I had chosen my seat well, facing the fountain and its thundering jets of water, set in the shade of the lime trees rocking their greenery under an immaculate sky. A wind from elsewhere, coming out of nowhere, got up as if to make me forget my sudden fatigue, a little breath from on high. I let the cool spread over my shoulders and tried to recall the recipe for the soup.
It was a misty day in my brain, and fog by the barrel in my worn-out neurons. Ideas unravelled as soon as they appeared, and there was no way of running after them; soup, yes, that was it, soup. Let’s see, a leek... in my basket, there it is, waiting. What else? Water, yes, of course, water, and salt as well, a pinch of coarse salt that rasps under your tooth like a sour raspberry seed. What else? The sun, that rotten sun right up over my head, has never done me any good, and today it’s worse than ever, it thumps against my reasoning and muddles up my memories. The soup, yes, that’s right, make the soup in advance.
A little poodle trotted towards me and determinedly coated my toes with saliva - disgusting - but how brazen! My support stockings were now gleaming with a translucent foam. Brandishing my stick in the direction of the dog dissuaded it once and for all from coming back to rub itself against me. It was only afterwards I recognized my neighbor’s precious pet, what’s she called, now? Here’s the fog coming back. Not being able to remember her name any more, when I’ve spent so much time chatting with her, in the rain or in a thunderstorm, on the way back from the market, on the way to church... My neighbor and her fortnightly perms, my neighbor and her perfect manicure. The soup, yes, that’s right, the soup.
My neighbor comes up to me - her poodle had left her miles behind - and waves some paper or other under my nose. The gold rims of her glasses shine in the sun like the haloes of saints in Medieval paintings, and her purple hair has the placid docility of cows gathered at the gates, in the countryside of my childhood. What a strange mixture. I hastily agree with her - that’s always the best thing to do to get rid of her, and fast! Find my thread again. The soup, yes, that’s it, the soup.
And I must think about getting on my way again; it’s still a long time till bedtime, there’s no question of lazing about in the sun when I have so much to do at home. And my husband waiting for me, no doubt dozing in his chair. The poor thing, what time did I leave? And what did I have to do when I got home? The soup, yes, that’s it, the soup. And go to the library first, to take this week’s books back. This time they were a disappointing lot, what with a book that was all yellowing, with page fifty-eight missing, and a romance as full of spelling mistakes as my garden is of bindweed (self-publishing, so my son says, what on earth is that?), in the end I dozed off. I’ll make up for it later and choose some better ones. Thank God, I can still see clearly; I can have a moment of escape before I sink into the meagre sleep people of my age get.
Be brave, my old body, you’ve got to unbend now and leave the kindly shade of the trees. Help yourself with the flat of your hand, stabilize your stick firmly on the ground, tense your arm muscles, put your faith in your declining powers, and here we are, standing up, or nearly. My basket, don’t forget my basket like I did last week. All this journey for nothing, going home and realising you’ve left your shopping bag under the bench, oh, I could have cried!
With careful little steps, hoping that standing up will get rid of the unravelling in my head, I leave my bench and my fountain. It seems to me that the world is continuously retreating as the years pass: this journey that I used to do in three careless strides when I was forty now takes me a good five minutes. I have reached the age of the snail, I have returned to the parallel world where loiterers and idlers compete for slowness. One foot in front of the other, I advance with caution, trusting the uneven pavement no more than the white stripes of the pedestrian crossings. Believing only in my precarious balance.
At last I walk through the front door. It closes again with a noise like a piston. My basket is getting heavier and heavier on my elbow.
He says “Good morning, Madam,” but what’s the matter with him, all of a sudden? It must be his sense of humour. I don’t let myself show any surprise and reply, “Hello, Raymond,” as usual.
Habits are really all that’s left when reality loses its density. So I cling on to them, to the hellos, the goodbyes, the tea in the morning and the soup for dinner. The soup, yes, the soup, to make in advance. Hello, Raymond - must not break with rituals.
An exclamation of surprise reaches my ears.
I feel as if the mist is now up to my eyes, or are my glasses distorting my vision? I must put down my basket. But where has the table gone? He must have moved it, him or somebody else, our son, perhaps? The result is rather pleasant, that’s true, an impression of space and modernity, all of a sudden, just by moving the kitchen table a few feet. We have some good ideas, these days.
But what is all this agitation in my house all of a sudden! People walking past and hurrying by, voices, the telephone, a hubbub, what’s going on?
Must not let myself get distracted and must keep my mind on my main idea. My basket. The soup, that’s it, the soup. I’ve got a leek, that’s the main thing. Its pungent smell, a mixture of chives and onion, takes me back to the kitchen garden of my earliest years, whisks me back to carrots to be pulled, asparagus just out of the ground and bunches of garlic to be twined under the indulgent eye of my mother, when our nostrils pricked with the smells of rags and salt. I was lively then, but the same ritual was already in place: the soup, yes, that’s it, the evening soup. The leek is firm, almost heavy in my palm. It is a deep, almost supernatural green, and the vertical alignment of its fibres, from the woody flounce at its base to its fraying end, is like my skin: ridged and hollowed.
I am looking for my pan, a knife, my chopping board. Everything has disappeared. I start to panic. Why has my son taken everything away? And what about my soup, then? He could at least have told me! His old mother, he knows very well I need familiar landmarks. How will I make my evening soup if they have stolen all my utensils?
Nothing. No reply.
“Raymond, answer, will you!”
I scream with fury, my leek in my hand.
Ah, there he is in the corridor. He’s walking very quickly for a man of his age. Maybe it’s my son? I don’t recognize him.
“But Mrs Tailor, what are you doing with that leek in our kitchenette? Did you get lost again in the library?”
My soup, yes that’s it, my soup.
Translated by Wendy Cross