If Camus’ Meursault once shocked us with his emotional alienation, opening his novel with “Today, mother died,” Frédérique Martin’s unsentimental narrator takes it one step further in “The Despair of the Roses”: “I sold my mother the other day.” This Translation Tuesday, we present the brilliant fiction leading off our New Voices in French Literature Special Feature showcase in our latest issue. If you are a French reader, hop over to this article page for the French original and translator Hilary McGrath’s note, and consider following us at our newly launched French Facebook page!
—Lee Yew Leong, Editor-in-Chief
I sold my mother the other day. At the market in Saints-Sauveurs, the one that’s open to the public twice a year like in many large towns. I wanted to take care of the sale myself rather than handing her over to one of the merchants. They may know all the right things to say but they don’t always keep their word. Don’t think that I don’t love my mother. I said to her—I love you, Mum. Don’t ever forget that—but the day comes when you have to move on from your parents and let go of the apron strings. My father has been dead for some time so this question never arose with regard to him.
She was gone by around three in the afternoon. You could hardly say they had to tear us apart. She’s not even that old and is still in excellent health. She wasn’t a burden on me either. It was more a question of weighing things up and finding a balance; when one stage in life comes to an end you need to move on. To leave your childhood behind you, selling your mother becomes a necessary step. I’m not the only one who believes this to be true but I know what some people think about it; they consider it a little too . . . radical. For the most part, they are hypocrites who end up putting their elderly relatives into retirement homes where death awaits them. Some keep them at home but reduce their living space little by little and send them to bed earlier and earlier, knowing that the deadly boredom of the interminable days will grind them down. Some people probably still love them enough to relinquish a space for them, some corner, over there. And wait it out.
I don’t want all that palaver in my house. My mother is affectionate and very active. That’s the memory I’ll always have of her. However, she did weave an invisible, sticky web around me that prevented me from growing up, my heartbeat stuck in a groove that wasn’t my own.
I let her go for a reasonable price, although that’s not the most important thing. I must admit that I did negotiate, although I would hardly have thought myself capable. Money doesn’t just make the world go around, it has a tight hold on all of us one way or another. We shouldn’t ignore the worst in ourselves—it’s often the thing that defines us, all things considered.
We arrived early, at around five in the morning. There were already a lot of people there in the gloomy darkness. The sky was low, heavy, and tired. Dew clung on stubbornly despite efforts to dry everything with sponges and cloths. My mother says that it’s the dead up above lamenting for us, shaking their heads and allowing their tears to fall.
Mixed smells of coffee, fried food, and tobacco accosted us, dispelling the fresh air. We found a good spot at the edge of the main road. In the half-light before daybreak, when it feels less shameful, fellow unfortunates were spreading out their misery on the ground—things that had died in their possession. Everything was for sale and some of it, let’s be honest, was absolute junk. It was a huge mess.
I wasn’t sure of the best way to show off my mother, whether it would be better to have her facing the road or towards the square. Even if I tried placing her sideways, she would turn her back on potential clients anyway. I wished for a moment that I had thought of a revolving platform like you see in window displays for luxury items. My mother waited patiently clutching her handbag with her eyes fixed on me. I got her favourite armchair out of the car, and making sure not to catch her eye, I helped her into it. I then discreetly placed a cardboard sign on the frayed velvet back. On it I’d written: One thousand five hundred euros, armchair included. Of course, selling just one armchair would devalue the pair but that was unavoidable. My mother always sat in that one and I couldn’t imagine depriving her of it, nor of having it staring me in the face, empty, in the evenings.
She took out her work and placed it on her lap. It looked abandoned. The colourful scene—a garden of embroidered roses—made me think, who knows why, of the broken wings of some large inanimate bird. My mother can’t bear the thought of leaving her roses behind. She grows them in front of the house, she spends her evenings embroidering them, her clothes are decorated with them, and she fills vases to overflowing around the house. She’s as passionate as a little old English lady, even if she’s never gone beyond the river. I promised her I’d take care of them but I know it’s hard for her. Looking at her sitting there, I took in the way her hair was tied up in a bun, and that dress that I bought for her one Christmas or for one of her birthdays. She looked younger than when she moves about the house in her apron doing battle with the dust. She seemed somehow different, yet familiar, as if she were some distant relation, but no, it was definitely her. I said it under my breath a few times, clenching my teeth to convince myself—It’s your mother.
She placed her hands underneath the unfinished embroidery instead of setting to work and she remained like that, resigned to the wait. I had left her suitcase in the boot of the car, as well as a large Liberty print bag that she uses to carry all her belongings that I consider superfluous but that she deems necessary: books, old photos and some recent ones, her own mother’s glasses—it was the last thing I did for her, you know, removing them the night she died—large white cotton handkerchiefs that had been freshly ironed, and a notebook with blue-lined paper to keep her writing straight. It’s so that I can write to you, dear. You don’t need to bother, Mum. Of course I’ll bother. It’ll be my pleasure and you can send me news of my flowers. Whatever you want, Mum.
She didn’t make a fuss. Maybe she had expected that this was the way it would turn out, without really believing it. Who knows where our deep-seated fears come from, the revulsion that they cause and our tendency to ignore them. Hers grew from me pushing her away over small things—Mum, don’t peel my apple—and then further away—Don’t wait up for me tonight. I won’t be home.
How she always managed to annoy me! Her discretion, her mournful appearance, the barely stifled sighs, and even the affection she showed me; it all just got on my nerves and turned me against her. But that made her cling on even more, hanging on to my every word, her anxious face betraying her thoughts.
But it was really just her presence. Her contagious compassion. Her reassuring embrace. The sudden laughter that she quickly suppressed. So the emptiness that remains is much more than just absence.
She had nobody else to mollycoddle—Let me wash your shirts. Why don’t you eat properly? Are you not going to give me a kiss? She didn’t notice me growing up; she seemed to think I hadn’t. Everything that pushed me away was another blow to her, ripping her apart. So she allowed a few tears to fall. And I noticed despite her furtive efforts to conceal them, and I did think more than once that it was deliberate on her part. That she intended to be caught unawares.
The ability to show tenderness is not an innate quality in sons, so she gradually gave up, and sooner than I had expected, she let go of the reins.
There was an old cast-iron stove near us—the kind they don’t make anymore—covered in a hunter-green enamel. It was just a little chipped where the poker was leaning against it. Above the opening, you could still make out two overlapping initials which were beginning to rust. On the ground there was a cage containing some sad-looking rabbits with soiled fur, as well as a white rat, gnawing on its tail out of boredom.
Opposite us, on the other side of the road, there was a man in a suit and tie who had placed some children in an old cardboard box from a freezer delivery. On the outside he had stuck photos of the mothers surrounded by their offspring. They were all nicely cleaned up but most of them looked like they were lacking in intelligence.
A little further on, a young author was boldly trying to flog his book. There were hundreds of them all around him, ramparts of identical words, dizzyingly repeated. He was selling two for the price of one, but nobody was taking him up on the offer, even for personally signed copies.
Several women were selling their bodies; they had their work cut out for them.
There was a couple trying to sell Illusion Devices at the tops of their voices. My mother, who is a little deaf, couldn’t hear them from where we were. Onlookers moved past my mother, mesmerised by the hubbub, and some got carried away and asked to check her teeth. I firmly rejected that request.
We hadn’t really discussed it. She knew there was something up long before I told her what I had decided. Finally she plucked up the courage to ask me some questions. Exasperated, I answered her abruptly, probably to hide my discomfort.
—I’m considering selling you.
She was stunned into silence. I felt my face flush although my fingers were like ice. I was almost tempted to take it back; instead, I added quickly:
—I’ve been thinking about it a lot. I’m almost twenty-five years old you know. No woman will ever want to live with me under these circumstances.
And then, seeing her consternation:
—You knew when you brought me into the world that this would happen one day or another. All parents must expect it!
I suggested that she stay until the end of the summer so that she could enjoy her roses in bloom. She didn’t want to.
—The waiting would be worse than the occurrence itself, she said.
She didn’t try to argue that some children keep their parents until they die, that she herself had done that. She didn’t bring up maternal love, filial duty, or things like that. Actually, I realise now that she didn’t try to plead her case. Would it have changed anything?
We agreed on a date as if it were urgent; if she had had her way, she would have left immediately. I protested weakly—Let’s take some time to prepare ourselves. She rolled up her napkin carefully and said—I don’t think that will be possible.
Afterwards I felt relieved because everything had been said and there were no more secrets. It was awkward during her last few days, watching her as she sorted through her belongings, talked to her roses, or rubbed her palms along the smooth surface of a piece of furniture. I had an unpleasant feeling too, tearing me up inside, because she only spoke to me in a cold manner. The evening that I reproached her for it, I saw a flash of hatred in her eyes, but it was so fleeting that I reassured myself afterwards—You must have been mistaken.
The first offer was a rip-off. The guy tried to haggle. I knew straight away that he intended on making a nice profit by selling her on. I didn’t give in. I didn’t like the idea of someone speculating on my mother; anyway the price that he offered was too low, barely half what I was expecting. But I was also afraid that nobody would want her and that we’d have to start all over again. So the dealer kept coming back, sensing my determination was waning as the hours ticked by.
An old couple enquired if they could rent her to attend their dog’s burial.
—We’ll only need her for a few hours, the man said. Then we’ll bring her back.
I wasn’t the slightest bit interested. Then the wife got involved:
—We get very bored. All our friends are dead and our children live too far away to be able to come. You have to try not to blame your children, even if it’s hard.
When she said the last bit, her voice softened. She was speaking to my mother who wore an impassive expression. My mother didn’t reply. The couple moved on at a sprightly pace only to stop a little further on to examine a display of funeral ornaments that came with a eulogy and mourners included. However my mother didn’t look at anyone or anything. She wasn’t exactly putting her heart into it! Just a blank face, the abandoned embroidery, and her saggy skin where she could have tried to smile. I began to lose hope.
The little girl arrived shortly after lunch. Blonde plaits, pink ribbons, and wearing her Sunday dress. Even though it was only Friday! She almost dropped her sandwich when she saw my mother in her armchair.
—Look! It’s a granny. A granny! she shouted. She was pointing, which I consider rude and didn’t endear her to me at all.
—Not really, I clarified. She’s still just a mum.
As I had expected, the little girl didn’t care.
—She has grey hair and embroidery. And her hair is up in a bun. And she’s in an armchair. It’s just like in my Mother Goose book. Oh! Do you not have glasses?
She was addressing my mother directly and my mother returned her smile. Meanwhile, the girl’s parents had arrived and were moved by such enthusiasm. The child ran around my mother clapping her hands and jumping up and down. Her incessant babble was grating on my nerves; her speech was quite hard to understand.
—Hélène, don’t touch that lady; you might break her, her father said, in a gentle voice.
—Don’t worry, it’s alright, my mother replied in a similar soft tone. She’s being very careful.
It seemed that they had adopted each other on sight. Hélène’s mother watched them and seemed upset. I wasn’t sure that I appreciated the demonstration either. As far as I was concerned, it was a little inappropriate that my mother was so taken with a passing kid just because she was young and smiley. Had all the time we had spent together meant so little?
The mother said to the little girl in a vexed tone:
—Hélène, we didn’t say that we were going to take her.
Then to me:
—How much did you say you wanted?
—One thousand five hundred euros, armchair included.
I noticed the barely perceptible movement of my mother’s head; she looked at me out of the corner of her eye. A breeze ruffled the hair on her forehead. Her contemptuous sneer shocked me. I must have reddened.
The girl’s father intervened.
—It’s too expensive, Hélène.
—It can be my Christmas present and my birthday present too. And she can even mind me when you go out or when I’m sick, and . . . and . . .
My mother put her hand on the child’s head. I noticed that her knuckles were deformed; I hadn’t paid attention to them until now. They must be painful, I thought. Are they causing you pain, Mum? Time slowed down. Everything and everyone went fuzzy, like in those old films that are always on rerun. I couldn’t breathe and my head was spinning.
The parents moved to one side and were arguing quietly. Hélène was listening to my mother who was whispering some story into her ear; her eyes were wide in amazement and she burst out laughing. The dealer who had made the offer that morning hadn’t backed down and was hanging about not far from us. Afraid he’d miss out on the deal, he approached me.
—I’ll give you fifty on top of my last offer, he said.
—Excuse me, Sir. We were here first, the father said, frowning.
—Wrong! I made an offer earlier this morning. Isn’t that correct?
—That’s true, I agreed.
I hardly knew my own voice.
—And I’m offering fifty more, he repeated.
My mother sighed and looked down at her gnarled fingers on her embroidery. Hélène had tears in her eyes.
—But he doesn’t need a granny. What does he want her for?
She was harassing him; the dealer narrowed his eyes and gave her a dirty look. Without taking his eyes off Hélène, he addressed the father:
—The little one’s not for sale by any chance, is she?
The mother let out a stifled cry and grabbed her daughter by the shoulders, pulling her close. The father looked like he was ready for a fight. The emotion was too much for Hélène and she turned red and started crying.
—I’m only small. I’m the one who needs a granny! Because I don’t have one.
—It’s a mum! I said, annoyed.
Then, under my breath—It’s my mum. But nobody seemed to consider that. Not even you, I told myself.
The father decided to go in for the kill; it was a question of honour between the dealer and himself:
—We’ll offer you three hundred more than this man, he spat out. And that’s really quite a lot.
My mother’s head shot up. He was suddenly embarrassed and said, more gently:
—For us, I mean. It’s really quite a lot for us . . .
—Three hundred and fifty, the dealer said, raising the bid. Let’s shake on it!
I put my hand on my mother’s shoulder; it had been a long time since I’d touched her, and it was only in doing so that I realised. After a slight hesitation, she put her own hand on mine. Her skin was soft, worn-out. Everything about her was tired.
—Whatever you want, my dear . . . It’s your decision.
When I returned home, it was still early enough to see the feverish sun setting over the horizon. There was a heaviness, a stillness in the house beneath the cold electric lights. I discovered that all sounds had disappeared and that nothing could cut into the silence that lingered. I ate on my own for the first time and dragged out the task of washing up. The night slowly crept into all the rooms. I put the second armchair out with the recycling and I moved some furniture around.
When I passed her room, I leaned against her door and stayed like that for a long time without moving. I knew every detail about the life that had taken place behind that door, but it remained unopened. There would always be something missing from there that had left with her, like the gentle presence of her breath. There was no way I would go in there.
I thought of all the days when she had been there but I had passed by without seeing her. I thought of the physical body that anticipates its end by a sort of letting go, and of our hurry to rid ourselves of inevitable departures.
Time passes. There probably won’t be another woman in this house—nobody would put up with this life. And I haven’t received any letters from my mother.
Sometimes I wake up during the night. I get up for a glass of water and see my face in the mirror. I lean on the wash-hand basin with the cold tap running and I cry, unable to lift my head.
Sometimes I think I hear her laborious footsteps on the gravel and the sound of her putting down her suitcase. Each time I run to open the door. But there’s nobody there—just the quiet despair of the roses and one of the last summer evenings drawing to a close.
To discover more new French voices, including Maryam Madjidi, the 2017 winner of the Prix Goncourt for a first novel, click over to our Fall 2017 issue.
Frédérique Martin is a French novelist, short story writer, and poet. She writes for adults and children and has won several awards for her work, including the Prix Prométhée de la nouvelle for L’écharde du silence in 2004. Her latest collection, J’envisage de te vendre (j’y pense de plus en plus) (I’m Considering Selling You (I’ve Been Thinking About It More And More)), published by Belfond, was shortlisted for Prix Place aux Nouvelles 2017. ‘The Despair of the Roses’ is the first story in this collection. Frédérique is a member of writers’ associations including SGDL and CRL Midi-Pyrénées and is a jury member for the Crous de Toulouse short story prize. She teaches creative writing, and reads regularly in schools and libraries. She has adapted some of her work for stage and film. In her latest artistic collaboration with director Ouahide Dibane, she plays two roles and does the voiceover for the short film of “The Despair of the Roses.” Further information can be found here.
Hilary McGrath is a writer and literary translator. Born in Ireland, she has lived in France for fifteen years. She holds a B.A. in Applied Languages and an M.A. in Creative Writing. Her translation of Yolaine Maillet’s poetry has appeared in Spontaneity. Her own short stories have appeared in journals such as Words with JAM, Crannóg, The Incubator Journal, and The Ofi Press. She won the Writing West Midlands Short Fiction Competition 2013, and was listed in Writers & Artists, and Fish. She also compiled and edited the Gascony Writers Anthology 2016.
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