My brother Marco was there, as arranged. He was smoking a cigarette, leaning on the handlebars of his 103. He gave Tony his helmet and patted his shoulder solemnly, as if to wish him good luck. I unlocked my MBK, trying to make as little noise as possible. Marco came up to me and handed me the rucksack with the water and sandwiches he had made us. He said “be careful” and disappeared into the night.
We got on our bikes and set off. Tony had been working out the itinerary for the past ten days, in the darkness of our dormitory. First we had to drive round Paris; that was the most difficult part. But Tony was determined, and I would have followed him with my eyes closed.
The gray suburbs stretched interminably before us. There were already quite a few people about, people who had to go to work very early. That was what awaited us, Tony and me, after school. And even that was the best we could hope for, now that we were sure to get kicked out of school. We didn’t care, it was not important. If the worst came to the worst, we would go back to our barges and be fishermen like our parents. We would have to see.
We drove for a long time before dismal buildings and shopping malls gave way to countryside. It was cold and I still felt groggy with sleep. But deep down, I had that overwhelming sense of freedom, that heady sensation of the moment when you realize you are doing exactly what you must do, that you are on the right track. I knew Tony was feeling the same, maybe even more strongly than me. After all, it was he who had decided to go and find Amélie. I was only following. I would never have let him go alone.
It was ten days since Amélie had stopped coming to the refectory. She had disappeared from one day to the next. We all knew her home life was complicated, but this was really worrying. And no-one told us anything, as if it was none of our business. Then her friend Séverine had finally let it out and the story had spread like a bad smell. Tony had hardly closed his eyes since then; he had spent all the following nights with his road map and his torch, scarcely hidden under his sheets,.
Now we were alone, on National Road 4. Isolated in our helmets, we could not speak to each other. We had only one idea in our heads: that every hour that went past and every mile we swallowed up brought us closer to Amélie.
At about two o’clock, we stopped somewhere near Vitry-le-François. I got the sandwichs out of the bag and Tony took off his helmet. He was dishevelled, his face red and moist. Had he been crying or was it because of the icy wind stinging our faces? I did not dare ask. We chomped on the white bread and warm pâté. We drank a mouthful of water, each in turn, straight from the bottle. And then we set off again.
It was beginning to get very hot. The road whizzing by made me feel sleepy. Plane trees, gate houses, mile markers. Signs at the entrance to villages we had never heard of, which we passed through as if flying. The hours stretched out as if this journey was never to come to an end.
In Baccarat we immediately found the inn where Marco had a friend from his military service days, Seb, who was waiting for us. It was at the end of an alley lined with closed stores, their windows glittering with small glass objects. Isabelle made us very welcome; she had made spaghetti in a cream sauce. All four of us ate in the big, empty dining-room. Seb made conversation; he told us about his memories of being in the army with Marco. Isabelle drank a little too much wine. They asked about our journey, and what we were looking for exactly. I don’t know why, but at that moment Tony opened up completely about Amélie. The fact that she never wanted to go home, back to the boat, at weekends. Her tears, in the girls’ dormitory, that Séverine had told us about. Her stepfather in the night, the whole disgusting story. The trial which would surely take place in a few months’ time. It was strange for me to hear Tony’s serious and slow voice, after all those hours of silence. Seb pushed back his plate. Isabelle cleared the table, averting her eyes. We spent the night in a room they could not use for guests because of a leak under the sink.
The next day, we set off before they woke, on an empty stomach. It was cold, and I had not slept well. The landscape became more and more hilly; now it was not far to the Vosges. We passed through villages with unpronounceable names and geraniums at the windows. The last hours of the journey seemed to go by ever more slowly. At last, the tower of Strasbourg cathedral decided to make its appearance.
We followed the sign for Illkirch, where the barge belonging to Amélie’s aunt was moored somewhere on the canal. We drove along by the green water and the swans sliding peacefully over it. There was the barge, immobile among the weeping willows.
We parked the bikes and climbed down. Amélie was on deck, hanging white sheets to dry in the sun. We took off our helmets as she turned round. I tried to see Tony’s expression but he was looking straight at Amélie. And she, when she recognised him, she smiled that magnificent, heartrending smile. A great fissure that would finally let in the light.
Translated by Wendy Cross