Flying Artichokes

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131

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The roar of a moped outside the utility room. The engine stops; the Father is back. In the kitchen where the mother and little girl are, the atmosphere, calm up to that moment, undergoes a subtle shift. The mother hurries to drain the artichokes, the finishing touch to the evening meal. The table is already set. The little girl is waiting...
Tall, stylish, stocky, the Father makes His entrance. The vast room is at once filled with His presence. The little girl rushes up to kiss Him. He returns her kiss then gives her mother a peck on the cheek, before going off to the bedroom to change. He seems to be in a good mood tonight. Even though it’s Wednesday, artichoke day...
He comes back in a vest and sits down on a chair by the cooker, where a vegetable soup is simmering. As He undoes the laces of his ankle boots, the little girl watches Him. The Father is gasping for breath a lot tonight and He seems gloomier than when He first arrived, as if the warmth of the room had slightly dejected Him. After a few moments, He finally puts on his slippers which had been laid out for Him near the chair, stands up and goes to take His bottle of red wine from the refrigerator. They are going to be able to sit down to dinner.

While eating and drinking His wine, the Father, sitting at the end of the table, talks in a monologue. From time to time, the women respond to him, carefully. Sometimes, during the silences, they take the risk of making harmless remarks in a deliberately light-hearted tone. But suddenly the Father’s voice swells up to say to the little girl, “I couldn’t care less if this sideboard has pink nails in it!”
Taken aback for a second, the little girl feels giggles rising up inside her with the force of a huge surf wave. She is laughing so much deep inside herself that she can’t swallow any more. She bites her cheeks so as not to burst, especially as, opposite her, her mother is also struggling not to laugh, while looking at her sternly and subtly shaking her head... But the Father is addressing the little girl once more:
“I know, ‘s not phisolo... pholiso....”
“Philosophy, Dad”, shouts the little girl, who lets out a great liberating laugh all the while watching carefully for the reaction of the Father. He stares at her for a moment rather suspiciously, finally smiling and saying,
“Yeah, that’s right, ‘s phisolo... Well, I couldn’t give a damn about it!”

The meal continues, the artichokes are eaten, they get as far as dessert... Suddenly, a remark from the mother triggers an explosion. The Father pushes back the heavy table violently, shouting, the bottle of wine falls over, the glasses clink against each other, the soup tureen is smashed to smithereens, silverware falls to the floor; then, as could be expected, the dish containing the leaves from the artichokes they have eaten is shattered against the enamel sink, releasing its contents as it falls, scattering them across the room. The mother cries and shouts; the Father insults her, calling her a madwoman-who-ought-to-be-locked-up-in-Saint-Anne’s-Hospital, “I was so stupid to leave my wife and children for you!”

The little girl is transfixed, she feels guilty, and nauseous too. Suddenly, she can bear it no longer and dashes into the toilet in the utility room. Leaning over the bowl, she vomits and cries at the same time, while, in the kitchen, shouting competes with the sound of blows.

Then comes the respite. When the little girl returns, the Father is sitting in His place, looking stunned. The mother, still trembling, is busy putting everything straight again, before turning to do the washing up. She signals to the little girl to go to bed. The little girl kisses the Father’s muscled arm as she goes past – “Night, Daddy...” – then goes to take refuge in her bed. Not to sleep, no, she doesn’t feel like sleeping, but to read in secret, with her head under the blankets, one of the cartoon books about Kit Carson the fur trapper, that Jacky, the neighbor’s son, has lent her; these are almost the first books she has ever had that were not from school... She is happy, she has a great pile of them!

There’s a noise in the passage leading to the bedrooms; the little girl’s stomach contracts. She quickly turns off her torch. It’s her mother bringing her some herbal tea. After she leaves, the little girl tries to go to sleep, but she feels increasingly anxious: what if the Father was thinking of leaving them, her and her mother? Tonight, He has mentioned packing His bags yet again...

The following morning, she is woken by shouting. It’s her mother. As usual, she is reading the riot act to the Father. When the little girl comes into the kitchen, He is standing, wearing a vest, in front of the big open window that looks over the kitchen garden. The Father was born in the mountains, He likes the fresh air. For the moment, He is smoking a Marlboro and listening in silence, with that shamefaced expression that makes the little girl want to take Him in her arms. In any case, today will be a good day, but tomorrow... Tomorrow is Sunday, and on Sunday the Father goes to Mass. He likes to go to confess His sins of the week to the Lord and then go and have a drink – or even several – in honor of He who has just given Him absolution...

Today, that little girl is forty years old. Her Father has been gone a long time, felled by cancer. She misses him: the reassuring heat of his big body, his humor, his teasing, his childlike laughter at Tex Avery cartoons, his way of accompanying music by tapping the rhythm with a spoon, or any other utensil within his reach, on the kitchen table, or of whistling jazz tunes or songs wholeheartedly, his love of words, lengthy texts and the dictionary (“Work, knowledge!”, he used to drum into the little girl), their complicity...
She strove to find him in all the men who passed through her life. Men who only functioned with beer or pure malt whiskey; men who had a taste for flying artichokes...

Translated by Wendy Cross

131

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