these things that will never change childhood
The whole of childhood resided in the light.
A cold, narrow, aseptic light, whirled around the head like a nylon bag.
Firstly, Mama: the solitude of that woman who, as unconsciously as a fly, made it endlessly spin around her distant, powerless, happy gaze.
Then, her friends. Savage children leaping on each other in the dusty light of that little northern town, rushing into the street as soon as they opened their eyes, cynical and callous, vanishing in an instant, suddenly appearing and disappearing once more, mingling yells and silences, endless days in which nothing existed but their innocuous world, covered with a soft integument, as if of embroidered cloth. Everything was surrounded by the thin walls of light through which you could see clearly, from an ever greater distance: stones lifted only halfway, unknown traces among dusty blocks of flats, worms yanked out from behind the fountain in the park, hacked apart in punishment for their stubbornness, nettle fights, on the empty fields beyond the railway line, pigeon hunting and attempts to train sparrows, barriers placed in the path of the ants, the rainwater in which, for a few fractions of a seconds, the clouds could be seen passing.
The only moments when she escaped this splendid world were when suddenly she had a hankering for the earth.
When, at the end of their walks, they emerged from the forest, she would slow her steps, let the others move into the distance, hide herself and, unfolding her fist, gobble the chunk of black earth she had kept hidden in her fist so that it would acquire that moist lightness that made it soft and extremely aromatic. She would close her eyes and, along with the taste, she would listen to the pops of excitement and pleasure as they burst one by one between her temples. The only person to whom she was ever to tell the secret (the best-kept secret of her childhood) was the Teacher, fifteen years later, during their first night together, when she was completely surprised by the way in which that sober, cultivated man was able to make love.
Then the circus.
I must have been about six or seven when I discovered that I could illumine all by myself: I could gather all the other children around, make them follow me anywhere, anytime, and I was able to do it with the help of new instruments, to which I had thitherto not paid very much attention. I had gradually discovered that nothing could resist words. I knew how to choose the most suitable words; this was my great good fortune. I immediately intuited their extraordinary power. This is how I came to practice. I started to use them to my advantage more and more often, invented the most outlandish stories, which, along with the biscuit cake Mama used to bake, which I always shared with them, automatically made the other children my followers. I employed now short sentences of three or four words (unexpected words, which astounded the others), now long sentences and almost whispered sounds that I immediately charged with tension, modulating my voice, inventing ever more complicated plots that kept the children open-mouthed on the dark staircase of some block of flats or at the edge of the forest, meanwhile balancing the increasingly intense atmosphere with prolonged silences, sensing with the utmost precision the moment when I was to introduce the punch line, making the others emerge dizzy from the weave of the story, helping them to re-enter the vividly coloured reality that surrounded us, making them split their sides with laughter.
It was in this way that I persuaded them to come with me to the circus.
It had been half a year since, at the edge of the town, not far from our house, those huge tents appeared, enveloped in strange smells, surrounded by tall pens, covered with colourful posters. I was made for the circus. In the evening, when the other children’s enthusiasm waned, and I sensed that my stories were starting to lose their power, I would choose two or three of my followers and, in silence, I sneaked to the big top with them. We would never have thought of asking our parents to give us money for such a thing. And even if they had given us money, they wouldn’t have done so whenever we wanted to see the shows. We would advance in single file, stopping a short distance from the tent, we would take our shoes off, tie the laces together and hang them from our necks. Then we would climb the pole at the corner of the big top and sneak inside the stands, through the place where the flaps of the tent joined. Most of all we were afraid of the old ticket taker, who had caught us a number of times, hauling us outside by our lugs.
The last time I visited the circus that way, I was alone on the roof when all of a sudden, I felt a strong blow to my leg. I quickly slid down the canvas, buffeted by the blows of a pole probably wielded by the ticket taker. Suddenly, the canvas parted and I fell down into the ring, onto a soft bed of wood shavings, with my boots around my neck, blinded by the light. The big top was full of people, who burst out laughing—they must have thought it was a number from the show. They laughed even louder when the ticket tacker started to chase after me with the pole, and not finding an exit, I did a few laps of the ring, my boots bouncing up and down against my chest, my face dirty and frightened, while the audience laughed and applauded ever more enthusiastically. The last thing I saw before I managed to get out of there was my mother’s face—she was sitting in the front row, impassive, the only person in the audience not applauding, but staring at me coldly, mercilessly.
After she finished her fourth year, she moved to the secondary school in the centre of town.
She would come home from school on the bus, get off a stop before, and make a short detour, walking through the forest before going home. At the end of autumn, she let the black lumps fall softly to her feet, wiped her hand on her blue uniform, and made the first major decision of her life. It was then, on that splendid afternoon, that I gave up eating soil (I shall do so again only if I ever feel truly happy, I swore to myself—and you know all too well that I always keep my promises).
She woke up at six in the morning and did her homework. She boiled water for some tea, opened the kitchen window, and ate two salted slices of bread and butter, she made herself a sandwich and, before leaving for school, went into her mother’s room, holding her nose: the sour smell of sweat and unwashed sheets sometimes violently drowned out the harsh smell of plum brandy. She bent down and picked up the clothes scattered over the carpet, carefully hanging them over the armchair, she collected the dirty plates and glasses, she put the cork in the bottle of plum brandy left open on the shelf. She did not wake her, but merely went to the bed and bent over her to see whether she was still breathing.
Then she quickly went out (she was always late) and boarded the bus that was honking its horn at the stop opposite their house, waiting for her, stopping there only for her and an extremely fat woman who, in the clinking bottles in her cloth bag, delivered milk to the blocks of flats.
She liked school a lot. It was one of the few places where she could be fully happy, managing to absorb all the energy around her and transform it into joy. Her schoolmate always sought her company—first of all due to the fact that she was completely indifferent to malice, she never got annoyed, she never got angry, she never hurt anybody—moreover, she managed to put everybody around her in a good mood and she had an incredible ability to defuse every conflict, by means of words and gestures that had an immediate effect on those involved, making them either feel ashamed or realise how stupid the reason for the quarrel had been, at which they would burst out laughing with her. Even the teachers, usually solemn, stiff, surly, were delighted by the intelligence and naturalness with which she managed to make herself stand out.
The only low marks she got were in tests, not because she hadn’t studied, but because her writing was impossible for others to decipher. Lines interrupted only in places, beneath and above which appeared countless unrecognisable signs. In primary school, she had received almost daily beatings from her mother, she had been held in detention, punished by the teacher, writing and rewriting the letters which, when written down separately, she was able to make legible, but as soon as she tried to connect them into words and sentences, the structure of her handwriting altered radically, uncontrollably—it always reverted to those meaningless marks. She listened to the reproaches without flinching, she underwent every humiliation (from her mother’s punishments to kneeling in the corner of the classroom or having pages from her exercise book displayed on the school noticeboard under the heading Not like this!), but she wouldn’t give up her handwriting. Quite simply, she liked to write that way, it was her favourite ritual, a game she had invented for herself and herself alone.
Her classmates in the fifth year nicknamed her the Chinese.
Her classmates in the sixth year were the first to gather around her desk, to hug her and beg her: Please, ple-e-e-ase, don’t go.
But things had already been decided and strangely, the news that she was to move to the Big City did not affect her at all.
It was the end of spring when the people from the Sports Lycée arrived—the athletics trainers who went around in their blue van, visiting all the villages and little towns in the area to find talented pupils, future medal-winning athletes.
That morning, she was overjoyed when the headmaster came into her classroom and announced that all lessons were to be suspended—the pupils were to go out into the yard, he said, to form lines and then wait to be assigned their tasks.
these things that will never change
Translated by Alistair Ian Blyth