[Editors’ Note: Clarisse Francillon was awarded a special prize in 1943 by the Swiss Schiller Foundation. This story was published by the foundation as a “novella” in 1944.]
“The burgundy is more dressy, but the navy, of course…”
Rita tilted the mirror. The woman placed her foot on the ground and the suede strips crossed over her thin ankle. From the front, from the side, she examined the shoe’s reflection, she raised her heel, she couldn’t decide. Obviously, the navy…. “It’s always pretty,” said Rita.
An avalanche of new shoes cluttered up the carpet, shoe boxes were stacked to the ceiling of the boutique, and over on the glass shelves sat one embroidered pump, a pair of white leather boots, and some special fur-lined slippers. Seated at the edge of the stool which was meant to support a client’s foot, Rita tilted her head from left to right. “It depends on how you want to use them,” she said. “Naturally, with burgundy accessories…” and she truly seemed to be thinking of nothing else but giving the woman the right advice, guiding her toward a difficult decision, listening to the story of a dyed purse, of heels that were too high, so tiring for any walking, it was like she was listening to the story of an entire life. In truth, she was thinking of Cully, of the party, of Jean-Pierre. And of the floral-print dress she’d laid out on the bed before leaving, would she have time to iron it? “Go with how you feel,” she concluded.
A blue calfskin shoe covered the left foot of the customer, on the right she wore a brick-colored sandal. “In terms of quality, they’re the same,” said Rita. She was starting to feel her patience fade. These women who certainly had six mornings to themselves, six afternoons as well, they found nothing better to do with their time than come shopping on a Saturday, ten minutes before closing, and the store had been empty all day, and then most of the time they stood up and left, saying they wanted to think about it. But no, this one here made up her mind.
“We also sell the care products for our shoes,” said Rita.
“I have what I need, thank you.”
“You have what you need,” Rita repeated while the woman wrapped herself in her coat, opened her purse. She was thinking that at this time of day the shop girls are less friendly than they are at other times. Rita stood up. The metal shoehorn glinted from where it hung at her belt over her shiny apron. “Perfect, thank you,” she said, machine-like, and she pressed the buttons of the cash register. Hopefully no one at home had borrowed the iron she’d placed on the oven, and though she might get splashes on her light nylons on the way home, her hair always curled so much nicer in this damp weather.
“Six, seven, and ten make seventy,” she said, counting the money back into the woman’s gloved hand, then she held out the sac and opened the door. “Goodbye, Madam, thank you very much.” She looked quickly down the street. On Saturdays the shops closed earlier than other days.
“But will he think of it?” she wondered. “Will he really think of it?” she asked herself again while she straightened the shoe boxes, the pots, the soft flannel cloths, and another salesgirl, halfway up a ladder, put the boxes back where they belonged. They began to clean the raspberry-colored carpet and a puff of dust tickled their throats. In the cloakroom, Rita raised her two arms to unbutton her long round-collared work blouse. “What a storm! It won’t be fun to run all over Cully in such horrible weather!” she said to her friend Yvette. But in reality, she was not worried at all for the party. She waited on the doorstep, she shook out her umbrella. Without waiting for Yvette, she crossed the road trying not to look like she was looking for someone, and in case she didn’t see anyone, trying not to look too disappointed.
But quickly she saw him, standing on the sidewalk, just across from the employee’s exit. Very tall. His head was above all the moving domes of green, red, and gray umbrellas. He said, simply, “What weather!” Wet drops covered his felt hat. “Oh, yes, it’s awful” Rita said, and just like the other evenings of the week, the two of them fell in step side by side.
The street was animated, filled with a feeling of festiveness and the slight fever of a Saturday evening. Girls were ducking under the hoods of their coats, boys were stuffing their hands into the pockets of their raincoats. The shopkeepers were lowering thick curtains in front of the shop windows. “But some shops stay open later, don’t they?” asked the man walking with Rita.
It was last week, about ten days ago, that he came and tried on a pair of chestnut-colored shoes, with rubber soles, a high-quality article, well-stitched. “Would you like to see another model?” Rita offered, seated on the edge of her stool, but he decided right away, what he saw suited him perfectly. So wouldn’t it be useless to unwrap more stock? His old black shoe looked suddenly tired, inferior, as he slipped his foot back into it by himself. “A slightly tighter knot, please, Miss.” He smiled. He didn’t want a box, just a paper bag. Next to the windowed door, he smiled again. As if he and Rita were old friends, satisfied with each other. Several hours later when Rita saw him standing in the middle of the sidewalk, facing the employee exit, she understood right away: he was waiting for her. She also understood that he hadn’t smiled earlier only because he’d been happy with his purchase. She blushed. He raised his hat. “Would you allow me to walk with you a moment?” She did not say yes, she did not say no. She stretched her lipsticked mouth into a small smile. They did not speak that time until Rita stopped just before her house. Then he said his name was Walter Stoll, that it was written with two “L”s. Another evening he took a business card from his pocket: “Just hold on to this.” Then he added, “Goodbye, Miss, and enjoy your supper.”
Now it was Saturday. Brightly lit signs threw their reflections along the sidewalks. Would they cover the dance floor tonight in Cully? Rita would find a whole group of friends this evening: Paulette, Jean-Pierre, even that girl Marguerite who’d annoyed her so much at the Forsythia Ball. The way she spoke quietly to Jean-Pierre, explaining that her parents lived in La Broye, “We’re farmers,” she was telling him. But right now Rita was walking in town next to Walter Stoll. A newspaperman had his signs out beside a marble wall. Above his dirty cap could be seen satin housedresses on wax dolls with rounded eyebrows, perfect hands. A nearly autumnal fog floated lightly around the plane trees of the plaza.
And for the first time, Walter Stoll asked her, “Couldn’t we go get a drink or something? If you’ll let me invite you?”
Respectfully spoken, a little hesitant, very different from Jean-Pierre’s dry, rough tones. Or maybe it was his faint accent that gave his words their slight solemnity? They were about to melt into the middle of the crowd, pulled along by everyone heading down and hurrying to the lower part of the city or the station. To the left and to the right, pigskin suitcases rushed by alongside baskets of celery root, a blue shirt. Suddenly Rita lost sight of her companion; she turned around. He’d stopped in front of a shop window, behind her by a few meters.
He asked, “Do you like them?”
He motioned to some earrings lined up on a plate between little fabric fruits and a pair of enameled unicorns. “You don’t have any, I believe.”
She answered quickly, “No, no, no, I don’t want any.”
“It’s the fashion, isn’t it?”
“I don’t need any,” she said.
But he was already pushing on the shop door. “We can always try them on, we don’t have to buy them.” A shopgirl with painted fingernails laid the clip-ons onto a square of velvet: wild roses, a pink heart surrounded by a chain, cream-colored seashells with light gold gilding.
The shopgirl lifted one pair up, brought it toward Rita’s face. “These ones, for example…there’s a mirror behind you, Madam.”
“A little big,” said Rita.
“Everyone’s wearing them big this year, you’ll see, you get used to them.”
“I’ll think about it, I’ll see…”
“Why though?” Stoll interrupted. “These suit you, go ahead and take them.”
There was a slight impatience in his voice. He must hate hesitations. He got out his wallet. Rita had seen as they’d come in that the earrings were ten francs each. He must know it as well. Nevertheless, she wasn’t sure what was happening, she didn’t look again at the shopgirl who opened her notebook, who was figuring the tax on the price and who, unlike herself, must have understood completely. The tip of an umbrella swayed, the toe of a man’s shoe scraped. What would Jean-Pierre think of this? The door traced out a semi-circle on the linoleum. “Look, it’s raining much less now,” Rita said, feeling embarrassed and finding nothing else to say.
A street musician on his folding stool began to play a song and it seemed as though the passersby unconsciously altered their step, started walking in time, dancing. “And now, how about we get a drink?” Rita thought that soon she wouldn’t have much time to iron her dress. But oh well. She didn’t want to turn Stoll down. Because of the earrings. Not only because of the earrings. The revolving door of a bar turned. She ordered a coffee.
“And a vermouth for me,” ordered Stoll. He took off his jacket, his scarf; he was wearing a herringbone suit. On Rita’s fingers hung the little package tied up with a mauve-colored string.
Stoll asked, “The other day when I asked to walk with you, what did you really think?”
“A bit too cheeky?” he continued. “Admit it.”
The ceiling lamps gave a harsh light to the room. There were hats and newspapers strewn about, and on each table a plastic package of savory pastry twists.
“But,” said Stoll, “as long as you weren’t angry.” He smoothed his shiny oiled black hair with the palm of his hand. They were brought their drinks and little sugar cubes in a small metal dish.
Stoll said, “A man gets rather lonely in a city in the evening, you see. Spending the whole day on business, you see, but the evening… so if there’s a chance to meet a nice lady…”
To Rita’s ears the words “nice lady” sounded rather disagreeable. Like an old woman, walking slowly, with a black purse, and not a young woman of twenty who was sometimes positively thrilled to be alive, and sometimes so sad. She glanced again at the package of earrings.
“I wanted to thank you,” she said. “You shouldn’t have, you know,” she continued, shy. Even if it wasn’t so long ago her friend Evelyn was telling her that one needed to know how make men pay. A habit just like another.
“If you like them, then I’m happy,” said Stoll.
He took a sip of his vermouth. Sounds of voices, of dishes, and on the palm-tree decorated stage, the stand of a silent double bass. Was she going to the ball in Cully tonight in a wrinkled dress? She felt a certain regret. Not because of Jean-Pierre, no. Jean-Pierre wouldn’t even notice. He said, and this was the last word on it, not before we’re married and that’s it. That was how he was. But Rita liked her clothing carefully ironed, pressed.
Stoll asked, “Have you been working a long time at Herrand?”
And suddenly Rita caught the scent of autumn and new wine; she remembered the cotton scarf she had wrapped around her head when she helped with the harvest. That evening at the fountain as she’d been washing out her bucket and her heavy studded shoes, a young man with wide-set blue eyes, slightly daydreamer eyes, had come toward her on the Bastian’s paved walk. She still remembered his checked shirt sticking out from under his sweater vest. Louis Bastian had carried the brante1 all day; as usual he’d been joking: “Now that you’re working at Herrands, will the whole family get their shoes for free?” But Rita watched the other young man coming down the walk. Eyelashes, eyebrows, his hair frosted with wood shavings, and she’d learned his name was Jean-Pierre Perrot, that he’d come to help with pressing the grapes.
“It’ll be two years this fall,” she answered Stoll.
“Already? You seem so young,” he said.
He worked for a refrigerator company. He traveled all over the country, often staying in Lausanne—which he said was a nice city with comfortable hotels. He took a catalogue from his pocket, flyers on shiny paper, on which a young woman with a look of delight was putting a chicken and a packet of butter into what looked like a white cupboard. “Appliances that sell. Especially in the summer.”
He also went to private homes. Sometimes people shut the door in his face, but most often he was able to intimidate people. Here was a good way to intimidate people, “Has Dr. Schmidt been to see you?” he would ask the surprised housewives. Taking advantage of their surprise, he stepped inside. Of course, the famous Dr. Schmidt had not ever existed. Stoll laughed. A gold tooth.
“I have to get going,” Rita said.
Just as she stepped through the revolving door, she understood that she was out of time, she wouldn’t have even a minute to quickly iron her clothes. She and Evelyn couldn’t be late to the dance, making everyone wait, especially not Jean-Pierre, who was so quick to be angry, and already he didn’t like Evelyn very much. Rita slipped her closed umbrella beneath her arm. She said, “I think your Dr. Schmidt story is very funny.”
Stoll asked, “Listen, couldn’t we go out somewhere this evening?”
“No, I’m not free.”
“To the movies, or to hear some music?”
“It won’t work.”
They were walking side by side again. The rain had stopped. A great gust of wind swept the slate gray clouds between the rooftops. In Cully the dance floor would be wet but they’d be dancing beneath an open sky.
“I’m going out with a friend,” said Rita.
“And we couldn’t go out with your friend together?”
Rita wondered why Evelyn always said that Swiss Germans were slow and stingy. If he was offering to take them both, didn’t that mean he would pay for them, too? Evelyn had been married to a Swiss German, she pretended to know all about them. “We’re going to a dance in Cully,” said Rita.
“I don’t know how to dance,” said Stoll.
Rita said, “But that doesn’t matter,” and all of a sudden she realized that not only was it crazy to say this, it was also kind of a betrayal of Jean-Pierre. She remembered how difficult she’d been last spring after the Forsythia Ball. Jean-Pierre had told her that Marguerite—she was the girl who brought milk around to some of the families in Cully—came into the kitchen when he was having the 10 o’clock with his bosses. But Marguerite never took the tea offered, she drank only water and not even in a cup: from the tap, her hands cupped after washing them carefully.
Rita thought that Marguerite came around for the 10 o’clock so she could see Jean-Pierre, and that rinsing one’s hands wasn’t anything special, nothing to get worked up about…
Thinking on this now made Rita feel a bit ashamed. She watched Stoll’s silhouette framed in the middle of the front door, then it disappeared. “Good, I’ll wait for you here at 8 o’clock,” Stoll had said. Rita remained still a moment. She caught her breath. Above the row of identical letterboxes the stenciled fresco—with its scratches and scrapes and coal marks—was peeling away. Already from the landing, Rita heard the clicking of the sewing machine.
Near the kitchen window, Madame Giroux was sewing a fleece shirt. From the window catch, a lamp with an enamel lampshade hung from a cord. She raised her eyes to her daughter then lowered them again to her work. Steam rose from the pot, next to the iron which was warming itself on the little blue flames. “I won’t have time anymore,” Rita said. She turned the handle.
“Well worth wasting the gas, then,” said her mother. Then she asked, “You’ve been to the hairdresser?”
A waxed cloth covered the table. Rita took the spoons from the drawer, placed them near the soup plates. She was thinking of what had just happened downstairs, in front of the letterboxes when Stoll had suddenly taken her shoulders, he’d pressed them tightly, he’d leaned down. She had turned her lips away; a man’s mouth landed in the middle of her ear. The memory of his kiss resounded in her ear, gave her a troubled and deaf joy. “I didn’t go to the hairdresser,” she said.
“It looks like it.”
“It’s because I put curlers.”
Standing in a corner of the room, Monsieur Giroux was exchanging his muddy shoes for his felt slippers. He balanced a moment on one foot, examining his daughter. The wheel of the sewing machine stopped: Madame Giroux raised the foot, knotted the thread. With her back to the room, she stared at the foggy windows between the checked curtains. They needed washing. “Because I’m going dancing in Cully tonight,” Rita said.
She poured the soup over slices of whole wheat bread. Now free, the flame turned green and curled, fringed with yellow. “It’s incredible how bad this gas is.”
“And they don’t charge less for it.” Monsieur Giroux placed his military knife on the table. He was stubborn about never using the kitchen knives. He clicked his tongue against his palate, several times. “It tastes odd.”
“No,” said Madame Giroux, “That’s just what you think.”
“Already downstairs, I smelled it burning. I smelled it all the way from the Place de Milan.”
“You say that every time we have millet.”
Rita dipped the handle of her spoon into the salt tin. And of course, it was better not to argue this evening but everything her father was saying exasperated her, she couldn’t help herself.
“If this is what you call millet,” he growled through his teeth.
In front of the stove, Madame Giroux stirred her pot. She said a person could be thankful to have something to eat in the midst of all the misfortune in this world, then she mumbled something else, and Monsieur Giroux responded something else. With her elbow on the table and without seeming to, Rita blocked her ears. It was her trick. A way not to hear anything when her father was grumbling. And of course Monsieur Giroux never went to the café, he didn’t play Jass, no one had seen him drunk, but he grumbled. Before, when Rita and her brother dried the dishes, if one or the other broke a plate, the father’s hand would rise, hit one or the other without hesitation. Now that the children were grown up, it was the soup. If it wasn’t the soup, it was family subsidies or the banking secret. When Rita released her thumb, the potatoes were steaming, two hands were tossing the salad with its store-bought dressing. Footsteps on the landing. No doubt Evelyn, looking quietly for her lock, and on the guise of turning on the light, Madame Giroux opened the door, then closed it.
“A beige-colored coat, a new one,” she whispered.
“No,” said Rita. “She’s had that one already.”
Madame Giroux shrugged her shoulders. “Must be thrifty,” and she watched her daughter getting up, carrying the tea pot.
In her room, which was nothing but an alcove off the kitchen, Rita slipped out of her skirt. On the window was hanging her printed dress, light caramel colored, the one Jean-Pierre liked so much. Because even a carpenter can appreciate a well-dressed girl… but why didn’t Rita feel any real remorse about Jean-Pierre? I must be horribly mean, she thought, untying her shoes. With a bit of damp towel, she washed her neck, her arms, she brushed the cloth across her breasts. Imagine some women write to the advice column of la Libellule, and they’re given ideas of showers and massages, all sorts of things to firm them up. Rita nearly wanted to laugh. Much good it does them! The dress was designed by Paulette, sewn by her mother, and it molded well to her bust.
In the kitchen, Madame Giroux filled the sink with water. Above the sink, the family toothbrushes cluttered up a plank, with the toothpaste tube that everyone used. On a string hung the damp washcloths, thin with use.
“You’re going out?” asked Monsieur Giroux.
“I told you.”
“Just before, yes I did, and the other day already, I told you I was going to Cully with Evelyn. I said Saturday.”
Rita saw her mother leaning over the sink, she was cleaning the knife using a cork. Against her wide back the straps of her apron were crossed. For a long time now, Madame Giroux had given up becoming involved in the discussions between father and daughter, she let them arrange things between themselves.
“It isn’t my fault if you never listen,” said Rita.
She took a cloth from a little box, she began to wipe at her varnished shoes, lifting one foot, then the other, onto the crossbar of the chair.
“With all our worries,” said her father.
Rita felt the blood rise to her face. She wanted to yell, “And what about the money I give each month, that doesn’t count? It seems to be plenty enough to cover what I eat.” But she remembered that tonight it was better not to raise her voice. She pushed the little box back alongside the garbage can.
In a calm voice, she said: “Ninety cents for the train, you’re not going to argue with me about that.”
“And what would you be drinking, lake water?”
“We’ve been invited.”
“Getting herself invited out, she’s got no other idea in her head at the moment.”
“I’m a free girl,” said Rita.
“Nothing matters at all but running after, running after the boys…”
“Let me go out,” she said.
And that is when her father shouted: “Wretched girl, just a hussy!”
She tried to sidestep the slap, but his hand knocked her on the corner of her mouth. She felt her lip tremble, but it did not split. Oh, well, won’t she be lovely! And her tears left tracks along her powdered cheeks.
Standing in the middle of the darkened landing. Holding her head first to one side and then the other, she slipped her earlobes into the little golden clip earrings.
Evelyn opened her door. Already ready. “Can we go look at ourselves,” asked Rita.
A long oval mirror was fixed to the bedroom wall, next to a little lacquered dresser; pink cotton laundry was drying next to the toilet. Rita bumped into a high-heeled shoe covered in feathers. Everyone in the building doubted that Evelyn’s salary alone was enough to pay for this yellow satin embroidered slipper, or the telephone resting on a round lace cloth.
“You have your nights,” the store owner where she’d been managing the perfume aisle since her divorce said to her once. And she said to Rita if ever Rita needed her apartment one day or another…
“Don’t even say that,” answered Rita.
Cotton rounds spotted with lipstick, jars of cream cluttered up the vanity. Rita examined the corner of her mouth. A little swollen, but the fresh air would do it good. The clips on her ears gave her eyes an unfamiliar sparkle. The feathers on the slippers waved when she walked across the room. You have your nights… and her Sundays, no one knew where Evelyn spent them. But Rita had always refused her offer. Not that she was really afraid of risks. She knew all about it, because of school and because Evelyn kept many things in the lacquered dresser. But Jean-Pierre didn’t want to. Not before they were married. The girls all said that deep down that was all the men were really after, but it seemed, if one could believe it, that Jean-Pierre was different from the rest.
Evelyn’s voice: “Are we going?”
“Someone’s waiting for me downstairs… I’ll explain,” said Rita.
In the street, Walter Stoll walked between the two girls. The wind had dried the sidewalks.
“Your name has something English about it,” said Evelyn.
A cloth with two velvet bows held back her very long, thick hair. Stoll smiled. Yes, most people made this comment, but there was nothing British anywhere on his family tree. His family came from a small village in an eastern canton.
“My husband was also from over there,” explained Evelyn.
Stoll told them that the landowner families of this little town had funny privileges. A bit of field, a cord or two of cut firewood, wine…
“How wonderful,” said Evelyn. “Is it wine a person can buy?”
“No, no, it’s only for those who live in the town, but my wife also thinks we should be able to distribute it.”
Rita raised her face toward the bit of sky striped with electrical lines. “What weather… we’re so lucky!” But she was thinking of Stoll’s sentence. She felt a strange little shock. At the same time she wasn’t at all surprised. Already in the store, on the very first day, she’d noticed his wedding ring. My wife. His wife. Did she wear gray wool sweaters, aprons with straps, was she also, like him, 36 or 37 years old? Or maybe she was very young, with a short pleated skirt. Rita heard Evelyn telling him that she’d only been married for a short while, that her husband had made her unhappy. The only thing he’d left her with was a great recipe for rum flambéed bananas. This way of unveiling her life in front of everyone, thought Rita.
When they arrived on the platform at the station, the trolley train was already there: a long line of outdated wagons with iron roofs covered in a thick dust.
Evelyn declared that she would prefer to stay standing in the middle of the aisle. Afraid of wrinkling her coat, she said, but maybe she wanted to leave Rita and Stoll together. They sat on the bench seat. The man stretched his arm along the seat back, and each time Rita tipped her neck back, her hair touched a gabardine sleeve. He indicated the cream- colored shell earrings, “Happy to see you wearing them.”
The train slipped between the hills of the suburbs, then there were dahlias and cosmos barely weighed down by the rain, and which never stopped blooming in countryside gardens; they entered the vineyards that were already a golden green; Rita was thinking of Jean-Pierre; now she began to be worried. She felt her companion’s leg against her own, immobile, but it seemed to her to be trembling a little.
“So I’ve told you a bunch of stories,” he said, “but you, you’ve said nothing.”
“What would you like me to say?”
“Things. Things about you, like your friend did.”
She watched his man’s gaze drop toward her red lips. Her mouth trembled a little under his look, or maybe because her father had just hit her. “Evelyn is very chatty,” she said. “It’s unbelievable.”
“Listen, would you be free tomorrow to go to the movies maybe?”
“I don’t know… I don’t know,” Rita answered, but hadn’t she promised Jean-Pierre she’d go with him to a soccer game at La Pontaise? It had been arranged for a long time. For the last year and a half, she’d been spending nearly all of her Sunday afternoons with Jean-Pierre. The train stopped. Cully.
“Can I call you?” Stoll asked, standing behind her.
The dance platform was set up on the great lawn in the lower village. The immensely tall poplar trees could still be seen along the lake edge, and a horse grazing. Further along, the multicolored lights of the swings and a spinning carousel. A crowd was pressing around the long tables set up in the middle of the grass.
The girls heard someone calling to them, “Hey, don’t you know us anymore?”
“We didn’t see you!” they said.
They were already drinking—Marguerite, Paulette, Jean-Pierre, two or three other boys. Everyone got up to welcome the newcomers. When Evelyn presented Mr. Stoll, Rita made sure to stay behind. Then she felt herself pushed toward the edge of the bench, she found herself next to Jean-Pierre. Naturally they had put her next to him. Before sitting down, she lifted her ample skirt just a bit. The sound of glasses tinkling mixed with the sound of jazz.
Right away Jean-Pierre suggested, “Want to dance one?”
On the dance floor, girls with hair curlier than steel wool twirled around with boys who had taken off their jackets. The light from the lake was fading. Over on the mountain, the peaks were haloed with a wash of pale sky.
“After all this rain I’d have never believed it,” said Rita.
Jean-Pierre never said a word when he was dancing with her. He stood straight as a column, he moved around on feet which seemed to move by themselves. Staring straight ahead, as if possessed, he held the girl in his stiff arms; she felt her breasts pressed against him, her body stuck to his body, she heard his deep and noisy breathing. Once the dance was finished, she leaned against the low wall of the dance floor. A little out of breath, and she was warm.
“That isn’t very pretty,” Jean-Pierre declared. He was looking at Rita’s ears, at the two shells.
“You don’t think so?”
“Not at all.”
She raised her chin, “It’s the fashion.”
“I’m not arguing with fashion. I’m saying it suits some people, it doesn’t suit others.”
One of the musicians, wearing an elevator man’s hat, greeted Jean-Pierre. Rita let one of her hands drape over the side of the wall. Were they going to talk about it again? Each time it was the same thing, and they could never settle the question. This year he had to pay back his apprenticeship, next year he would be earning 330 or 340 francs and could he really handle a household, and then of course the question of children, Rita was not at all in a hurry to have any.
The dance began again, Temps des neiges et temps des nids, an old song. Rita felt Jean-Pierre’s heavy breathing close to her again, she could guess at his tensed muscles, his nearly haggard eyes. But I can’t wait forever, she thought.
When they came back toward the tables, everyone was singing Temps des neiges… Stoll had gone over to the shooting stand with Marguerite and Paulette. “Who is this guy?” asked Jean-Pierre, and with a skill that surprised herself, Rita let Evelyn explain that he was a traveling refrigerator salesman. Louis Bastian said that for a Swiss German Stoll had a decent head on him; he filled Rita’s glass. The servers were running, people kept ordering new bottles of white wine. Louis joked, “In the canton of Vaud, the flesh is willing but the spirit is weak.” Poured high above the glass, the wine bubbled slightly. Someone pointed across the lake to the other shoreline, now in shadow, with its lights along the water line. To say that over there everyone was killing everyone, all these destroyed houses, tortured people, while we sit here calmly drinking from our cups. “But it wouldn’t hurt some of us to know what’s happening elsewhere,” declared Jean-Pierre.
Stoll brought Paulette and Marguerite back, all three slipping between the benches. “And you know I’d be happy to take certain people to the other side,” added Jean-Pierre. Glistening circles of liquid marked the table. The cut grass gave off a wet smell. Rita kept humming “Temps des neiges et temps des nids”2 to herself, and she remembered the time she collected bird nests, and one day her mother had thrown them in the fire with the shoebox that held them because “she’d had enough of this mess.” Jean-Pierre slipped an arm around her waist. She moved away. Evelyn offered her a cigarette. “How about this tango with me, my lovely?” asked Louis Bastian. But Rita no longer wanted to dance. She arched her back.
“You’re not going to start are you,” she murmured, already irritated.
“I haven’t said a thing,” answered Jean-Pierre.
But we’ll take the whole thing up again tomorrow after the game, thought Rita, the cost of rent, insurance, and could she continue to work at Herrand’s if she lived in Cully? She heard Marguerite burst out laughing, “I’m leaving Monday, I’m going back home, who will come and see me in the countryside?”
Marguerite was speaking to everyone; in reality, she must have been thinking of Jean-Pierre. A slightly wobbly chin and glasses, but apart from that a fairly good-looking and healthy girl. Thinking now on the idea that she was in love with Jean-Pierre, Rita felt nearly vaguely relieved.
Jean-Pierre shook his head. No, he wouldn’t be part of the rescue party. Sons of landowner families could leave the vineyards when it pleased them, go down to the lake, but if you’re an employee? And the autumn is just the season when there’s the most work— double windows to install, and doors. The advantage: lots of overtime. Walter Stoll asked Rita to join him on the swings. Together, they stepped over the bench and, a moment later, Rita caught him glance at her lips, at her bust-filled printed corsage. Then she felt herself lifted off the ground, carried high, very high, her knees bumping his, and they were swinging so high they nearly touched the top of the canvas. Then they heard someone angrily hitting the stop bell. Jean-Pierre caught Rita in his arms. “That’s too much,” he said.
But she was laughing. Everything was moving around her, she nearly fell down, she was laughing. Earlier, in the train, she’d hoped to make everyone believe that Stoll was Evelyn’s friend. (And hadn’t she planned this in a precise way?) Now that the wine, the speed and the vertigo spun her, it mattered little to her if Jean-Pierre thought or did not think that she had brought Walter, she found it rather funny, these two men standing together. Jean-Pierre didn’t scare her anymore. And the rest of it, had she ever made any real promises? One day, she no longer knew when, Jean-Pierre had started discussing rent with her, insurance and complications, that’s how it happened…
Everyone was standing around the table again. Louis explained that because they were a good size group they had decided to have drink at his house.
The girls didn’t want to miss the last train, but Louis’s house was not far, just above the station. Heavy stars surrounded with halos floated in the sky. Jean-Pierre, silent, pushed his bicycle. Its lamp projected little white wavering dots onto either side of the road. Stoll kept Rita behind a little. “A little difficult to understand,” he said.
She continued to walk. With one hand she pressed her little embroidered taffeta handbag. She wet the corner of her mouth. Her earlobes burned. Because of the clips she wasn’t used to wearing, because of Walter’s kiss? “You’d like to know if I’m dating,” she asked.
The moon was high as they passed beneath the rails. Along the paved path, the girls gathered their skirts about them because of the black currant bushes. Jean-Pierre leaned his bicycle against the wood pile; you could hear the rustle of the tarp that protected the logs. Rita felt tired, but light. Louis took his flashlight from the edge of the window. He yelled that if the girls missed their train he would take them home.
“You won’t catch me walking back to Lausanne,” Evelyn cried out.
Paulette stopped next beneath the window, she wanted to say goodnight to Madame Bastian. Louis confirmed that his mother was not yet sleeping. The girl’s face moved close to the half-closed wooden shutters, “Can we say goodnight to you, Aunt Bertha?” From the depths of the room, a voice cried out, informing them that yes, she was in bed, but no she was not yet sleeping. She said that she was doing better. Her small stroke the other day had put her out, for a moment she’d thought it was her final hour, but now she felt better. “Good night, sleep well, Aunt Bertha,” repeated Rita.
From the pressing room there were several steps that went down into the cellar.
Two benches were brought in from the garden, placed one in front of the other in the narrow passage, between the barrels. They all sat down, close together. Again, Rita remembered the odor of harvests, of her blue scarf, and how her pruning sheers had dropped somewhere in the grass. Jean-Pierre had looked for them a long time. Jean-Pierre’s lips were thick and warm.
From a little table, Louis picked up the ribbed glass and the key to the casks.
He filled the glass, raised it an instant toward the light, studying it, then he drank. “It’s too bad, but it’s crazy how good this wine is.”
Refilled now, the glass was passed to Paulette. She was wearing a tussar silk suit, and she had a pale complexion; she always had an upset stomach. It was her seamstress job that caused it. Always folded in two over her work. “But,” Georges Bolle said to her, “If you want, in three weeks we’ll call you Madame Georges Bolle and you’ll no longer have to go back to the workshop.” Paulette burst out laughing. She was seated on George’s knees. “One mustn’t attach oneself to a man too quickly.”
“And don’t forget,” said Evelyn, “it’s idiotic to get married.”
“To get married, or to promise yourself?” asked Louis.
Evelyn shrugged her beautiful shoulders. She knew what she was talking about. Not a single faithful husband on all the earth, and hers had left and taken the forks and the sheets. In return, a recipe for bananas with rum. “So you can come and eat that whenever you want,” she said to Louis.
“Very well, I’ll bring the rum.”
But bananas couldn’t be found anywhere. Into the collar of her coat, Evelyn had threaded a paper rose she’d won by shooting empty bottles at the dance. Louis asked for her telephone number. She wrote it in chalk on one of the casks, in large numbers. They could hear the mysterious and mute growling of an express train. Rita thought of the Bastian’s kitchen, and of all the kitchens in this windswept country, of pipes frozen in winter, of chipped pots, of a child crying… “But we shouldn’t miss our train,” she said.
Stoll suggested to go look at the timetable at the station to be sure of the exact time. She handed Jean-Pierre a glass stained with lipstick. She followed Stoll out the door. Jean-Pierre watched them leave. Then he said, “I’ll also go see the train times.”
“Don’t be an idiot,” said Marguerite.
“Come now,” Louis chattered, “there’s nothing about it.”
Jean-Pierre wanted to get up, but he felt Marguerite’s hand on his arm. He turned toward her, saw her glasses shining. “I’m spending the winter at home,” she’d said, “and after that I don’t know where my parents will send me.” Louis had agreed with him that she was “a pretty filly.”
The door opened. Jean-Pierre pulled his arm free. “The train’s in 23 minutes,” Stoll announced. As if they didn’t know it! As if they truly believed those two had gone out into the night to go scratch at the timetable with their fingernails! “We’ll make sure of that,” said Jean-Pierre. He grabbed Rita’s wrist. He made her go back outside with him.
“When will you have enough of making fun of me?” he yelled.
“You take everything too seriously…” Rita began. She wondered if it was obvious that Walter had kissed her.
“That guy’s been on my nerves all night, you know I could break his face if I wanted to.” He stood beside the wood pile.
“There’s nothing worse than married men,” said Jean-Pierre, “they’re worse than bachelors, and the girls are always after them. Just look at what I saw in the army…”
Rita threw her hair back. She didn’t want to hear his army stories anymore. She began to play with the bell on the bicycle; a waterfall of dark sounds echoed in the shadows.
“Anyway, we’ll talk about all of this tomorrow.”
“About tomorrow…” She didn’t really know what she was going to say. She wanted to be far away from Jean-Pierre, she wanted to think calmly about Walter Stoll’s kisses. On her temple, on her neck, a mouth had gently moved across her skin, a strange vibration threading through her arching body.
Jean-Pierre crossed his hand, “We need to talk.”
He seemed very big beneath the moon. Rita waited for him to finish speaking. He was boring her. Everything that he said had bored her now for a while. She raised her face toward the windows of the two old ladies who lived across from the Bastion’s house. “They’re going to hear you,” she whispered. And so what? To go out together, to discuss, to kiss each other breathless on benches in squares, or in the café of la Pontaise, and the next day, randomly, customers are more difficult than usual, asking for a burgundy version of a pair of shoes they first saw in brown, and fights with girlfriends, she said one thing to me, she said that you said…
“Do you have a date with this guy?” Jean-Pierre asked in a voice filled with anger. “If you’re not on the tram tomorrow at one o’clock, I’ll know. But then between us… are you even aware?”
The door of the pressing room opened, and a pool of pale light escaped. Rita’s eyelids fluttered. “Listen,” she began. She seemed to see before her a long line of empty, colorless Sundays. That’s how it is when a girl goes out for a year and a half. There are fights, there are shouts. But what happens if they decide not to see each other anymore?
“It’s just,” said Jean-Pierre, “I won’t allow us to break up.”
The door was still open and more light, more laughter escaped. “The train in three minutes,” they called out. Rita tripped on the cobblestones. Again, Jean-Pierre annoyed her. He didn’t help her step down. Stoll was holding her coat. Someone handed her a last glass. The wine was acidic and cold. She looked at the hanging lamp, the spiral chandelier, the old wooden casks and the new ones made of cement with chromed taps.
“So,” whispered Stoll, “can I call you tomorrow?” His eyelashes were lowered. They were brown and fairly long for a man.
With the back of her hand, she rubbed her earlobes. A wife in a gray wool sweater, if’s she’s ugly or boring, too bad for her… “At Evelyn’s,” Rita answered, glancing at the large chalk numbers which stood out from the oval surface. They were rustling around. “Hey, you want to miss the train?”
Everyone began to run.
Jean-Pierre took Rita by the shoulder, he shook her. The sound of ripping silk. Near the zipper no doubt. “You’re ruining my dress, leave it…” But his hard fingers continued to knead Rita’s shoulder. She began to yell, “Leave me alone, I can’t stand you touching me anymore.”
The three orange lights of the locomotive appeared. A girl cried out that she’d lost her comb.
When Louis came back to the house, he found Jean-Pierre unmoving on the steps of the pressing room. “Come on, old friend, one more glass,” he said, but Jean-Pierre looked silently at the hem of his trousers, at his bicycle clips.
Then came the sound of his bicycle bouncing on the cobblestones, disappearing into the night.
2The song title can be translated as “Time of Snowfalls and Time of Birds’ Nests”