In my earliest memories of my father, I can still see the little café in Helluin Alley and our table lit by the rays of the sun coming through the glass ceiling. Distant footsteps came, stood about and grew faint as they followed the comings and goings of passers-by, and they sound again in my ears with every invocation of my father’s image. Out of my memory there surges a woman in a flowered dress whose hem caressed her golden legs. Was it because of the vision of those legs, made even more beautiful by the high heels she wore, that I am entranced by every woman perched slightly higher than myself?
“Will you tell me a story, Daddy?”
That was my ten-year-old voice.
“A story about whom?” asked my father, sweeping the room with his gray expression.
“About that woman, over there, with the flowery dress.”
I pointed at her with my finger. My father gently pushed down my hand, murmuring,
“You see everything, don't you now.”
“And you’re so good at making things up...So, tell me, Daddy?"
She had come around nearer to us, and I noticed how young she was but it was my father who realized how sad she seemed to be.
* * *
I am sitting at that table in the Père Peinard Café, in Helluin Alley. I am sixty years old and I can hear my voice and that of my father as if it was yesterday, as if we were talking just behind me, sitting at our favorite table, with him drinking his wine, and me a hot chocolate thick enough to cover the spoon without sliding off when I shook it and raised it to my mouth. I am sixty. I am older than my father was the day he passed. I realize suddenly, there, under the glass ceiling, struck by seeing a flowered skirt on two elegant, long legs, that my father must already have been ill on the day of that conversation. The illness that carried him off two years later must have been lying low, on the lookout, ready to invade that fortress of stories, words and life that was him, at the slightest sign of weakness in the enemy.
And his voice, like a warrior in words that were soon vanquished, washes over me once more.
“Er, I don’t know...”
And my father started to gather in his mouth the story that was to come.
“She lost someone a long time ago.”
“And?” The wait was too long.
“And it destroyed her.”
“So she wore flowery dresses to pretend to be happy.” Sometimes I took part in the creation, but it was nevertheless my father who was best at this game.
“So much for the dress,” said my father. “She hasn’t been happy for a long time. But...”
I waited open-mouthed, my eyes glued to my father’s lips.
“But yesterday, in this alley, she saw someone who reminded her of a ghost from the past. She’s been wandering about ever since in the hope of seeing him again. It’s a good place for love to be reborn...”
“No what... ?”
“I don’t like that story,” I said, making a face.
“Well, let’s leave it then... We’ll offer her another one when she comes back.”
“How do you know she’ll come back?”
At that precise moment I had the feeling that an angel was passing. She had high heels, but made very little sound. The young woman went right down the old cobble stones of Helluin Alley, her head turned towards the windows of the old stores. She looked as if she was searching for someone. Dad was right. I hardly had time to finish my hot chocolate when she came back in the other direction, moving just as delicately, seeming to observe her reflection.
“Who would you like her to be? What do you see in her?”
“She’s sad, yes, but it’s because she’s seen someone who looks like her...”
“Oh, alright. So, she hasn’t got any family. Yesterday she came face to face with a woman who looked like her in every way.”
“Yes, a double!”
I was captivated once again. My father spoke for a long time. With my consent, he invented for her a life that would be pleasantly upset by the forthcoming reunion. Solenne, yes, she was called Solenne, in the end, born to an unknown father and mother almost twenty-five years earlier, had discovered she had a sister, whom she had met by chance in the oldest street in our town. She knew immediately that she looked like their mother...
I no longer really recall everything we said to each other that day. All our stories are mixed up in my head now. The only thing that mattered was the feeling of those moments. I didn’t know I loved my father so much, my storyteller father, my poet father, my wordsmith father... I close my eyes and see him, there, in the evening sun. Our drinks are long finished. We have to go home. The magic is over. Dad never invented stories at home; Mom thought it was a waste of time.
I followed the advice of my father, who always told me, “Look at the world, my boy, and if you don’t see anything... Look harder or invent.” I am a photographer, I have a keen eye, open to the world, but my untitled photographs always lack a text or word.
Translated by Wendy Cross