In the beginning, I used to go to the Café de l’Union at around lunchtime. I could permit myself such an easygoing life since having been dismissed from my position at the United Zealand Banks. I had received a huge payout : they were buying my silence. I knew things that would have compromised important people in the bank. Such practices are to be found in economic circles : blackmail is thwarted by means of a hefty redundancy payment.
It was late for coffee. Laurinda, the Portuguese waitress, a chestnut-haired little woman, who had read all the romances in the Harlequin series, had already laid the tables by the window for lunch. I went directly to the back room, where a light bulb always burned. Four tables remained there for tardy coffee addicts : Mr Barth, former director of United Banks, had been dismissed after an exemplary career, during which, from the age of fifteen, he had climbed all the rungs of the hierarchy ; Mr Muench, the minor industrialist, had liquidated his business by means of a fraudulent bankruptcy, and was now awaiting trial. Mrs Sigmauer also used to come, a blonde with rather weary features, who lived in the next flat from me, a translator, specialising in economic texts. From the concierge I had discovered that she takes sleeping pills. Her day begins at around lunchtime.
The fourth table was mine. If another customer had arrived, they would have had to remove the place settings from one of the tables in the main room. Laurinda would not have been pleased about that at all.
It was the day that Joseph walked in. Franz-Walter Joseph. This was how he introduced himself, with a slight, rather rigid bow of the torso, when I invited him to take a seat.
I invited him merely so that Laurinda would not have to take away the place setting from the next table. In fact, he was disturbing me. I was not desirous of conversation. I liked to read the newspaper. Nor was there anything to listen to ; they all had awful tales. Barth’s wife had left him after he had been dismissed. His dismissal, after thirty-five years of service, had taken place brutally. He had been summoned to the department of Human Resources and notified that he was to vacate the bank premises within quarter of an hour. He had had five minutes to empty his drawers, in the presence of a representative of the department. Barth had been unable to conceive of such a thing, in the very bank he had joined as an apprentice. These were the new methods, they explained to him.
He had spent two months in a psychiatric clinic.
They all had stories of this sort. And so I would sit in my corner. I would read the newspaper. I did not write letters, and I did not make much conversation. It would have been ideal to be able to concentrate exclusively on certain sensations, to be attentive to the taste of the coffee or to the scent of Mr Barth’s cheap cigarillos. I did not always succeed, a sign that my discipline to live in the present and only the present had not been sufficiently perfected (which annoyed me a little). Only the confidences of Laurinda gave me pleasure, although they were not very amusing. Like Mrs Sigmauer, Laurinda suffered from insomnia. She would toss and turn in bed until four in the morning, while her husband snored his head off. If she took Vallium, she would be groggy all day ; she would fall asleep on the job, which displeased Russo, the café owner. Once, he had even said to her, looking at her askance :
“What’s this, were you making love all night ?”
“Boss, back home in Alentejo, the women suffer from insomnia. It’s passed down from mother to daughter.”
“Why,” I once asked when she brought my coffee, “do you read those Harlequin stories ?”
“Monsieur Daniel, I am a simple girl. They may be bad books, but without them I wouldn’t have known what the beau monde looks like, how a lady dresses, how people court, the first kiss. How a gentleman and a true lady comport themselves. And so I read Harlequins. Through them I live another life.”
Laurinda was a clever girl ; she would have deserved a better education.
So, I invited Joseph to my table on the very first day. Joseph, as I always called him, although it is not usual to call people by their surnames. He behaved like a true German. Naturally, since he was indeed German. He greeted people somewhat mechanically, bowing from a single point of the spinal column. Of his freckled face, swathed in a red beard, otherwise well trimmed, nothing much could be seen, only the large, round spectacles. He looked slim. He always wore a suit and a clean short-sleeved shirt, without a tie.
…He was the Zeeland correspondent for a German newspaper group. He told me this in a hushed tone. He would gulp his vowels. He spoke faintly, as though he was trying to prevent his words from being heard at the other tables. It was a pointless precaution – no one would have listened. Lately, people have become too egotistical to eavesdrop, to nourish their hunger for gossip. Barth and Muench would chatter banally, and Mrs Sigmauer would write letters. She blackened entire reams of paper (she had a daughter in Paris, whom she did not see very often, but to whom she wrote daily, although I think her daughter did not often reply). And so we did not feel we were being listened to.
“Oh,” I said to the journalist, “you have an interesting life, you go to press conferences, lots of meetings, receptions, cocktail parties.”
Joseph regarded me through his round spectacles without answering. Nevertheless, his facial expression said much. He had something childish, touching, a kind of gentleness. He did not hasten to explain to me what it was he did or how he went about it. We began to talk politics. True, he was very well informed ; he knew everything that was going on in the country. A political scandal had just broken out, involving a minister, a woman, in the Department of Justice. The minister had spoken to her husband about a secret prosecutors’ enquiry in a corruption affair. It had chanced that her husband was mixed up in the affair. Scandal ensued : the minister had not abided by the rules of secrecy, etc. Joseph prognosticated that she would be forced to resign. I congratulated him when the dignitary capitulated, after two months of polemics.
“It is plain that you have confidential information,” I told him. “You meet with important people in the government and they sell you tips.”
Joseph maintained a tomcat silence. I interpreted this as meaning he knew much but did not wish to divulge it. In fact, he was not exceptionally well informed. Quite simply he was clever (this I discovered later). From the day I made this observation, it seemed that he no longer wished to comment on political news. Probably I had driven too deeply into his territory. We could discuss anything else at all. Never for longer than an hour. We would be driven out by the smell of food ; diners would start arriving for lunch, and we would be embarrassed to be taking up a table. And so we used to leave together. He lived not far from me, in a building on the High Street, above a bakery. We would part at his door, and I would have a further fifty feet to walk.
I would return to my lair. The “lair” was a picturesque place, but comme il faut. I had two rooms on the upper floor of a tower, a building whose enormously thick walls were, according to the historians, a thousand years old. It had been a watchtower, to guard against the appearance of the death’s-head flag of the pirates who came from Savoy to prey on the Zealand coast. From there I could see the lake…
The lake… every day, at every hour, it had a different colour, different hues. On clear summer days, early in the morning, it was a delicate blue, and towards noon a blinding white, nothing but light. Before a storm, it would have metallic, steely glints.
With my redundancy payment from the bank and the money I had gained on the stock exchange, selling everything at the highest price two weeks before the crash, I lived a life of ease. Most had been ruined, but I had become rich. Now I could fulfil my dream. A dream that had coalesced little by little during the course of my career as an errand boy in the service of exigent bosses whom I hated and regarded as villains. My entire philosophy and only pleasure had been to arrive in the position of doing nothing. All my life I had been in a hurry, and now, by a miracle, it was possible to let time pass, at an age when my body was still hale. Most people cannot permit themselves such a luxury. To live as a pensioner, with the body of a young man… it seems ignoble, but I liked that state. I was a millionaire rich in moments, and I spent them without keeping any reckoning. I used to toss them out of the window. I found no joy in the wonderful landscape, or in the slightly bitter, the bittersweet air that poured through the open window. Nor even in the tranquillity of my body, the fact that nothing ached – a sign that I was still young. I could eat and drink without straightaway being punished with all kinds of pains for my little abuses. Since finding myself in this position, that of non-player, my sexual appetites had been moderate and subject to rhythms known only to animals in their fortunate unconsciousness. I no longer suffered from that anguish of the men who continually wish to verify their potency. I felt no need of a mother to swaddle and pamper me. Of course, I did not forget that one day I would die, but the fear of death did not torture me. The day of my death would be a good day… I liked to imagine that I would die just as you would put out a lamp because you are sleepy. For the time being, I was enjoying time, regardless of the good and evil around me and in me, sensitive only to the lapse of the moments and years… the only clean, unblemished way to feel that you exist.
I had a timetable, even one that was rigorous. I obeyed only one, strict commandment : to do nothing. How can one manage to do such a thing ? By doing something all the time. But my actions were spongy, lacking in density. I would wake up in the morning. I slept soundly with the help of Temesta pills. I would drink my coffee, listening to music on the radio. Only classical. It would have been hard for me to say who the composer was, what piece was being played. I was not attentive. At first, I had intended to heed the recommendation of an Indian philosopher (I had attended a seminar he gave in Paris, a long while back) : he had taught us that in order to take joy in the present you must be attentive to your sensations. To savour every image, every sound, taste, smell. Back them, this prescription seemed too hard for me and I left it to the will of inattention, which is nothing other than the idleness of the spirit. I used to listen to a musical backdrop, which gave me a certain peace. The music penetrated into me. I could hear it but I made no effort to listen to it. From time to time, certain chords, a certain melody would make me feel a slight pleasure, which worried me a little, because the slightest bit more pleasure risked extricating me from this pleasant numbness. In time, I planned to do physical exercises. I imagined I would stretch out on the carpet and rhythmically raise my upper and lower limbs. I would walk in various gaits : on tiptoes or crossing my legs, like fashion models… This state, neither pleasant nor unpleasant, was the key : not to feel pleasure, because the price of pleasure would later be non-pleasure. Waiting or preparing for physical exercises would last one or two hours. During all this time, I would be thinking of the movements I was going to perform. Suddenly, I would go into action ; I could not say what it was that made me take the decision. It was my ruse : to make lengthy preparations, to act briefly. I would do my exercises without too much conscientiousness : I had a tendency to hurry the movements, although my instructor had taught me to do them slowly, if I wanted the exercises to be efficacious. I would begin to think of my morning bath. Thinking about it would take me at least three quarters of an hour. I switched to showers ; I would shave at great speed. I did not give much thought to my choice of attire. I would act as though I was in a hurry, although I never had anything to do. Now I could go into town. To drink my coffee at the Union. To say good morning to Russo, to Laurinda, to the customers. Lost in obscure thoughts or in talk, they would scarcely reply.
Translated by Alistair Ian Blyth