The Funicular Railway

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“And that featherbrained Diomedes 
Who smiles at the other stones, 
What does he know of how hard absence is?” 
Museum of Naples

We met four years ago. You, Noam, you were alone, like me. They suggested you share my table for dinner in the evenings. We very soon realized that we had common topics of interest. You liked literature and, from the beginning, your judgment seemed to me exceptionally perceptive. I can still remember now our deep and rewarding discussions on Greek philosophy.
We each spent the days pursuing our own activities, and met up in the evenings on the hotel terrace, shaded from the heat. For me these meetings brought a gentle delight and those special moments filled me with pleasure.
You held that western philosophy had its origins at Miletus. I maintained, on the other hand, that all those principles had needed to cross the ocean and encounter the continent to eventually become wisdom. Our debates isolated us from the rest of the world.

One languorous evening, our conversation strayed into the realms of the personal and you confided in me a curious story. I had just asked you why you were staying in that resort. Were you undergoing a spa treatment, like the majority of the hotel’s clients? You replied that you were not, and after a few seconds’ hesitation you told me that you were looking for someone. I must have looked surprised and you then continued, asking me to forgive you for bothering me with this story.
Two years earlier, you had come to this same hotel for a rest during the Easter vacation. You had come alone, seeking solitude so that you could work at writing an article on your trip to Cuba. One evening, you had gone for dinner to a restaurant in the town, I think I remember that it was a Russian restaurant. You wanted to experience the feeling of being alone in the midst of a crowd. When you had finished your meal, you were getting ready to pay and leave. A young woman came in at that point and looked all around, no doubt seeking a familiar face, a friend, perhaps. Her eyes met yours and you were never able to forget her from that moment: she was about thirty-five years old, blonde, with very long hair, a fine, straight nose, and an indescribable expression of the pain of love. That meeting had only lasted a few seconds, as she had rushed straight out and disappeared into the city night. You had been coming back doggedly for two years, using any leisure time you had, to try to find her again. Your quest was in vain, but you thought you would only find peace if you could meet her and speak to her: you hoped that one day she would be part of that ever-changing crowd constantly passing through the resort.
When you had finished your story, I smiled, slightly embarrassed, and explained to you the medical reasons which had brought me there: respiratory problems I had contracted in the Indian Ocean. The conversation then turned to our respective travels around the world...

A few days later, I decided for the first time to take the funicular railway that goes up to the Salon du Capucin. This was a swaying and wobbly but enjoyable experience; the two wooden carriages, with tiered seats, had been freshly repainted. The station, at the bottom of the steep slope, smelled of damp and darkness. I was the only person to get on board. I sat down, with my back to the incline, to enjoy the magnificent view of the valley, despite my pathological fear of heights.
The bell rang, the driver closed the safety gates on the carriages, and took up his place on the front platform. With a succession of creaks and grinding noises, I began to rise quite quickly towards the forest. The ascent must have taken ten minutes. Turning to look at the summit, I saw the carriages on the opposite line, which counterbalanced ours, coming down towards me. The two must pass each other halfway up the slope, at a place where the rails were doubled. Just before this manoeuvre, the mechanism slowed down, and the two trains moved gently aside and passed each other.
There were few people in the first carriage, just a smiling family with two children, excited by the abyss. In the second was a woman, no doubt a hiker, equipped for walking in the mountains. When the two trains were lined up precisely side by side, this young woman turned towards me and I prepared to smile back at her. Her face, framed by long blonde hair, was excessively serious, almost painful. I could not begin to describe it; I was totally absorbed by her gaze.

I immediately thought of the description you had given me, Noam. I was overwhelmed by this meeting at the edge of my vision. I stood up and approached the gate, but, like in a nightmare, the two trains were already drawing apart. I remained standing, my eyes fixed on her. She looked straight into my eyes for as long as possible.
I had met her. Who? I didn’t know. But I was sure, deep within myself, that this was the young woman you had told me you were searching for. Of course, there was now no question of me visiting the Capucin plateau. I had only one desire, to get back down again as fast as possible and try to find her. I waited at the upper station for an hour, during which time my desire to speak to her, to breathe her breath, grew infinitely greater. I hoped passionately that she was waiting for me at the bottom, that we would be able to walk around the town together for a while. I even thought of inviting her to a Russian restaurant, yes, a Russian one...
When the train stopped at the bottom of the slope, the room was empty. I asked the man who sold the tickets. Yes, a young woman had indeed come down, she seemed rather emotional, she had hesitated for a few moments, then left hastily.
I walked back to the hotel, had no lunch, and spent the rest of the day lying on my bed, haunted by that face.

In the evening I did not tell you about that meeting and tried to cut our evening short. You asked me if I was alright. I said I did not feel well and returned to my room. I packed and the following day I left the hotel without leaving you any message. That was four years ago, Noam. Four years that I have been coming back to this resort, trying not to cross your path, and you must be wondering what has happened to me since my sudden disappearance. You are right, Noam, no doubt she will reappear one day. Our quest is personal and hard for others to understand, however familiar it might appear: I have a secret hope of finding that young woman. Before you do.

Translated by Wendy Cross

51

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