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“Rosen! You’ll get kept behind on Saturday! You won’t pass your exams by dreaming in class!”
Once again, Pluvinage, the maths teacher, would be taking up my whole Saturday afternoon. Mathematics has never been my strong point and I was a very average pupil. As for the exam, I never passed it. History, real History, decided otherwise. It was 1937. I used to like wandering through the streets of the little town where I was born. On the way to school, I would skip about, looking in the store windows, whistling with my nose in the air. As a child I was particularly fascinated by the butchers, with their early morning traffic of men dressed in long white aprons stained with fat, carrying heavy pieces of beef, pork and horse, streaked with blood, then crates full of rabbits, hens and other poultry clucking, gobbling, cackling and honking. In this way I stole from the storekeepers and craftsmen of the street images which made a great impression on my childhood imagination. As I grew up, I began to dare go into the backyards, put my head through the doors of the stores whose curtains hid their throbbing activity, those whose only outward marking was a rusty sign battered by the wind, and from which there emanated the sounds of various machines, the screams of a saw or drill, scraping and rubbing noises, an intriguing racket, accompanied by strange smells of wood, leather, oil, welding or ink.
It was actually at the printers where I usually spent my Thursday half-day holidays, if Pluvinage was not keeping me in to try to inculcate me a little learning, with no great hope of success, a few rules of geometry or arithmetic. I would sit in a corner of the workshop, trying to make myself invisible, and observe. A few months went by before old Mr Paulin said a word to me. He seemed to be made of ink: his pants, shirt and cap were black, his hands were black and the ink that had infiltrated beneath his fingernails and into the pores of his skin looked as if it would never come out. Only his lively, laughing eyes were a sparkling blue. The print store was dark, being at the back of a grubby little yard that bore the brunt of the North wind and the cold of that place. Then one day, old Mr Paulin took me by the arm and explained his profession to me. First he showed me the letter cases, all arranged identically, their layout, the type cases full of lead characters, in full, bold or italic. Then I discovered the composing stick and the galleys on which he set up the characters, altering the spaces to justify the text. He showed me proudly those marvellous objects whose age and origin were unknown to him. “My father left them to me, he had them from his father, we’ve been a family of printers for several generations. No idea since when. I bought some myself from Deberny & Peignot.” But what he was most proud of was his Linotype: a Mergenthaler bought by his father in 1890, one of the first that were sold in France. The whole world seemed to disappear when he sat at that machine that was all iron bars, levers, connecting rods, moulds and returns, and began to play on the blue, white and black keys of the keyboard, like a virtuoso at his grand piano. Finally, he let me see his papers, their weights, their thicknesses, their velvety quality. He kept them well out of the way of light and damp in the heavy wooden drawers of a vast antique chest.
Then the war started. I had to leave the town to join my battalion. We were very soon taken prisoner. We suffered four years of prisoner-of-war camp before we could return home. And then, what a huge shock: the town had been bombed to smithereens, ruins. It was impossible to make out where the streets, squares, buildings or avenues had been. Everything was a shamble. Only a few bits of wall were still standing, pierced by shell holes, forming a fragile lace of stone and wood. There was nothing left but great heaps of rubble. Everything had disappeared, crushed, salvaged or blown away... I wandered through this landscape of misery, trying to find my childhood haunts; our family house and the school had disappeared, as had the stores. I thought I could make out the foundations of some of those where I had spent so much time as a child. Then I started looking for the print store of old Mr Paulin. It took me a long time to find the little yard where it had been, amongst scattered stones, torn-off timbers and tangled beams. All that was left was the crushed chest where he used to carefully store his sheets of paper. The Linotype, the letter cases, the tools, the furniture, the paper cutter, the folding press... They had all disappeared. All I could salvage from a drawer in the chest were a few sheets of paper, precious vellum, the only tangible memory which the war has not stolen from me and which I have kept with the greatest of care ever since.
I never knew what had become of Paulin, or of Pluvinage for that matter, and I was never kept behind again. As for the exam, it was too late! All I had instead of a certificate was a precious piece of tatty paper, aged and dirty from the war and its atrocities but bearing nothing in the way of academic decorations, or signatures, honors, or grades.

Translated by Wendy Cross

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