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The Japanese straw was black with nicotine right up to the ceiling mouldings. It was so worn in places that it revealed the former pattern, previously covered up. The building dated from 1902. Generations of tenants had followed each other, each one putting up his wallpaper without ever removing the previous one. A hundred years later this residue of paper, paint and glue had formed a mass as thick as plaster and as hard as dried resin.
We did not have the money to get a company in to do the refurbishment. In every room, we had to unstick these dead skins, tear out the recalcitrant layers with our fingernails, and scratch off with a knife the rough patches that clung like limpets to a rock.
Every era has its own fashion. The Japanese straw of the last decade covered the orange colors of the nineteen seventies, behind which appeared the floral compositions of the post-war boom, then the pre-war borders, right back to the fussy Art Nouveau interlacing, almost erased by time. We were the archaeologists who attributed an age to each stratum, as we progressed down into the depths of the tufa.
For weeks we had to sand down to the original plaster, to where the workmen concerned had signed by hand and in large letters ‘Terrave and Anglet’, on the living-room wall. Then it had to be smoothed, and all the dust removed from those silent, arrogant walls, as high as cathedrals.
There is no more thankless task than stripping wallpaper. The further this exhausting work progresses, the more discouraging the sight of it becomes. The ground is covered with strips lying there like old wet newspapers, which you slide over wherever you walk. The disfigured walls are infected by a galloping leprosy, the light fades, ugliness takes over the room a little more with each inch.
Angry and with my arms aching, I used all the curses in my repertoire on the souls of those lazy bums who had successively strutted around their comfortable little interiors over a whole century.
One evening, when I was hand sanding the section where our entry-phone was, I had the most touching of surprises, and no doubt the most moving of rewards.
He was probably a builder, a workman who worked on the construction site of the building. I was looking at his face in profile, sketched freehand with a piece of charcoal, on the plaster he had doubtless spread himself.
His peaked hat, worn over one eye in the fashion of the time, bore the popular nickname Gugusse, inscribed in a flowing script on the ribbon. The line of a moustache, long sideburns, a little cigarette-end stuck to his lip, all gave him the roguish look of a character in Zola. He had a French-style nose, the bridge well-defined, not too large, somewhat nonchalant, and crinkly eyes which you could tell laughed a lot. How old was he? Twenty, twenty-five, no more. Gugusse, Gustave, Auguste, Augustin perhaps, all first names in use at the beginning of the twentieth century.
With his hand on his hip, and his smooth talking, he must have got more than one young girl onto the dance floor at the local social club. How many of them did he kiss, whispering in their ears as many lies as he downed glasses of beer at the rowdy bar?
Gugusse. What did he do with his life after the day he drew his own mugshot, standing near the door, as little piles of ash fell from his cigarette to the ground. How many years, eras, and wars left him there, sealed into oblivion? Did he even exist in someone’s memory?
Then, with the tips of my fingers, I brushed his face to remove the dust without erasing the drawing. I traced a black rectangle around the sketch, and a few days later, painted the wall all around that, thereby giving him a little frame created by my own hand.
Gugusse, who had brought into being the place where I lived. I in turn had brought him back into the light. We were forever linked.
Every morning when I left the apartment, I walked past him. As a rather jealous little guy, he murmured to me to be good. When I came home, he would whisper a soft good evening to me through his lips that were always clamped to his little bit of cigarette. Whenever the entry-phone rang, he would perform his little inspection for me. He was the unmoving and jovial personal god of our family, the protector of our comings and goings, a kindly witness to our story within those walls he had fashioned so long ago now and where he had waited for me for so many years.
One day, we had to leave the 1902 apartment where we had left so much sweat and of which we had become so proud. I had to leave Gugusse behind, as I could not take him with me. The new owner had his own plans to turn our rooms with fireplaces into a modern loft, to the plan of a British designer.
I wanted to meet this stylish decorator, and I asked him to leave Gugusse alone. “Please.” He listened to me, moved and interested, touched by his story, and promised he would take great care of him.
I returned one year later to enquire after Gugusse. I missed him a lot and he must have thought I had forgotten him.
The owner recognized me. He opened the door to me; I recognized nothing of what had been our world. He first offered me some tea in a vast red living-room with tartan curtains. Then he had me walk through long corridors with floor-level lighting like in a cinema. He showed me a laboratory-style kitchen, designed all in one piece, and a succession of mezzanine floors in teak. He introduced me to his highly-prized abstract paintings, his bonsai trees, his collections of driftwood.
At last I located the piece of wall where our entry-phone had been. It was completely repainted in gray lacquer, to tone with the brushed aluminium wall lights and the oatmeal wool rugs, thrown with false artlessness over the parquet floor.

Translated by Wendy Cross

479

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