Everyone knows, because they have heard them, usually in the course of a conversation with friends, those famous urban legends that spread like wildfire, evolving over time and through the part of the world where they originate. The arrival of the Internet has helped develop the phenomenon, and the gullibility of Internet users often imbues them with an air of absolute truth – like in the past a printed phrase was full of authority in the eyes of many readers.
One of my favourite urban legends is not about a violent crime or a horrifying drama, nor does it concern a situation where one hilarious event causes a chain reaction of comic unlikeliness. It is in fact quite simple, but in its sobriety so revealing of human nature that I cannot resist the pleasure of making it my own, and telling it with my own words.
The very involuntary heroine of this tale is a woman, who I imagine to be around fifty, a chic kind of woman who might live in Versailles, belonging to the twinset and pearls brigade: her clothes are simple but of expensive good quality, typical of her background, a tartan below-the-knee skirt, flat-heeled loafers, a navy blue or bottle green coat and a plain, practical handbag, which she wears across her body.
She finds herself having to wait for a connecting train, in the railway station of a big city – Paris or Bordeaux, perhaps. She has an hour to fill, it is rather cold, and she decides to go to the station buffet and have a bite to eat. At the self-service counter, she chooses soup, which is handed to her, steaming, by the attendant in a white overall. She places the boiling bowl on her tray, which she slides along the rounded rails to get it to the cash-desk. Ignoring the drinks and desserts, she hands over the sum requested then grips her tray firmly with both hands, looks all round the almost empty room and makes her way to a table that is awaiting her between two bench seats.
She puts down her tray, slides the strap of her bag over her head and puts the bag next to her. She sighs with pleasure and looks down at her bowl. And realises that she has forgotten to get any cutlery, or rather, a spoon. Another sigh, this time of irritation. She gets up and goes to the cash-desk where a few items of cutlery are standing in a suitable container, for absent-minded people like herself. She takes out a spoon, checks its cleanliness with an expert eye, then goes back to her abandoned soup.
There, a surprise awaits her: a man is now sitting on the seat opposite. He is a tall black man, getting on in years, pepper-and-salt hair, and a face marked by time. In a glance she takes in his poor clothing, clues that point to his being a recent immigrant and the hungry look about him. And then her gazed focusses on his hand, which is holding firmly a spoon made of wood – obviously his own personal spoon – which he is preparing to dip into the bowl of soup!
Our good lady then pauses. She hesitates. Should she get rid of the intruder? He does not look like a bad person, and she is always preaching Christian charity in her parish church, where she is a diligent member of the congregation. Perhaps it is time to practise some generosity.
Then her eyes meet those of the man, and to her great surprise, she sees in them a calm assurance. He even smiles at her, before plunging his spoon into the soup and drinking it greedily.
He’s got a cheek, that one, thinks our churchgoer, whom we will call Bernadette, as she looks as if she would have a rather old-fashioned first name, a classic name evoking her religion, her upbringing and the old values.
As she herself is not the type to be easily intimidated, she sits down opposite the food-stealer (or should I say the bowl squatter) and in her turn plunges her spoon into the soup and her eyes into the black eyes facing hers. A little gleam of challenge glimmers in her own eyes, which are rather pretty and quite devoid of timidity. This gleam clearly means “I am prepared to share, my friend, but let me remind you that this soup was first meant for me”.
Opposite her, the man gives a little half-surprised, half-amused smile and nods his head imperceptibly in her direction before taking another spoonful of soup, with the same assurance. We will call him Brahim, because he looks as if he comes from a Muslim country, with the face of a patriarch, a wise old man who would participate in the village council with ease.
Not a word is exchanged between our two heroes. They dip their respective spoons in turn into the bowl until the last drop of soup has disappeared.
Bernadette feels slightly thrilled at experiencing a rare humanitarian adventure and is already imagining herself telling her family and friends. She will say that it all happened quite naturally, and conclude that if everyone accepted the idea of sharing with the poorest, the world would no doubt be a rather better place.
At this stage in her thoughts, she sees Brahim wipe his wooden spoon carefully, put it in a large bag, then get up and lean slightly towards her, before turning his back and leaving. He is soon out of sight.
Bernadette remains thoughtful for a few seconds, then also gets ready to leave. She turns round for her handbag, which she clearly remembers putting on the seat before she went to look for a spoon. But there is nothing on the seat. Surprised, she bends over, looks under the table and under the other seat… The bag has disappeared and along with it the renewed feeling of faith in humanity with which our heroine was glowing.
“What an idiot I am!” she says to herself, striking her forehead.
How could she have trusted that… that… well, that gentleman of colour who was behaving so strangely? I’ve been taken for a ride, that’s the truth, she says to herself with disappointment. It was too good a story. He must be having a good laugh now.
Fortunately, the place is almost deserted, because Bernadette would not have been able to bear pitying or even mocking looks from other people. She does not like to be caught out. She is a very strong woman who is not easily taken in. In future she will be more careful. End of story.
She gets up, already thinking of the problems she will have because of the loss of her papers and her train ticket. Her gaze sweeps the room. And suddenly freezes.
There, two tables away, is a bowl of soup still slightly steaming on an apparently abandoned tray.
And on the seat, with its strap hanging, is a handbag.
Translated by Wendy Cross