Monsieur Delcroix

Mònica Batet

Artwork by Sukutangan

Every March 15 Monsieur Delcroix would bring down his cat Drogo to drop him off at our apartment. It became a habit that lasted for years. A few days earlier he’d come to see my mother, announce that he was about to take a trip, and explain which places he expected to visit. If I was at home, I’d sit with them and listen wide-eyed to all the things Monsieur Delcroix knew about the city he picked to spend time that year. As far as I can remember, he’d go on a trip every March. It would be a long trip that always took him to some city with a river, and it would last until June 15.

We’d watch him head down the street with a green suitcase, and we’d think about how many postcards he was going to send us. Since my father’s salary didn’t amount to very much, we didn’t take trips. We weren’t familiar with catching planes or long-distance trains because we didn’t even vacation in any of the northern villages during August. My mother always griped when she heard my father telling me, “Maybe next year,” because she knew I found the start of school really horrible. Every September I had to listen to all my schoolmates’ summer adventures, one after another, and I had to confess before their expectant looks that I hadn’t budged from Paris that year either. Maybe that was why those postcards with the neat handwriting, sent every so often by Monsieur Delcroix, had become the only existing link between my family and what happened beyond the city limits. We kept them all in a cookie jar, and whenever I got sick, my grandmother would take them out and together we’d read them again. He always sent the same kind of card, cities at night with unremarkable information and a familiar au revoir, I hope this finds you quite well. Istanbul, Stockholm, London . . . all those addresses intermingled before my eyes, making me phrase questions that my grandmother usually couldn’t answer.

When I was a little boy, I admired that cultured man who weighed his words and managed to sketch rings within rings when he smoked. I could spend entire afternoons contemplating that smoky spectacle. When I was older and decided to start smoking myself, I tried to make those rings, but they never turned out right. To me, everything about Monsieur Delcroix was a mystery. He must’ve been in his forties, but he’d never worked. My grandmother explained in a low voice that he had lots of money, and he could allow himself the luxury of doing just what he pleased.

On those occasions when Monsieur Delcroix came to see us, not even five minutes would pass before he lit a cigarette. When he left, our house reeked with the smell of tobacco, and my grandmother always had to open the windows, even if it was winter. He’d sit near me, looking for an ashtray and sketching smoke rings as he explained the places he’d visited and used words in unknown languages. I grabbed his hand to ask if he’d take me with him, and he always replied that this couldn’t happen because I had to take care of Drogo. Every time a new postcard arrived, I looked at that animal, wanting blood, certain I would throw him out of the window if I didn’t fear the consequences.

As the years passed, the list of cities that Monsieur Delcroix visited grew longer. Drogo had aged, and he would spend his days without his owner sleeping in a corner of our kitchen. In time he changed from being a playful cat, who forced my mother to keep an eye on the sofas, to an animal that didn’t even miaow if he saw me approach. This was why that June 13 when Drogo disappeared we were all surprised that he was capable—at his age—of overcoming the obstacle of a fourth floor gallery.

We spent the two days before Monsieur Delcroix’s return searching for the cat all over the neighborhood. On the fifteenth, when the clock struck four, we felt lost. My mother cried her eyes out, imagining how we’d tell him the news. As far as we knew, he had owned the cat for more than twelve years. That June 15, still wondering how we’d explain, we were sitting in the dining room, waiting. But the hours passed without him calling at our apartment. The next day was another day of waiting, and on the evening of the seventeenth the uneasiness arrived. Monsieur Delcroix had given no signs of life. A week went by, and we couldn’t decide what to do because, when you came to think of it, he wasn’t family. He was just that neighbor who every year entrusted us with his cat. Besides, the cat had disappeared.

We had no address, no phone number, nothing that could help us. The only thing we knew for certain was that he had traveled to Budapest on that occasion. The afternoon he went to see my mother he explained that the Danube passes right through the center of the city, and there are different bridges that connect Buda and Pest. He talked about the train station and a two-storey market, full of salami merchants. Those were the only things my mother managed to remember even though she tried hard. Then my father made an unexpected decision. My grandmother protested: we couldn’t possibly waste so much money. My mother didn’t know what to say. Suddenly, for the first time in my life, I found myself in an airplane, bound for Budapest, my father at my side. Once at the airport, we caught a taxi, and I woke up just when we were traveling on the Chain Bridge. I saw boats crossing the river, and it struck me that he hadn’t sent us a postcard of that bridge. That year, in fact, we didn’t receive any postcards from him, and I said as much to my father.

In the evening we rang my mother, and she asked us to come back. She had run into a neighbor, a few hours after we’d left, and when she explained that we’d gone to Budapest to look for Monsieur Delcroix, the woman asked, perplexed, “Who is Monsieur Delcroix?” My mother couldn’t believe it. She responded, “Monsieur Delcroix, the man on the fifth floor, in five-two,” but the woman contradicted her, convinced that no one had lived in five-two for more than fifteen years. To calm down my mother, we insisted that the woman didn’t know what she was talking about. None of us, my mother replied, had ever been inside his apartment.

We stayed in Budapest for eight days. We walked down streets with unpronounceable names, and many times we thought we saw him. We returned to Paris with key chains and marzipan sweets. When we got home, the first thing my mother said was, “Nobody knows who he is.” My father exclaimed that this couldn’t be, and I went to find all those postcards, dumping them on the dining room table: it was impossible for someone who didn’t exist to write so much.

Then we did it. We waited for the man in five-one to go to work, and we got into Monsieur Delcroix’s apartment. After half an hour, we managed to open the door and, once inside, I had to look at my father to make sure it was really happening. My grandmother and my mother had refused to accompany us, and when we explained to them that the apartment was completely empty, they were left speechless. That same night we agreed that, no matter what happened, we would never again speak of Monsieur Delcroix. We burnt his postcards, and my mother disposed of the basket where Drogo used to sleep.

The following March 15 had been hard to get through, but we didn’t discuss it because we couldn’t. Afterwards, and always on that date, an uncomfortable silence would come over us. It was the same exact silence I had experienced when one night—years later—just as I was getting home, I saw a man sitting on a bench, sketching rings inside rings with the smoke from his cigarette. At first I didn’t dare approach him, but in the end my curiosity proved too strong, and when I was standing two steps away, a “Monsieur Delcroix” on the verge of leaving my mouth, he turned toward me for a second, no more than a second, and everything I wanted to tell him faded like smoke.

translated from the Catalan by Lawrence Venuti