translated from the French by Alyson Waters
I prefer English gardens to French gardens. It’s not that order and harmony are distasteful to me; nor is it that the imitation of nature delights me. It’s simply that I like not knowing exactly where I am. English gardens are mysterious. There are waterfalls and secret alleyways. Though you quickly wind up where you began, for a few moments you have the wonderful illusion of being lost. Most of all, you don’t have to cross vast open terraces where so many people look at you.
On a hot August day I was strolling in the Parc Montsouris. Although it was noon, the sun was not in the middle of the sky. I could see it without moving my head, simply by raising my eyes.
The morning hours are the finest in the whole day. All those evening thoughts—too-ambitious or too-modest—have vanished. Night has made me a new being.
For me, the joys of the day never last beyond noon. That day, however, I was happy. I listened to the singing of the birds. I did not understand how some people could find it so appealing. Nothing in this chirping brought me any solace.
I was walking very slowly along a shaded alleyway. I was looking for an out-of-they way bench as much in the center of the park as possible, so that all around me an equal expanse of trees and lawn would separate me from the city.
The sky was blue. The air shimmered in the sunlight. A few insects that did not need to fear other, stronger insects were hopping around on the grass. Intense life, the buzzing of fields and woods, did not burst forth from this sheltered nature. The ground on which one walked reverberated. It did not absorb one’s footsteps the way country soil does.
I like giving bread to the birds. I do it because it’s a sign of a charitable soul. I’m even more commendable because nothing attracts me to them. Like most people, I am fond of their gracefulness and their independence, but not to the extent that I find contentment throwing them crumbs.
As soon as I had located the bench I was looking for, I pulled the piece of bread I’d brought with me from my pocket.
There were already a dozen or so birds around me when I noticed, a few yards away, a man watching me. I will not say, as some people would, that I felt him looking at me. That would be a lie. Yet I am sure that a woman in my position, seeing that stranger as I saw him then, that is, out of the corner of my eye without turning my head, would certainly have sworn she felt this gaze weighing on her.
Still, I continued tossing crumbs. I tossed them as close to me as possible. It’s always very satisfying to see birds come close. The trust they show in us enchants us and, although we know they trust anyone, we want to believe they have surmised our good intentions.
The stranger was still looking at me, and so I spoke to the birds. I even gave them nicknames. I wanted one of them to come take a crumb from my fingertips. It would have seemed that those birds knew me, that I often came to the garden. Unfortunately, none of them approached.
And all the while I was trying to appear very interested in what I was doing, I didn’t stop thinking about the man watching me. He must have been saying to himself: “Some people are odd. Here is a poor man, a wretch who is sharing the little he has with the birds. He must have a big heart if nothing else. I’ve never seen a poor man do this.”
Surely he was telling himself this. I was aware of my generosity of spirit. Since I had only a small piece of bread left, I divided it up into a large quantity of crumbs. The stranger took a few steps. The birds flew away. I turned to him humbly, showing disapproval on my face.
“Don’t be angry with me, sir,” he said gently. “The birds will return.”
Only then did I dare observe the stranger closely. He was an elderly man of average height, well-dressed. He was wearing a pince-nez and had on those rubber boots that can be worn indifferently on either foot. He was looking at me with so much kindness that for a moment his pince-nez seemed covered in mist.
“Do you come here often?”
For the first time in my life I was not embarrassed to meet someone. I was in such a likable position that I could speak to anyone without being afraid.
“You must like animals?”
I stood, and without really thinking, simply to give myself something to do, I threw bread in the grass where the birds had been.
“You’re a good soul,” he said after a moment of silence.
I did not answer. And yet these were not words that should have remained between two silences. No one ever complimented me. No one ever said to me what others hear so often. These fine words filled me with joy. I even felt I could have cried had I wanted.
And I continued to throw smaller and smaller crumbs. This stranger surely was very sensitive. He was embarrassed. When I looked at him, I had just enough time to see his eyes, for he lowered his head at almost the same moment.
“You know,” he said, pointing at the birds so I wouldn’t look at him, “they’ll come back.”
“But I don’t have any more bread.”
Now I have to confess something. When I said “but I don’t have any more bread,” there was a malicious tone to my voice. We all have our weaknesses. No one is perfect. I said “but I don’t have any more bread” as if I were criticizing him for not having any, as if he should have foreseen I would run out, as if I wanted him to buy me some so I could go on giving it to the birds.
Fortunately, I am intelligent. Right away I understood what was petty in my attitude and I made up for it by saying in a natural voice:
“The birds have had enough for today…”
“Do you think so?”
The stranger was so good he hadn’t even noticed my little outburst of temper.
We moved away. He was walking slowly, at his own pace. I matched my step to his. From time to time, he stopped and looked at the sky.
“What a day!”
An immense joy filled me. I could tell that this stranger had a great love of simple things. He took interest in a thousand little trifles. He was, then, a man like me. Someone who doesn’t know me well could think at first that I am hard to please and that this is what makes me unhappy. No, all I ask for is a little friendship. I know the sign of great wisdom is not asking men to give what they cannot give. One must take men as they are. I know this. I am a wise man. I ask only to take them as they are. But even this is denied me.
I walked near the stranger with hesitant steps, prepared to speed up or slow down like those girls who have just been accosted by a passerby.
I could hear every noise. The garden was almost deserted. Sometimes, across a lawn, we could see someone going by.
The stranger walked with his head bowed. I watched him. We didn’t know where we were going.
On a bench, a poor man was eating a piece of bread with a slice of meat. One always wonders, where do people who eat outside sleep? The stranger looked at him with pity. Oh! Don’t think I was jealous. Not at all; it was a great joy for me to see that, in spite of everything, there were men on earth who felt compassion for the misery of others. No, I was not jealous. I am not jealous of real beggars, of those who are not surprised at their poverty, who desire nothing and don’t notice when someone feels sorry for them. The man eating on his bench was not a schemer. He did not even exchange a look of complicity with the stranger. He was truly a poor man, a poor man the way I like them.
We were still walking without saying a word. It’s so pleasant to walk next to someone who is well-dressed, whose thoughts you don’t know, who will perhaps change your life— someone you sense to be powerful.
This stranger was almost a father to me. I felt a protective strength in his gait, in his silence. Even as a child when I went out with my father, I never had this same sense of security.
From time to time, the stranger turned to me and stared, shaking his head. And imbecile that I am, I did not know how to look at him. To look meekly would have been ridiculous because he was the stronger man; coldly, impolite; submissively, undignified.
So I carefully avoided his glance, which I sensed skimming over my worn-out clothes, my shoes too big for my feet and, what was particularly painful, around my collar.
We were nearing the park exit. In a few seconds, it would be necessary to speak. How I longed for us still to be in the center of the park.
We stopped. Near the gate was a park keeper’s hut painted the same yellow as the iron chairs.
So it was over already! We were going to part.
I shivered. Luckily the stranger was not looking at me just then. It was hot. When I lowered my eyes, I could feel my eyelids were damp.
Though his face was covered with sweat, the stranger did not wipe it. This inattentiveness pleased me. I attributed it to his extreme shyness and his immense fondness for me.
For the first time in years, I had the impression that at long last I had a friend.
The stranger pulled a handkerchief from his pocket, one that had not yet been unfolded and, before wiping his face, he asked:
“Where are you having lunch?”
“I don’t know, sir.”
I sensed that there was probably an answer that would have been more advantageous to me, but I am not quick and I did not have time to come up with it.
“Would you like to come eat with me?”
A lunch is such a small thing; it’s over so soon. Still, if you knew how this invitation filled me with joy.
Unfortunately, I never have the courage to accept what is offered to me. I’m always afraid of accepting too quickly.
“No… thanks…I would only be a bother to you…,” I stammered.
“Come now. I invited you, didn’t I? Let’s go.”
I thought neither of the heat nor of my poverty. I forgot my life. I saw the blue sky above me, the park to my right, the street to my left. It was all so immense.
“Oh, sir...alright, yes.”
Yes; I had said yes. If only you knew how difficult it is for me to say yes. I never said yes. I don’t know how to say yes. It seems to me that yes means freedom, happiness.
The stranger lived in a mezzanine apartment. Maybe it’s because I’ve always lived on the top floor or because of some other obscure reason, but I know that even if I were rich I could never live in a mezzanine apartment.
When we arrived on the landing, although he was returning to his own house, the stranger did not look in his pocket for the key. He rang. A maid, young and innocent-looking, but probably stubborn too, opened the door.
“Come in, my friend,” said the stranger, motioning toward the foyer.
I obeyed, but without wiping my feet because of the sole that could have gotten caught on the carpet. I was about to remove my hat when the stranger said:
“Don’t trouble yourself. Leave it on. You’re at home here.”
I could say at this point that these words humiliated me because they were no doubt addressed only to people like me, but what good would it do? There are so many things that hurt me; it’s best not to draw attention to them all.
I removed my hat anyway. I took two steps forward, looked at a mounted animal, and waited.
The stranger had left me in the entrance hall. He returned a few moments later.
“Come. Let’s go into the dining room. I’ve asked for a place to be set or you.”
I followed him.
“Sit down. Make yourself at home…”
The stranger looked at my hands, then said:
“You must be wondering, my dear friend, who I am. I shall tell you. My name is Boudier-Martel. I am fond of those whom life has treated harshly. I could see that behind your timid appearance you have a pure soul. That’s why I wanted to get to know you, to be of help to you, to encourage you. Don’t let your pride suffer from this; I could be your father. You have a friend in me. Every time I am able to make someone’s life a little less painful, I do so. You are someone who is worthy of being looked after.”
I listened to these words as if they were spoken by the perfect being about whom I had thought so often. I listened without trying to understand them because I was afraid some of them might displease me. I focused my attention on the words I love: dear friend, help to you, pride. I could not believe the friend I had been seeking for so long was there, in front of me. And yet, there he was, and I felt how ill-prepared I was to speak to him.
“You mustn’t think, my friend, that I have a cold heart. I do everything in my power to make life a little less difficult for the needy. I know nothing greater than turning my attention to the misfortunes of the lowly.”
These words soothed me. It seemed as if the chair on which I was sitting had no legs, that my heels were no longer resting on the parquet floor, that I was living in a dream. A new life was about to begin for me. I had a friend. With all his gifts, with his heart, he was coming to me.
“Oh, sir, how happy everything you are saying makes me!”
“Yes, yes, I thought as much... Come now, let’s eat. And then, on Sunday, I’ll come see you in your little room. It is a little room on the seventh floor, isn’t it?”
“If only you understood how well I know you. I can picture your whole life. You wake up and get out of bed, then go for a little stroll. You are very fond of animals. You eat lunch; you stroll about some more; you eat supper; you go to bed. Alone. You are alone, completely alone. No one bothers you. By the way, what do you live on?”
“Of course! You have a small annuity. You are happy. You are wise. I admire you.”
I will remember this lunch my whole life. There was so much trust between Mr. Boudier-Martel and me, so much solicitude, that I can hardly believe nothing of all that remains today.
At last Sunday came. Mr. Boudier-Martel was to arrive at 4:00 p.m., after the heat of the day had died down.
I spent the entire morning getting ready. I bought wine, a tin of biscuits, some lemon soda. My room, tidied up, seemed bigger than usual. I sat down on my bed, on the spot where there is a large hole in the quilt, and I waited. The window was open. Since the blinds don’t work, the harsh light from outside flooded the room.
I was in that contented state you find yourself in when you’ve just finished a thousand little chores that are so easily forgotten.
There were just the two glasses that I hadn’t yet washed. I knew it. I was saving that so I would have something to do to hide my nervousness when Mr. Boudier arrived.
Suddenly I heard footsteps on the stairway. It had to be him. I stood and picked up the glasses so I would be busy washing them when he knocked.
I heard him on the landing. Although I had explained to him which door was mine, he was looking down the other end of the landing, where Lecoin lives. How I wished my neighbor could see Mr. Boudier coming into my place!
There was a knock. I went to open the door.
There he was. Despite the fact that it was Sunday, he had put on old clothes to come see me. No doubt he had done so out of tact. He came in, removing his hat at the door.
“As you can see, I’m just rinsing the glasses. Please sit down,” I said, and I offered him my best chair.
“Oh, don’t trouble about me. I can sit anywhere.”
He sat on the bed, at the same spot I had been sitting because the sagging mattress forms a hollow there.
“Why, this is a very nice room. It’s clean, it’s airy. It’s a bit high, but it’s airy.”
“You think so?”
“Rooms like this one are rare.”
His admiration for my quarters displeased me. I had hoped that after he’d seen my place he would offer me a big comfortable room in his apartment. Now I realized it was pointless to count on that.
“Do you do your own cooking?”
“Oh, no sir!”
“No, I eat out.”
“You eat out?”
“But restaurants are very expensive.”
“I have a little deal.”
“Oh, that’s different! When one is in a situation like yours, you have to know how to make little deals.”
“I know, sir.”
There was a moment of silence. While looking out the window, Mr. Boudier-Martel was testing my bed with the back of his fist. Every now and again he raised his heel and struck the floor. He also turned around and looked in all directions.
While I was trying to find a dishrag, he said:
“No, don’t dry the glasses. You mustn’t trouble yourself. I like to drink from glasses that have been rinsed in clear water. You know, it’s not as bad as all that here. You probably have water not too far...”
“Yes, there’s water on the landing.”
“Excellent. The other day, I couldn’t talk to you as I would have liked. I barely knew you. Now I want to tell you how noble I find your self-denial, your simplicity.
These words, which I found full of truth, moved me. I looked tenderly at Mr. Boudier. I felt that whatever was still separating us was about to vanish.
“Would you like a little wine, sir?”
“As you please, my child.”
My child. He said my child. This time, all my sorrow disappeared. I was trembling as I poured the wine. He was about to get up to take his glass, so I said:
“No, don’t bother.” And I brought it to him, not without spilling a little.
He drank leaning forward, the way one drinks at a bar.
I found this tactless. I don’t think he should have noticed that I had filled the glass too much because if I did, it was because his kind words had disconcerted me. Even if he had spilled a little on himself, he should have drunk as if he were at home.
“You are very sensitive, my friend.”
For a second I thought he was reading my mind.
“I am fond of people like you. Human misery moves me. Tell me about your life. If something is troubling you, confide in me.”
Tell him about my life! Can the story of a life be told to a friend? Can one tell the story of one’s life without making it more beautiful, or uglier, without lying? As for confiding, is it possible to do it just like that, on demand? To talk about my life, about myself, to a man who had just arrived—no, it could not be done.
Mr. Boudier was waiting for me to speak, pretending to be very attentive. Yes, I said pretending: though his gaze was fixed on me, from time to time his eyes would momentarily turn away toward some object in my room.
“Do you wash in that basin?”
“That must not be easy... Come now, tell me about your life, confide in me. You have a friend in me, a brother...”
“Yes. I too have suffered from poverty.”
“You’ve suffered from poverty?”
I felt he wanted me to rejoice at this news. Yet deep down I respected him less.
“Would you like a little wine, sir?” I asked, expecting a polite refusal.
I was mistaken. Mr. Boudier-Martel accepted.
Have you noticed how often we are wrong about people? We are sure they will say one thing and they say the opposite. But this shouldn’t change our opinion. For some infinitesimal reason that was unknown to me, Mr. Boudier had not said no, yet his whole being was refusing the wine I offered.
This time I poured the wine slowly so that Mr. Boudier-Martel would spare me from seeing him lean forward to drink. Though the glass was only half full, he still leaned forward.
“Well, then, when are you going to tell me about that life of yours?” he asked, looking for a place to put down his glass.
If only you could have seen how he searched! If he had truly loved me, if he had truly been drawn to me by some feeling, he would not have had that self-conscious air about him; he would have set the glass on the floor.
“So, what about that life of yours?”
“Oh, sir! It’s not all that interesting.”
He stood, came over to me, and stroked my hair.
I lit up with joy, even though I was torn between the desire for him to stop and for him to go on—for him to stop, because there is something grotesque about emotional outpourings between men; for him to go on, because it was a sign of such deep friendship.
“Oh, child, child,” he said, pulling away from me. “I’m leaving now, my friend...”
“You’re going to leave?”
And I had thought we would stay together until nightfall!
“Come have lunch with me whenever you like. I’m not insisting. You are a free man. I’m not setting a date. I respect other people’s freedom too much.”
If Mr. Boudier only knew how little one values one’s freedom when one is alone.
He took his hat and did not wait to go out to put it on. I realized that he had made an effort to be tactful at first and now he was tired and couldn’t be bothered.I caught a glimpse of the vast solitude that awaited me.
I stood also.
“Yes, I must get back.”
I lost my head.
Startled, Mr. Boudier drew back a step. Out of precaution, pretending to be surprised, he opened the door as if he weren’t thinking.
“Don’t go; I’ll be so alone without you...if you only knew how I suffer when I’m alone...Stay...you can speak...you have been so kind to me...”
Reassured, Mr. Boudier released the doorknob.
“Come, come, my child, calm down...You know you can count on me.”
I realized it was impossible to keep him. I don’t know anything more agonizing than the feeling that, no matter what you do, you cannot keep someone from leaving.
With a final burst of energy, I approached him and, kneeling awkwardly, the way people who don’t go to church do, I stammered:
“Don’t be angry with me...I acted without thinking...You understand me, please forgive me. You can count on me for everything...I’ll sacrifice myself...please stay, sir.”
I got up. Mr. Boudier, who had stepped back even more, was on the landing.
“Come now, my friend; take heart. I shall not forget you. I am very fond of you. Good-bye. Come see me...”
And he went out without even having heard that I’d said I would sacrifice myself for him.
Left alone, I sat down on the bed. It was still quite light out. Someone was playing a guitar in a house nearby. At times it was the same tune twice in a row. Birds flew across the blue sky. They flew so quickly they seemed to be following a straight line. They were black, the way birds are in the late afternoon.
I got up. I took my hat. I waited a bit so I wouldn’t catch up to Mr. Boudier. I opened the door; the landing was deserted. I went out and strolled about until night fell.
I shall always remember the radiant day that was one of the saddest of my life.
The previous night I had fallen asleep late because in my bed I had been thinking about Mr. Boudier. I am such a good person that whenever I am far from people I no longer see their faults. I had foolishly imagined that Mr. Boudier, in his bed, was also thinking about me. So I looked at my watch. I decided right then to go to his house the next day to tell him that at 11:10 p.m. our thoughts had crossed.
In the morning the idea seemed ridiculous to me. But since it had already been three days since we’d seen one another, I did not go back on my decision. He had been so insistent that I come to lunch at his house that I wasn’t afraid of abusing his kindness.
I dressed in my best clothes. When I’m in my room, I always find that I look fine, but as soon as I go out, as soon as I am in the street mixing with the crowd, I realize how poorly I’m dressed. It’s not a question of contrast. No one notices me. It’s because I think everyone can see the life I lead, that everyone is saying: “He’s only got what he deserves.” So I am fearful, and I lack confidence. I’m wrong. No one bothers with me.
I left my room at 11:30 a.m. Usually I leave earlier. But that day I wanted to arrive at Mr. Boudier’s fresh and clean, without a trace of dust.
The heat was overwhelming. A vehicle washing down the streets wet my feet. I walked slowly because even though the visit I had decided to make was entirely justified, I was nervous.
The noon bells were ringing everywhere when I arrived in front of Mr. Boudier’s. I went in right away. The corridor was not as cool as the previous time; all the doors were shut. In summer, doors seem as though they are never supposed to open.
The elevator wasn’t there. I climbed the stairs. The railing was too wide to be held. When I got to the door, I removed my hat, I put it back on. I was panting with emotion. I didn’t have the excuse of having climbed six flights of stairs.
I had to ring. Without bothering to turn on the hall light, I pressed the bell. I waited a few seconds.
“Is the gentleman in?” I asked the maid, one hand on the wall, the other in my pocket.
I struck this pose as soon as I saw the maid because I cannot bear servants. I wanted to show this maid that, although I was poorly dressed, I was above her. She felt it, no doubt and, either out of meanness or to get even, she asked:
I almost lost all the confidence that I had worked so hard to acquire.
“Your master,” I answered insolently.
But I immediately regretted this outburst. I realized I was, after all, at the mercy of this woman. What could I have done if she had answered, “My master! He’s not in!” So I immediately added:
“You must recognize me. I came for lunch the other day.”
And though I stammered with frightened humility, I nonetheless was reserving the pleasure of speaking ill of her later in front of Mr. Boudier-Martel.
“Yes, he’s here. Come in.”
I removed my hat, despite the fact that I was loath to do so in front of this maid. She was capable of thinking I’d done it for her.
“And whom should I announce?”
I hesitated a moment.
“Announce the gentleman who came to lunch the other day.”
“But which one? Gentlemen come every day.”
This time, I had to say my name. She was going to make fun of me; she would laugh. Oh, well; after all, my name is my name. I don’t have to be afraid of saying it.
“Please wait here.”
I sat in one of those foyer chairs where people set down their packages and hats but where only people like me actually sit.
A door opened. Mr. Boudier appeared without a collar, in his robe. I leaped up.
Without moving, he held his hands out to me.
“Ah, it’s you. I am so pleased to see you. Come in. Let me introduce you to a friend...A man like you. Come in, come in.”
“A man like me?”
“Yes, come in.”
I did not have time to think. I went in stunned, happy, like in dreams we remember.
Suddenly I stopped cold. My blood did not continue to circulate everywhere, but instead rushed to my head. Mr. Boudier was pointing at me. The maid was somewhere behind me. Someone was speaking. I heard some words. The door, gently and by itself, was closing.
I had just seen, right there, in the same armchair where I had sat, a poor man, a poor man like me. I needn’t look at them for long. I immediately recognize them. It was obvious that, right there, in the armchair, was a poor man.
“Come in, come in, my friend.”
I said nothing. Now I understood everything. Mr. Boudier did not love me. He loved poor people.
“Well, come in, Baton...What’s wrong?”
“No...no...I’m leaving...I don’t feel well...”
I was walking backward. Mr. Boudier followed slowly. I supposed he didn’t want to come any closer to me. You never draw close to people who abruptly change their attitude.
“Stay, dear man, stay. You’re at home here; you are my friend.”
I was still moving back, and then I opened the door.
“I’ll come back in a bit, sir. I don’t feel well. I’m ill. I have to go...”
I went out, leaving the door open. I could have closed it, but I didn’t have the will. As long as it stayed open, there was still something between Mr. Boudier and me. He could follow me, beg me to come back. I don’t know what I would have done in that case.
If I left the door open, it was also so he would be the one to close it, he would be the one to break off our friendship forever, so that in my loneliness I would at least have reason to suffer because of other people’s lack of understanding.
As I was going down the stairs, Mr. Boudier remained in front of his door. It seemed that the landing was the absolute limit of where he could go, and that the stairway was an abyss. He leaned forward, calling to me, not daring to place a foot on the first step.
“Come back, Baton. What’s the matter?”
I, for my part, walked away very slowly. When I got to the hallway, I stopped. Was it because my suffering wasn’t as great as I thought that I caught myself on guard, listening to what was happening on the mezzanine?
The door slammed shut. It was over.
In the blinding light of the street, it seemed to me that everything that had just happened in the shade of the house was already lost to the past. I did not cry. One never cries right away. I was so on edge that, although I was not laughing, my face was tensed as if I were.
I would have forgotten this sad story a long time ago had I not retained the impression that Mr. Boudier knew why I had left. He was certainly aware that a lowly sense of jealousy had forced me to flee; that I surely would have stayed had there been, instead of a poor man, a rich man in the dining room. I’m sure he knew all the petty thoughts going through my mind at the time. Yes, without a doubt, he knew them all because, had I been in his shoes, I would have guessed them.
Alyson Waters teaches literary translation and contemporary French language literature at Yale University. In the past few years, she has won a National Endowment for the Arts Translation Grant, a PEN translation grant, and a "bourse de sejour aux traducteurs estrangers." She lives in Prospect Heights with her husband and daughter.
“Un autre ami” from Henri Duchemin et ses ombres © Flammarion 1983. English translation © Alyson Waters, 2008.
Emmanuel Bove is the author of Mes Amis (My Friends).