Granny Vitamin, everybody knew her at the Gare du Nord. You couldn’t miss her. She looked amazing. Dresses with bright coloured flowers or patterns in the summer, coats and colourful boots in the winter, made her stand out in that mass of grey and black worn by the hurrying passengers. Another distinguishing feature was a spiral-bound notebook held tightly to her chest, which she never let go of. Along with that, a jovial expression, an ever-present smile, and boundless energy which had given rise to her nickname. Chatty, no doubt about it. But her generous occupation made up for that: she helped people who were lost to find the right platform. Her behaviour and manner were sufficiently unusual to make her a popular figure with travellers passing through and with station employees. Except me. And Giuseppe.
Until that Tuesday.
Giuseppe, nicknamed Pepe, was another regular. The old Italian, who had sat like a statue on that bench on platform 35 of the Gare du Nord, had been part of the furniture for years. With his right hand always gripping a mysterious object in his trouser pocket, he waited for the 18.37 train from nine o’clock in the morning, Monday to Friday, silent and stone-faced. Until the moment when the locomotive from Valmondois – Paris Nord entered the station at the end of the day. In an instant, the block of granite he had resembled for almost ten hours was transformed into an albatross, standing on his bench, with his arms raised high, his body light despite the weight of his seventy years. Then, when all the passengers had left the platform, he would sit down in the same place, once more mute and bent. Rumour had it that he was waiting for his wife who had gone off to live with a great painter, in the hope that she would come back to him after so many years. As punctual as a Swiss clock made in Japan, he would leave on the dot of seven o’clock, his hand still tensed in his pocket. I had watched him many times, hoping he would reveal that object which must be precious to be so carefully guarded. In vain. The man was so solitary and closed that soon I decided there was no point. I left Pepe to his own devices.
Until that Tuesday.
One year ago, to the day.
Summer was just beginning. The railway company had decided to take advantage of the holidays to freshen up the Gare du Nord and in particular platform 35, so dear to Giuseppe. They had placed notices on every walkway and concourse for the past month, but Pepe had not read any of them. When he discovered the ropes barring the entrance to ‘his’ platform, that morning, the seventy-year-old had waved his arms in the air in consternation. Noticing the distress of the familiar figure, a member of the station staff had directed him to the information hall to find the right platform. The old man was incapable of speaking to strangers, and had gone round in circles several times in that sad room before sitting down on a bench, weary and lost.
On that day, Granny Vitamin did not have a minute to call her own. What with all the work going on, lots of people were getting lost. She loved rushing about between those great walls but she was no longer twenty years old. As she returned to the waiting room, she was tired. Fortunately, most of the people had been polite. She was making her way, smiling, towards her bench, the one in the middle, when she saw Giuseppe. Hunched and motionless.
She had gone up to him and tried to get him to talk. He remained silent. She had tried making faces, a gentle push, some light pinches, but there was nothing doing. Giuseppe had remained as still as a statue, gazing into the distance. So she had resorted to her secret weapon, idle chatter. This was a proven method. By this means, the stubborn old lady always opened up the silent ones in the end, as they became very irritated by all that pointless verbiage. So she had talked to herself, fully resolved to achieve her aim.
It is not known at what precise moment in the monologue Giuseppe had come out of his torpor but he had finally looked at her. That was when he noticed the spiral-bound notebook. Suddenly, his whole behaviour changed. He had stood up at once and pointed at the precious notebook with extravagant gestures of his arms. Granny Vitamin had hesitated. Seeing her confused expression, Giuseppe had produced his most convincing argument. The treasure he kept in his trouser pocket. The secret that had made me wonder so much.
An HB pencil.
With no further thought, she had opened her pages to him. They were blank. Nothing had ever been written on that thick paper. First he had drawn a platform. The precise place where he sat every day. The bench was perfect. Then he had drawn himself, motionless and silent, before lending her his pencil. She had written the story contained in the old man’s sketches. On the following page, he had explained his distress. In her italic script, she had reassured him, “I will take you back to your platform.” On the fifth page, the last drawing of the day was a sun above the bench where they were sitting, accompanied by three words: “See you tomorrow”.
Over the following days, they had met again at the same place. They had continued with their method of communicating. One drawing, the other writing, between them blackening the spiral-bound notebook whose pages they had carefully numbered. On page 45, Giuseppe had drawn Granny Vitamin’s face for the first time. She had coloured in two red dots on the cheeks of her portrait. She was touched. He had drawn a heart. Further on, two sets of lips and two hands touching filled the last page. In pretty feminine handwriting, the words “To be continued?” questioned the last drawing. There was no room left for Giuseppe to sketch out his answer.
The day after that meeting, I had been assigned to the waiting room for suburban trains by my line manager. Like I did every night at three o’clock in the morning, I was picking up rubbish, changing bin-bags, hosing down the benches, when I saw the spiral-bound notebook. My first instinct was to put it in the bin. Well, I dropped it and it fell open at the first page. When I saw the drawings and the pretty writing, I decided to take it home.
Ever since then, I have returned to that bench every day with the aim of giving them back that wonderful testimony to their meeting, and, I admit, to find out what happened next. In vain. I never saw Granny Vitamin and Giuseppe again in that precinct. Until today. One year later, to the day. On the terrace of a café. He was drawing, she was writing. When I saw them like that so close together and concentrating so hard, I did not dare disturb them. I went to find a waiter in the bar and asked him to give them the lost notebook. Then I went out and watched them admiringly from the opposite pavement. Giuseppe and Granny Vitamin were radiant. I smiled and slipped away. Those two had found each other after so many years. In the sunshine of that July morning, the hope of true love was being born in me again. I ran to buy a spiral-bound notebook. Soon, I too will find my HB pencil.
Translated by Wendy Cross