A Very Long Engagement (excerpt)
Translated by: Lucy Sawdon-Collings
Mathilde is ten and a half years old. It’s a Friday, or a Saturday, she doesn’t remember anymore. Manech turned thirteen on the 4th. He’s on his way home from school in short trousers and a marine blue jumper, with his satchel on his back. He stops in front of the fence that surrounds the Poéma garden. He sees Mathilde for the first time; she’s sitting in her wheelchair at the other side.
It’s a mystery why that afternoon in particular he decided to pass by the villa. He lives beyond the Hossegor Lake and has no reason to make such a detour. In any case, he’s there, he watches Mathilde through the bars, and then he asks: “Can you not walk?”
Mathilde shakes her head. He can’t find anything to say and so he leaves. One minute later, he returns. He looks embarrassed. He asks: “Do you have any friends?” Mathilde shakes her head. He says, looking elsewhere, finding it all very tiresome: “If you like, I really want to be your friend”. Mathilde shakes her head. He raises his hand above his head, crying: “Oh shit!” and he leaves.
This time, she doesn’t see him again for at least three minutes. When he reappears at the other side of the bars, God knows what he’s done with his satchel, his hands are in his pockets and he gives the impression of being very calm and superior. He says: “I’m strong. I could take you round on my back all day. Look I could even teach you to swim.” She says: “It’s not true. How would you do it?” He says: “I know how. With floats to keep your feet up.” She shakes her head. He puffs out his cheeks and blows out the air. He says: “I’m going fishing with my father, on Sunday. I can bring back a hake like that!” He gestures a fish the size of a whale with his arms. “Do you like hake?” She shakes her head. “Sea bass?” The same. “Crab claws? We bring back plenty in the nets.” She turned her chair round and pushed the wheels, this time it’s her that moves away. He calls after her: “Fine! Be stuck up then! I guess I stink too much of fish for you, eh!” She shrugs her shoulders, ignores him, and wheels towards the house as fast as she can. She hears Sylvain calling from somewhere in the garden: “Tell me then funny man, do you want a kick up the backside?”
That evening, in bed, Mathilde dreams that her little fisherman is walking her along the path by the lake, in the forest and the streets of Cap-Breton, and the women above their doors say: “Aren’t they beautiful those two, such an infectable friendship!”
When she finds out from her mother that infectable doesn’t exist, she’ll be very disappointed, she’ll make the ladies say: “Look at that infectious friendship”, and later on “that infected love.”
He comes back the next afternoon at the same time. She’s waiting for him. This time, he sits down on the wall at the other side of the gate. For a moment, he doesn’t look at her. He says: “I’ve got plenty of friends, in Soorts. I don’t know why I’m bothering with you.”
She asks: “Is it true that you could teach me to swim?” He nods. She moves her wheelchair closer, touches him on the back so that he looks at her. He has blue eyes, his hair black and full of curls. He shakes her hand formally through the railings. He has a dog and two cats. His father has a fishing boat in the port. He’s never seen Paris, or Bordeaux. The biggest town he knows is Bayonne. He’s never had female friends.
Maybe it’s today, or perhaps another day that Bénédicte comes out onto the balcony and says to him: “What on Earth are you doing outside? Do you think we’re savages? The door’s open, come in.” He answers: “So the redhead can kick my arse?” Bénédicte laughs. He calls Sylvain, who says to the boy: “I don’t like you calling me redhead too much, you know. Carry on and I won’t be putting my foot up your backside for nothing. I’m guessing you’re the Etchevery’s Manech from Soorts? Well, your father will probably thank me; he must be due a few kicks. Come on, come in before I change my mind.”
It’s said that friendships that start badly are the most infecting. Bénédicte and Sylvain and even Pois-Chiche, who is barely a year old, have quickly caught the virus. Almost every day, Bénédicte has an afternoon snack. She finds children who have a good appetite to have been well raised. Sylvain recognizes that Manech, who will be sitting his end of school diploma in two years, deserves credit for helping his father with the fishing and his mother, who is in very poor health, with all kinds of work.
The holidays are on their way. When he is not at sea or sawing wood for winter, Manech takes Mathilde to the edge of the lake. They have a favourite spot, on the bank that has its back to the ocean, almost facing the Cotis inn. Up to the sand it’s all shrubbery, trees and mimosas that flower even in summer. You never see a single soul except on Sundays, a bearded stranger in street clothes and a straw hat, who has a fisherman’s hut and a small boat a little bit further up. Manech calls him the bogeyman, but he’s not nasty. Once, Manech helped him pull his nets out of the water and gave him advice on how to catch more fish.
The bogeyman is completely dumbfounded by the science of such a young fisherman and Manech responds with fierce pride: “I was born in the water’s depths, remember, I know a lot about it”
Then, the bogeyman is infected and seems happy to wave and ask Manech how he is whenever Manech is on his turf.
The first summer followed by the second. It seemed to Mathilde that it was during the second that she decided to learn how to swim.