Take Care, Love
by Jean-Claude Mourlevat
Translated from French by Samuel Ashworth
Class had ended and the lecture hall was emptying slowly. Madame Seligman, professor of American Civilization at the University of St. Etienne, gestured to the thin blond student lingering in the front row.
“Mademoiselle, if you please.”
Angelique came forward. She looked like a schoolgirl with her glasses, her coat buttoned up to her neck, and her backpack dangling from the crook of her arm.
“Have you ever thought of applying to be a teacher in England or the United States?”
“No,” replied Angelique, taken by surprise.
“It would do you considerable good, I think. You are a fine student, but a little too timid. You realize this.”
“Yes,” Angelique agreed. “I’m not self-confident, especially speaking.”
“Precisely. And it is to your detriment. Look at the presentation you did for your classmates on Catholic charismatic renewal in the United States. It was excellent, articulate, and the argument was remarkable, but it was as if you wanted to keep it all to yourself. We could barely hear you. Your barely lifted your nose from your notes. It’s a pity, don’t you think?”
She was speaking softly and solicitously, returning her papers to her leather briefcase.
“I know that you have had some difficulty in your life,” she went on, lowering her voice even though the lecture hall was deserted now. “I also lost my mother very early, and in a brutal way. I was fourteen, and starting that day I expected the worst at every instant, as if the worst was just . . . normal. It took me twenty years to understand that it wasn’t true, that life could have good surprises in it too, that the worst was not a sure thing. Twenty years, gone.”
Angelique lowered her head to hide her emotion. Mme Seligman was much more than a professor to her. This woman, who was her mother’s age, had taken her under her wing at the beginning of the year and had encouraged her fiercely. Angelique had returned her confidence by working tirelessly.
“Forgive me, I’m not a psychologist,” she pressed, “but I get the impression that you try to protect yourself from everything. Am I mistaken?”
“No,” said Angelique, reproaching herself for blushing again, “you’re right.”
“Then we agree,” concluded Mme Seligman. “I am quite convinced that a year abroad would greatly benefit you. You will gain conviction and self-assurance. Consider it.”
For Angelique a suggestion from Mme Seligman was a commandment from God. Without hesitation she took the necessary steps, and easily secured a posting as an assistant French teacher for the coming year. Her assignment was to a secondary school in Hull, in East Yorkshire, England. A glance at the map told her the port city lay three hours north of London.
As soon as she heard, she went to see Mme Seligman to tell her the news.
“Magnificent,” she said. “I am convinced that you will have a fine experience there. But above all, don’t curl up and hide. Make friends. Be active. Do not hesitate to scrape yourself against real life.”
As Angelique was leaving, she reminded her: “If you want to write me during your trip, I would be glad to know how it’s going. Here, take my home address.”
“I’ll write,” Angelique promised.
* * *
She had barely ever left her province up until that point, and so she felt a great rush of emotion when, at summer’s end, she brought herself to Lyon, dragging two bulging suitcases, to board the bus that would take her to England. They drove all night. She slept terribly because of her uncomfortable seat, and because of the fifty hundred-franc bills stuffed under the Ace bandage wrapped around her abdomen. She’d earned them in July, checking meter readings for EDF. The first salary of her life. And it was a good job. Except for whenever she went out to farms, and the dogs would keep her from getting out of her little blue Renault.
At Victoria Station, she ate what was left of the provisions she’d brought from France: a saucisson sandwich and an apple. When they were consumed entirely, she could hear it all around her: The only language anyone was speaking was English. She was far from home, she realized, and alone, and she would be for a long time.
For three hours she sat on a suitcase, waiting, before boarding another bus. The trip took longer than expected, so it was night when she arrived in the Hull bus station, after a voyage of twenty-seven hours and thirty minutes.
“You’re late, love.”
These were the first words addressed to her by Miss Sykes, her landlady, who was tapping her foot on the platform.
“I’m sorry,” she said, and began to explain that it wasn’t her fault, but the woman silenced her with a gesture and led her to a dusty Ford Fiesta with a dented left door.
She was a woman of some fifty years, stout, brusque, and masculine. She wore an old, weathered coat, her hair cropped and bristly, like a shoe-brush. As she drove, she sniffed noisily and multiple times she scratched her crotch, like a man. Angelique took in the stubby red hands on the wheel, the crusted blood on the back of her thumb from a recent wound, the chewed fingernails, and asked herself how she was supposed to live with this woman for a whole year.
The conversation was brief for the simple reason that Angelique could barely understand a quarter of what Miss Sykes was saying to her, to the point where she wondered momentarily what language she was speaking. But there could be no doubt: It was indeed English, the language she had been passionately studying for years. Doubt crept back into her.
The brick house stood at the end of the road, in a run-down neighborhood in the northwest of the city. Angelique found it a little sinister, though that could have been due to the darkness, and the fog that swathed everything in gray.
Miss Sykes stopped the car outside the gate, opened the trunk, and lifted out the suitcases as if they were empty. Angelique hurried after her up the driveway and front steps, then up the stairs to the second floor. As she climbed she was impressed by the enormous posterior that appeared like a concentrated mass before her, by the exaggerated back, the bulllike neck. This woman could play for the English national rugby team, she thought.
The room had seen better days, but was clean and well appointed. A twin bed, a chest of drawers, a desk with a lamp, a chair, a coal-burning stove, and a bathroom. The window looked out on a grassy garden surrounded with a brick wall. In the corner was a wooden shed.
“Would you like a bite to eat?” asked Miss Sykes, making a hand motion to go with the words to make sure she understood.
The sandwich was far away, but Angelique said she wasn’t hungry.
“Well, goodnight, love,” said the landlady, and retired to her floor of the house.
Angelique wondered if “love” translated to “ma chérie,” and why Miss Sykes would call her that, since they barely knew each other. Then she proceeded to set up the room a little, before finally allowing herself to collapse onto the bed, exhausted. She found herself weeping with rage when she discovered that her legs were so swollen she could not get herself out of her jeans. She fell asleep in them.
The next morning was a Sunday. The women ate a solid English breakfast together, which Angelique inhaled, and then Miss Sykes gave her a tour of the house. In the garden shed there was a pile of coal from which Angelique could supply her little stove. There was a metal shovel with a wooden handle sticking out of it.
“And here’s your horse!” said the landlady, indicating an old women’s bicycle leaning against the planks of the wall. “If you want to save a bit on the bus, take it.”
In the kitchen she urged her to help herself to “anything, anytime.” She told her she should likewise use the living room at her leisure, take all the baths and showers she liked, play music at full volume, and bring home whoever she wanted, whenever she wanted, for as long as she wanted. The important thing was that she felt good—“Okay, love?”
It turned out that the user’s guide to Miss Sykes only had three simple lessons: first, this woman was utterly indifferent to what anyone thought of her; second, she allowed Angelique absolute freedom; third, she was not an unpleasant person.
* * *
It did not take long for Angelique to get her bearings. Quickly, she grew used to the accent of the region. During the week, to save money, she abstained from going out; she devoted herself to her work and to studying English. On weekends, though, she went on excursions with the other French assistants in the town. Together, they explored the North Sea and Scarborough. Little by little a delicious feeling of independence and liberty began to grow within her. How well she had done to leave! she thought, and thanked Madame Seligman in her heart.
Then, in October, came the night that changed everything.
In the morning she had biked to school, like she did every day. The trip was only four kilometers, but whenever she had to fight through stinging rain and wind, it could turn into an ordeal.
Once more she had to dismount and walk, her fingers tight on the handlebars, frozen, eyes tearing. The water drummed on her backpack, strapped to the bike rack and wrapped in plastic. The day hadn’t gone very well either. Certain of her students had begun to take advantage of her, in particular a group of boys of fifteen or sixteen, all dumb as turf. At first they’d stayed quiet, observing her, but more and more they had become unpleasant, mocking and disrespectful. She suspected that they would make sexual jokes in English about her that the class would laugh at, and she alone couldn’t understand.
She left school at four, sad and vaguely humiliated. By luck, the weather had improved and she cycled with pleasure under a ray of sunshine that was as charming as it was unexpected. Along the way she stopped at a Barclay’s bank, where she had opened an account, just up the road from the house. She leaned the bike against the wall, looped the chain lock around it, and entered. Only two customers were ahead of her. When it was her turn at the teller, she asked for two hundred and fifty pounds sterling. She was putting the envelope into her backpack when she sensed eyes on her fingers. They were coming from the other side of the window, these eyes. From outside. She just caught sight of the man before he vanished down the sidewalk. Young. Seedy leather jacket. Hat pulled down over his ears. Skinny. And two piercing little eyes aimed straight at the money.
As she unlocked the bike, she looked for him up and down the road, but couldn’t see him. She cycled as calmly as possible the rest of the way, but couldn’t help but feel relieved when she made it home. She dismounted, turned the key in the lock, passed through the gate, closed it behind her, and walked around the right side of the house. Miss Sykes wasn’t there, as evidenced by her empty parking space in front of the house. She worked in the warehouse for a mall and rarely came home before six.
Angelique pushed her bicycle up to the shed. She entered. Placed the bike in its spot by the wall. She was releasing her backpack from the bike rack when she heard the gate creak on its hinges. I should have locked it, she thought, confused. She didn’t know she would regret the mistake for the rest of her life.
There were two of them now. The one from the bank with his hat and gaunt skeletal face, and another, fatter and older, sweating, with a knife in his right hand. She thought she would faint.
“The money. Now!” said the fat one, stalking toward her, holding the blade out in front of him.
“In the backpack,” said the other, who was keeping a lookout by the door of the shed.
With his free hand the fat one snatched the backpack, which she was still clutching to her chest, opened it, took the envelope, and tossed it to his henchman. Then, instead of leaving, he grabbed her by the neck and kissed her greedily on the mouth. He stank of sour sweat and grime. She fought back, shouting in French: “Non! Arrêtez!”
But all it did was excite him more. He pushed his knife into her ribs. He was wrapping his meaty arm around her body, pressing himself against her.
The two men exchanged words in an English she couldn’t understand, and the younger one closed the door of the shed, plunging them into darkness. Surely this hadn’t been their plan and the robbery was the only thing they’d had in mind, but how could they resist the temptation before them now, this unexpected bonus? A quiet spot, far from prying eyes, a woman at their mercy and a foreigner too, a little skinny, maybe, but pretty enough.
The fat one moved behind her, surrounded her with his arms, and let himself fall backwards, taking her with him. She screamed.
“Shut up!” he spat as he drew the blade along the side of her throat.
She shut up. They were on their backs now, him under and her on top, as if fused together. The young one in the hat lunged forward and threw himself at her, attempting to remove her jeans. She lashed out with her knees. He slapped her. The fat one pressed the knife.
“Nice and easy, yeah?”
They seemed to know what they were doing—the method was clearly tested and their individual roles set: one held, while the other . . . and then, surely, the reverse.
When she saw her own legs appear, naked and white, she despaired, and began to wail. Nothing and nobody could save her from the worst. Why? she asked herself. What did I do wrong?
The younger one got up to kick off his pants more easily. She shut her eyes so she wouldn’t see. She felt him kneeling between her legs, forcing her open. She screamed again and a few more millimeters of knife dug into her throat.
“Shut up, bitch!”
Copyright © 2018. Take Care, Love by Jean-Claude Mourlevat