At the End of the Corridor

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Outside, the night is already licking at the sloping roofs of the houses. Inside, the blue birds are criss-crossing in exuberant and familiar arabesques on the yellowing wallpaper. 
By the orangey light of the lamp, the child is reading. She is reading with her little eyes and with her little hands she is turning pages upon pages, which she drinks in avidly in the soft warmth of that bed, of that bedroom, of that pink town where each time her childhood rediscovers that warm, sweet taste that is too soon forgotten. Her little brother is asleep close by, alone in his restlessness. The child waits patiently, serene and warmed by what awaits her.
Soon she will come.
While she waits, the pages turn, the lamp crackles, and the dark of the sky swallows up the roofs outside like a friendly, greedy monster. The child likes that shiver running through her, because she knows that this moment will not last long, and that it will all end happily.
Soon she will come.
At the other end of the corridor, Nicky is tidying her kitchen. She is tired, it has been a long day. But her grandchildren are there, and she rarely sees them. It’s not every day she feels useful and cherished.
She carefully puts the earthenware dishes away in the big painted wooden cupboard, like she has always done, and for so long. Her heart swelling, she can see once more countless other occasions when she has had to put order back into that kitchen after a family meal. Loulou is still everywhere in the apartment. The smell of his pipe has permeated the fabric of the walls, the Louis Armstrong trumpet still sounds around the chaise longue, near the bookcase. She thinks about their children, so determinedly caught up in their respective and distant lives. She thinks about her eldest daughter, the one who worries her the most. It is her children who are now waiting under the sheets at the end of the corridor. She will come back and fetch them when things have calmed down, when everything has got back to normal. That’s what she said.
It really has been a long day.

The child closes her book and puts it on the little wooden table. On the other side of the window the outside world has disappeared, and on the walls, the blue birds are beginning a disturbing dance. There are too many of them, and they tell the beginnings of too many stories in which nightmares could take root. Her little sleeping brother has turned towards the lamp and seems calmer now.
She should come now, it’s time she did.
From the other end of the corridor, the familiar noise is at last heard, rhythmic and marvellous. One after the other, the heels are placed softly on the chequerboard lino, with two regular notes, one of which is invariably more muffled than the other: “Tip... tap... tip... tap...” It grows slowly nearer. The vague shape gradually becomes sharper behind the bumpy glass of the door, and the outline of Nicky can at last be made out. The door opens.
“Are you alright, my dear?”
“Yes, Grandma! I’ve finished my book.”
“That’s good! You’ll ruin your eyes reading in this light. Is your brother asleep already?” 
“Yes! Are you closing the shutter?”
“Yes, it’s time.”
Nicky turns round and goes up to the window with a swaying gait, between the blue birds which have suddenly become reassuring again. She pulls on the strap of the old shutter, which creaks as it gently masks the shadows of the sloping roofs. Her hips are wide and rounded. Her blonde, lifeless curls, carefully set and lacquered, have not moved since this morning. 
She comes back to the bed with a smile of infinite kindness. 
“Good night, my dear.”
“Good night, Grandma!”
Nicky’s wrinkled hand with the rounded, polished nails rests on the child’s head. Her powdered cheek presses against the one which, pure and warm, is already impregnated with the smell of new sheets. A lipstick kiss, and she goes out, closing the door in the blink of an eye.

The child wraps herself up and holds her breath so as not to miss anything of the last part of the ritual.
The heels take up again their rhythmic lullaby on the linoleum: “tip... tap... tip... tap...” The crown of curls is already melting behind the bumpy glass of the door, her contours are fading, the silhouette is slowly growing smaller. Soon, she is nothing more than a point which disappears, just as the muted clicking of her heels fades away.
At the end of the corridor, the light goes out. It is now completely dark in the bedroom where the blue birds have been tamed. The child lets herself slip into a trusting sleep, wrapped in the delicious certainty that the magic moment will take place again the next day.

Nicky returns to her bedroom at the other end of the corridor. She takes off her dressing gown, folds it and places it carefully on the velvet-covered chair by her bed. An indulgent look in the mirror and she gets into bed, humming an old jazz tune imprinted on her memory, thinking of her grandchildren for whom she feels so much tenderness, and almost as much worry. 
As she puts out the light, she thinks, as she does every night, that she can see Loulou’s shadow slipping beneath the flower-covered sheets. She recalls the time when it was their own children who slept in the room with the blue birds. It seems so long ago. It went past so quickly. 
Her eyes close over these fragile memories, and, like every evening, her hand holds tightly the hand of the absent man who is no longer lying beside her.

Translated by Wendy Cross

49

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