a home, and a structured life. She’s hooked him.
My own words overwhelmed me… Because, in the end, it was my own feelings I was expressing, in a basic and dirty form no doubt, but they matched my thoughts.
– If the marriage happens, all three of our lives are destroyed, Elsa. My dad needs defending, he’s just a big kid… A big kid…
I repeated ‘a big kid’ with energy. I thought I’d gone a bit far, it was melodramatic. But Elsa’s beautiful green eyes were already misting over with pity. I finished it off like some kind of incantation:
– Help me, Elsa. I’m saying this for you, and my dad, for what you shared.
I finished it under my breath ‘and for peace on earth’.
– But what can I do? asked Elsa. It just seems impossible.
– If you think it’s impossible then give up, I said, my voice hoarse.
– What a bitch, she murmured.
– That’s exactly the word, I said, looking away from her this time.
Elsa was visibly reborn. She’d been ridiculed, and she was going to show her, the scheming woman, what Elsa Mackenbourg could do. And my dad loved her, she’d always known it. Three weeks hadn’t been long enough to forget his seduction. Without a doubt she wouldn’t talk to him about making a home together, but at least she wouldn’t bore him, wouldn’t even try to…
– Elsa, I said, because I couldn’t stand it any more, Go see Salil for me and ask him if you can stay there. He’ll arrange it with his mum. Tell him that I’ll come see him tomorrow morning. We’ll have a conversation, the three of us.
On the doorstep I added for a joke –
– Your destiny is at stake, Elsa
She nodded seriously as if, destiny-wise, she didn’t have fifteen or twenty men who would have waited on her, kept her happy. I watched her leave in the sunlight, her walk like a subtle dance. I gave it about a week before my dad would want to be with her again.
It was 15:30, at the moment he was probably sleeping in Anne’s arms. She would be satisfied, defeated, tipped over into the heat of pleasure, of happiness, and abandoned to sleep… I set about making my plans quickly, without stopping a moment to think about myself. I paced in my room uninterrupted, walking up to the window to glance at the perfectly calm sea rolling onto the beach, before turning back to the door, only to repeat the motion. I calculated, I estimated, and one by one I destroyed any objections – I’d never fully realised how agile thought can be, how it can leap around. I felt dangerously able, and the wave of disgust which swept me along, and had crashed into me when I first started to explain it to Elsa, was combined with a feeling of pride, of secret plotting. And loneliness.
All of that collapsed – do I even have to say it? – when we went for a swim. I trembled and felt so sorry when I saw Anne, I didn’t know how to make it up to her. I carried her bag, I hurried over to hand her a towel as she left the water. I overwhelmed her with attention and happy small talk – this rapid change, after the silence of the previous days, was a constant surprise, and even made her happy. My dad was made up. Anne thanked me with a smile, responded joyfully. And then I remembered the ‘what a bitch… That’s exactly the word’… How could I have accepted Elsa’s stupid opinions? Tomorrow, I would tell her she should leave, admitting that I’d made a big mistake. Everything would go back to how it was before, and I would pass my exam. It would probably be useful.
– Wouldn’t it?
I was speaking to Anne.
– Wouldn’t what be useful, your exam?
She looked at me then burst out laughing. I was chuckling too, just enjoying seeing her so happy.
– You are unbelievable, she said.
It was true – I was unbelievable, and even more so if she’d known what I’d planned to do. I almost died, I wanted to tell her so badly just how ridiculous I was being. Okay, I would say. I was going to throw Elsa into the drama – she was going to pretend to be in love with Salil. She would’ve lived at his house, we would’ve see them passing in the boat, met them in the woods, on the shore. Elsa is more beautiful than she ever was. Oh, of course she’s not quite as beautiful as you, but she is popular and shines and makes all the men stare, and some women too. Dad wouldn’t have put up with it for long, he’s never accepted one of his beautiful girls to move on so quickly and basically under his eyes. And even better, with a man younger than him. You see, Anne? How he would’ve fallen back for her straight away, even though he loves you. He’d have needed to reassure himself. He’s very vain, and unsure of himself, as you like it. Elsa, under my command, would’ve done whatever was necessary. One day he’d have cheated on you, and you’d never have stood for that, would you? You’re not one of those women who can share. So, you’d have left and that would have been exactly what I wanted. Yeah, it’s stupid, I wanted you gone because of Bergson and the heat – at least I thought so… I wouldn’t dare to talk to you about it openly, it’s abstract and ridiculous. All because of this exam, I fell out with you, my mum’s friend. Our friend. And, it is a useful thing, this exam – isn’t it?
– Isn’t it what? said Anne. Is your exam useful?
– Yes, I said.
After all, it was better not to say anything, she might not have understood. There were some things that Anne didn’t understand. I threw myself into the water in pursuit of my dad, wrestling with him, feeling again the enjoyment of just playing, of the water, of having nothing to hide. The next day I changed rooms, setting up in the attic with the books for my class. I mean, I didn’t take the Bergson, there’s no need to exaggerate. A good two hours of work, alone, with silent effort and the smell of biro and paper became: success in October, the impressed laughter of my dad, Anne’s approval, my certificate. I would be intelligent, cultivated and a bit detached, like Anne. Maybe I had intellectual potential… After all, I’d just formulated and put a logical plan into action in about five minutes. A disgusting plan, sure, but logical. And Elsa! I’d grabbed her by her vanity, her emotion, I’d realised her usefulness straightaway, and she’d only come by to pick up her suitcase. It was weird, anyway – I aimed at Elsa, and after I noticed her flaws, adjusted my shots before I spoke to her. For the first time I experienced the incredible pleasure of piercing into someone, uncovering them, bringing them into the light of day and after all that, touching them. Like someone searching for oil and carefully drilling here and there, but I’d tried to find someone’s ore veins and it had immediately worked. Bang. I wasn’t used to it, I’d always been too impulsive. Whenever I’d got to someone, it had always been by accident. I’d suddenly caught a glimpse of all the brilliant machinery of the human reflexes, all the power of language. It’s kind of a shame that I had to do it through lying. One day, I would love someone passionately and I would look for a path towards them, like this, carefully, with tenderness, my hands trembling…