The Old Woman With the Orange Hat

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96

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Raoul Larigote had turned nasty after drinking and not only because he drank nasty wine. No, he did not like being disturbed, that was all. Especially as he was in his own home. In the street, maybe, but in his own home. For two years he had jealously defended his little piece of the embankment under the arches of Abbé Rézina Bridge, which he had fitted out with random objects, well sheltered from draughts between his wall of dustbins taken from the surrounding streets and the big bramble bush where he picked blackberries in summer. Two years of spending every afternoon sleeping off his first bender of the day before going back out to beg when the offices emptied. So who was this old biddy who was waking him up by poking him with the end of her stick?
The growly bear deep within Raoul could easily have knocked her out with a blow of its paw before toppling her into the muddy waters of the river but the thing was, the old woman was smiling. Under her funny orange hat, she had a very round face, a real moon-like face with two shining, mischievous eyes and a smile that could melt the hardest heart. And his heart, Raoul’s heart, had begun to dance to a new beat. Not that he had lost his senses - on the contrary! Rather, he had gone into slow motion, like the rhythm of the backwash of the waves breaking gently on the beach when the sea is calm. Because of that smile. Somewhere deep down inside him, very deep down, years away from his present status of tramp, this contraction of a few muscles around a mouth had touched a part of his being which he had thought lost, gone forever, drowned in litres of booze, tons of regrets and accumulated rancour. Because that smile was the smile of his mother, who had died of sorrow long ago, when all that crap had landed her in prison, and she had left him in the street to turn into the flotsam he was today.
Suddenly, Raoul was ashamed of his ancient shoes with gaping soles, his hands which had not seen a washbasin for days, those food tins that he used as plates... of his whole life that he had let slide out of laziness or cowardice. For the first time in many years, he felt tears run down the creases in the dirt covering his cheeks, and all the bad things he had just been thinking about were washed away by that flood of tears, vanishing to make way for the happy memories that had punctuated his life. And there were so many of them. All those images mingled in a flash of color and swirled in a strange and giddying merry-go-round that intoxicated him more than the best wine. It was a marvellous kaleidoscope of happiness and joy. Raoul Larigote would never have thought he could have been so happy during his existence and that was how he left it, with a smile on his lips. Died of natural causes, was how the next day’s papers put it.
Back home, the old woman with the orange hat turned on her computer to look up the next name she has received at her address, friend@death.com. 

Translated by Wendy Cross

96

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