On a check-up at a health clinic, a father and husband’s interactions with doctors are punctuated by reminiscences of love and lust for his wife. Gradually, we learn of a chilling act of violence, which leads the protagonist to a twisted reckoning with his mental and physical condition.
It’s cold. A cold that bores into you, that hasn’t let up for days, despite the big woollen jumper I never take off, even at night. Carlo tells me I should take it off for sleeping, and wrap myself up well in the blankets, so that when I get up I would add a garment to make up for the change in temperature, but one evening I tried this and my teeth chattered all night. The other men I see at lunchtime don’t seem to suffer, there’s even a guy who always walks around in a T-shirt, but admittedly he’s a burly fellow, well-padded against the cold.
The doctor made me go back to him this morning, after fasting, he wanted to do further tests, two whole syringes filled with blood, I asked to lie down because I’m always afraid of turning to look, and it’s much worse if you get to see it. The nurse smiled, although I couldn’t tell if it was from pity, sympathy, or scorn. She had difficulty finding the veins, it’s always the same, I begin to tense up, to sweat at the temples, I become dizzy and pale; when I was a teenager I passed out each time, and once I fell backwards and hit my head on a sink, was sent straight to hospital for a battery of tests, a lumbar puncture, and an idiot teacher spread it around that I’d taken an overdose, me who’s never touched the tiniest amount of an illegal substance, for fear of my reaction, and my scrupulous respect for the law.
When I had the first tests, eight months ago, the lady in the laboratory was very considerate, settling me into an armchair and telling me to look away, and to think of something pleasant; so I thought about the film I’d watched the night before, with Julie, her warm body, her breasts in my hands, her smell after making love. Then it was finished, and already I had a piece of cotton wool and then a sticking-plaster on top, whereas here everything is rougher, more brutal. I’ve been waiting for twenty minutes, standing in front of the grey door. They came to get me around six o’clock. Immediate appointment. Everything moved fast, then the iron door in the corridor clanged shut behind me, with a heavy ringing sound, and since then, nothing. The doctor must be on the telephone, I hear his voice at times, a powerful, raucous voice, but I don’t understand what he’s saying, the rooms are well insulated. I’d love to smoke a cigarette, it’s what I’ve been brooding about for a full five minutes, it’d do me good, would relax me, smoking a cigarette.
How beautiful Julie was when I first met her. Although it was frightening as well. I said to myself that so much beauty was too much for one man, that others would naturally want her, want to kiss her, sleep with her, defile her. I was too rushed, in those days. Just thinking about it makes me ashamed. She didn’t say anything, just smiled kindly, sometimes asking me to give her another little cuddle. I used to meet her in her tiny studio not far from the university, with its narrow bed that creaked, we could hear the neighbours passing in the corridor, she used to try and stifle her moans, we’d burst out laughing, but with patience, little by little I became better at it. I knew straightaway that she would be the love of my life, that there would be no one else but her, no turning away, not the slightest temptation. Everything about her delights me, her blonde hair, her thin face, her slender wrists and ankles, her almost angular shoulders. It’s strange, I love to see something of the skeleton in the body of a woman, the ribs, the hipbones, the lightly curving shoulder-blades, not a worrying excessive thinness, but the idea of the bones, their outline, and hairs, armpits, I love licking armpits, the thick sensation on the tongue, or the mop of hair, a lovely fleecy mop of hair which she only shaves at the edges so that it doesn’t escape from her bikini bottom; even the two pregnancies haven’t ruined her body, she’s kept her youthful figure, and the natural flexibility and firmness of her skin.
The children are old enough to understand, to make an effort to understand. Luc never expresses his feelings, yet I know he’s very attached to me. Claire is the age her mother was when we first met, she has a boyfriend at the moment, perhaps they’re lovers; they say that fathers are jealous of their daughters’ lovers, but that’s never been the case with me, Julie is all that counts, her way of putting her head on my shoulder, her long hair always well-groomed, her banter, her playful laughter, her fears too, all her fears for the youngsters, for her work, for her parents; they will never come to see me, they hate me.
The nurse has twice crossed the outer room where I’m still standing, she puts her head into the consultation room where the doctor is still on the phone then goes out again, looking at me strangely, as if trying to read something in my face. Women are rare here, the noise of their heels resounding in the corridor is unusual. And the lack of décor is tiring, the muted colours. The beige and grey walls, a wooden table, two chairs, empty shelves. And the light bulb, not switched on at the moment, as the daylight is so bright, a blinding light, the fog slowly disappearing. I sit down. They’re certainly going to tell me off, but they wouldn’t appreciate it if I remained upright until I drop. I used to love this morning light on the weekends with Julie waking up, her warm body outlined in the half-light, I would stroke her, she liked that, but no more than that, she would say no, I have a bad taste in my mouth, I’m sweaty, I don’t smell nice; she never smelt bad, she never smelt at all, but she’d dash into the shower, her first deed on waking, the water running for ages, steam billowing out into the bedroom. Sometimes she’d return with her head in a towel, and sit down to organise the day’s activities, ask me questions, laugh, chat, then over to the chest of drawers to find clean underwear.
The door opens. The doctor looks at me closely then announces, I must not see you alone, my assistant has gone to fetch the director, you can enter, it’s a bit too warm, I know you’re always cold, you’ve told me at each consultation. His face wears a slight expression of distaste. I sit down on one of the three chairs facing his desk, and he murmurs I’ll be back, don’t move. In any case, we never move much here. I wait for a good ten minutes. I hear footsteps, twice, which immediately go away again. It’ll soon be visiting hour.
I met Julie in the checkout queue in the supermarket. She appealed to me immediately, and though I was very shy, really tense, I spoke a few words to her, I said, all those things you’re carrying must be heavy, I could help you with your bags. She smiled, we went for coffee, it all happened so fast, I knew it would be for life, there was no need to wait, contrary to what my mother and father would have liked, with their sceptical silence. But to me it was obvious, it was a biological urge, I wanted to marry her, have children with her. For her too, although in smaller measure no doubt. Couples are rarely exactly the same. One of the two loves more than the other. If necessary, I would have loved enough for two of us. Everything made me jealous, a great dirty jealousy that sustained and suffocated me.
Sometimes on weekends we used to go for walks in the country, near her parents’ house; I couldn’t stand her passion for trees, there were one or two in particular whose trunks she would stroke or embrace, she’d been visiting them since her childhood, and she spoke to them softly, walking around them, leaving, returning, laughing occasionally at my sullen mood. All the same, you can’t be jealous of a tree. Well, yes indeed, I was jealous of a tree, I was jealous of everything. I would have liked to be able to isolate myself, isolate us. To shut her away, to bury her, to withdraw her from all others’ sight but mine. The worst time was in summer, at the coast. She loved swimming. And the sun. So we used to go to the beach, two full weeks, with everyone looking at her, all those men who dreamed only of taking her from me. Too much sun isn’t good for the skin. Once the children arrived, we became more careful, we still went south, but to inland backwaters, renting a holiday house in the middle of nowhere, with big gardens all around; the youngsters enjoyed themselves, there was a lot of shade, plenty of trees, but they weren’t trees she’d had time to get to know.
I hear voices, from behind the door. I seem to recognise the hoarse strains of the doctor’s voice, the other would be the nurse’s, but so low it’s impossible to distinguish, nor to understand anything they’re saying to each other, apart from a certain flurry of agitation, or maybe indignation. When my grandfather lay dying, peacefully sedated, I spent hours at his bedside, observing him, his regular breathing, very slow, an impassive look on his face, his eyes closed, the heavy eyelids that wouldn’t be needed much longer, the nose more prominent than usual, the hollow cheekbones, and this absurd care of my grandmother’s which included shaving him meticulously every day; I would have preferred them to let his beard grow, but no, they must maintain appearances, keep him a gentleman until the very end, a respectable gentleman, who had had a great and well-paid career. He’d accumulated a fortune, in the last years of the war, in the border crossing business, stowaways, and trafficking of all kinds, at least as far as I’ve been able to work out, and there too, at his bedside, the murmurings of family unrest reached me, all five of them, wife, son, daughters, colluding, planning, arranging. I wasn’t interested in even trying to understand. I simply remembered what he’d said to me, a few days earlier, he felt ready to go, and he’d spoken to me of the incredible energy of the men who’d returned from the front, the one of 1918, these more or less young males who had escaped slaughter and death were starving for life, love, sex; I couldn’t miss the note of sadness in his voice, they were heroes, nothing could stand in the way of this life force, it swept everything else away, don’t I know it, and he’d smiled, a false smile, like a rictus; after I knew your grandmother, we forgot all that, got back on the straight and narrow, never again looked sideways.
The doctor comes in, throwing out a statement as if he had to rid himself of it, your test results are excellent, Robert. It’s the first time he’s called me by my first name, like the others he usually uses my surname, but now Robert. Your test results show nothing, absolutely nothing, we’ve checked everything, across the two samples, you are perfectly well. I look at him, willing myself to understand what he’s thinking, what’s in his head, but I can’t see it, I don’t get it, it’s too vague. In the background, far away, I see Julie, her slight body moving in love, her body all at once heavy, so heavy in my arms, and the hammer to one side, dark red to the end of its wooden handle, the irrevocable hammer; this is what I was blamed for the most, the savagery of the act, the method, as if it were done by method, no, it was the means at hand, just my unprepared means; and suddenly, nothing, you have nothing, it was his last sentence. He leaves the room, without closing the door behind him. The nurse enters, followed by a guard. The director is coming, this is all they’ll say, we’ve just told him, he’s the one who’ll decide. And they stand in the doorway, one beside the other, perhaps they’re afraid I’ll try to run away, or make a wrong move. After a minute the nurse says, I don’t know if it’s good news, adding almost immediately, in any case it isn’t bad news, then she falls silent, the guard is silent too, no doubt he hasn’t read my file, and doesn’t understand.
In fact, my grandfather was frightened of it, this life force. Jealousy is always a weakness, an uncertainty, a lack of confidence, every other person is a competitor, a threat. I hadn’t thought about it since the first results were given to me by the doctor, the nice considerate one, he was sincerely sorry, he saw me in his comfortable office, all in good taste, reassuring me that at least my children were grown up, as nothing could be done, at this advanced stage. No, at the time I wasn’t consciously thinking of what my grandfather said, nor during the weeks that followed, until the event. But it must have connected something in my head. I looked at Julie and I saw her in the arms of others, not necessarily straightaway, but after a decently respectful period. People think of nothing but that, of mixing with others, becoming close, giving themselves, it’s their passion, and she would have done it too. I couldn’t bear the idea, I couldn’t look at her any more without imagining her in the arms of another, the first one to come along, or a friend; she had the right to live, to make another life for herself, as they say, no one would hold it against her, not even my own parents, who would find it a consolation. She noticed the faraway sadness in my eyes when I looked at her. Doubtless she thought me obsessed by my own fate, and the relatively short period of time I had left, as the doctor had said, sure of himself, there would certainly be other tests, but this was purely routine, and I should resign myself. I didn’t go back to have the other tests done, I couldn’t see the point. And now nothing, I have nothing. But it’s too late to have nothing, much too late, this is what I’d like to shout at them, at the nurse and the guard, and even more at the doctor who left so rapidly, so busy, always so busy.
The director has arrived. I hear his footsteps in the corridor, a footstep I’d recognise among a hundred others, or rather his shoes, a light squeaking of rubber from his quality English shoes, I love this calm comforting noise, but now I’m scared, very scared. Immediately afterwards, I left for work. Without saying anything. After a little while, the boss asked me to come into his office. I thought that he must have known, that someone had alerted him, that all had been discovered, the caretaker perhaps, or one of the children, returning unexpectedly, they had their own set of keys, an old habit, in case we lost ours, and also so that they would feel it was still their home; but it was nothing like that, he was simply thinking that our laboratory was starting to look antiquated. This had struck him during his last visit to an important client, the word ‘struck’ resonated strangely in my head. He wanted to repaint the walls, get better furniture, we were having excellent results, so we should advertise our success. The team must therefore take holidays all at the same time in July. I simply replied that the holidays had arrived. Perhaps I even smiled, without meaning to, rather from a sense of the absurd. I went to get my jacket from the laboratory, and I left the large building, and the boss was right, it’s a bit dilapidated.
I caught the bus, I went to my daughter’s place, it was late afternoon. On the second ring of the bell her boyfriend came to the door, I yelled at him, I want to talk to my daughter; she’s home, he said, we’re in the kitchen; I told her, told her everything. She didn’t believe me. She was frightened, but she didn’t believe me. She didn’t know what to do or say. She stared at me, with an almost questioning air, as if she were looking for a sign, or a clue. We could call Luc, she finally said. I agreed. There’s never been any difference in my eyes between my two children, I treated them both exactly the same, I believe, and Julie did too. It was just that I was able to take the bus straight to Claire’s place, while to go to Luc’s would have been more complicated as he would still be working at this hour, and wouldn’t finish until ten o’clock in the evening. Claire tried his office number first, then she got hold of him on his cell phone. He arrived quickly. He also didn’t know what to say, he really didn’t believe me.
Neither she nor he wanted to come back to the apartment. We went to the police station. Then everything moved very quickly, and very slowly at the same time. Corridors, offices, a cell, a police van, a judge, doctors, another police van, another cell, then more cells, waiting rooms, incomprehension. Claire alone made an effort. She asked questions. She knew the sincerity of my love for her mother, but why hadn’t I said anything, the tests, the doctor’s prognosis, if I had told them, if I had spoken to her, this would never have happened, I had locked myself in, these were her words, which came back each visit, you have locked yourself up in your own head. In three months it will all be over, the doctor had told me. You’ll become sicker and sicker. Afterwards, your wife will be free, she’ll find someone else, people aren’t made to live alone. He didn’t say these exact words to me, but he thought them. I read it in his face when he asked me the age of my wife, of my children. He saw that life would continue, for her, for them, a life without me, a life with someone else, or with several others, and I thought of all the arms that would hold her, grip her tight, go inside her, wrench her, knead her. Julie has such beautiful, fragile skin, the least pressure makes her bruise. This is why I chose the head, the scalp. Because of bruises. Not to bruise her all over. I don’t know exactly how many times I struck her, it must be in the autopsy report. I couldn’t listen when it was read out, I couldn’t make myself take it in, as if it were someone else’s affair, not mine.
The nurse tells me that my lawyer has been informed. I will have no further treatment, there’s no point. It’s only necessary to monitor my blood, because the drugs I’ve taken in these last weeks can have adverse side-effects. What an expression, adverse. Then the director says to me again, Robert, this changes everything now, this changes a lot, I don’t know what’s going to happen, but something is definitely going to happen. You don’t seem surprised, he adds suspiciously. Then he leaves, giving orders to the guard behind the door, to escort me. To an isolation cell, you’ll be better off there.
Carlo will be disappointed. I really like Carlo, he cares about others, he always asks how you are, when someone has a problem, a worry, an illness. I’m going to miss him.
Translated from the French by Carolyne Lee
Bernard Comment has won French and Swiss awards for writing, including the prestigious Prix Goncourt in 2011 for his short story collection Tout Passe, from which ‘The Results’ was taken. He co-edited, with Stanley Buchtal, Fragments: Poems, Intimate Notes, Letters by Marilyn Monroe.
Carolyne Lee spent many years as a university lecturer in Media and Communications, before recently turning to translation. Her first translated book was The Seduction of Fiction by Jean-Francois Vernay, published by Palgrave in 2016.
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