Paris, France, 2020
We need to do something, Pascal. I can’t take it anymore.
Click. Sarah closes our armoured apartment door from the outside and scuttles down the stairs. The entrance door locks itself behind her; I can see her schoolbag bounce on the concrete path left of the Judas tree. My stomach turns. My knees swoon. I plump my back against the wall in our entrance. The back of my head knocks against the handset of the intercom. I breathe in through my nose, focus on my expanding diaphragm. The used air whooshes out. I want to curl up on the couch and unfold in another apartment, another country, another history.
Instead, I wander around without aim and fetch up at our living room window, staring at the weeping willow. Its bare arms droop – the perfect stage set for the grey season. There used to be a blackbird. Will this autumn ever end? Our neighbour René is listening to his beloved Goldberg Variations. Although he and his wife Louise are in their eighties, she always wears dapper makeup. You acknowledge her discipline with a smile. René has the stamina of a civil rights activist; he keeps fighting. When you two start discussing on the landing, I put our dinner back in the oven. The Carnival mask our favourite neighbours brought Sarah from Venice is delicate, made of bone and purple feathers, an unusual gift for a 10-year-old.
At least, Sarah does not have to wear a mask against COVID-19 at school. I pick up her breakfast board from the couch and do not know what to do with it. We are told to be brave – how brave can soft targets be? Sarah wanted to show me how she hides under her desk if an armed attacker penetrates into school. ‘Thanks, but no thanks,’ I said. The breakfast board leads me into the kitchen. I manage to wash the dishes; you already rinsed your plate and the mug Sarah painted for you at Kindy. The orange flower on your mug trembles, but sports a sturdy smile. You look like a boy since you cut your men’s bun and the cowlick settled on top of your head. The stick figure holding the flower pictures you well.
A week ago, when the 9:00 pm curfew was announced, four or five youths flocked together in front of the house, under our kitchen window. They were all young men, at least I didn’t hear a female voice. My hope they might be friends of Alex from the fourth floor floundered in the snippets of their staccato phrases. ‘Wesh wesh‘… ‘salam‘… ‘alaikum‘… ‘brothers’… ‘Zionists,’ I heard. Apparently, they tried to use all the words in Arabic they knew in a single conversation. For years, I dreamt of studying Arabic and discovering the Arab countries and cultures. Not anymore. A woman travelling on her own in North Africa and the Middle East, let alone in Saudi Arabia or the UAE? Not a good idea, these days. The youths under my window laughed; I froze. ‘Bastards,’ one of them shouted. My hackles raised. A body smashed against the glass of the entrance door. It resisted. The treacly, slightly fetid smell of hash lingers on.
In my nightmares, they are a pack. They hold knives or cleavers. Unlike when I walk in the streets, trucks or cars rarely threaten. You and Sarah are somewhere near, unsuspecting. I never tell you about my nocturnal visions. You hardly talk about your day-to-day struggle at school, either, except for Mounir. The boy is increasingly tetchy and was involved in repeated schoolyard fights. You are trying hard to help him. Pascal, please, you must be careful. You shouldn’t need to be a hero to work as a teacher.
I grab your yellow T-shirt from your pillow. One of your main selling points when we first met. Mustard-coloured with a honeycomb structure, it is strictly beyond fashion or vanity. We both defend it against your mother’s attempts to use it as a cloth for polishing shoes. You wore it the night Sarah was born. During labour, our baby’s heartbeat plunged on the monitor next to my shoulder, and you were wrapped in a robin egg blue operation theatre outfit for the emergency caesarean section. The hairnet highlighted the golden spots in your eyes. While the medical team sutured me, you and Sarah were taken into a separate room. We still laugh about your lack of grasp when the nurse said, ‘Take your clothes off.’ You eventually took your T-shirt off, and Sarah was welcomed into the world on your bare chest, providing for the warmth which surrounded her in my womb before.
The T-shirt I am clutching in my hand still echoes Sarah’s baby blurps. She always wanted your shoulder when all we wanted was to bring her to bed. You wandered miles with her from the lounge to the kitchen and back to her room…and back to the lounge, to the kitchen and to her room again. Repeat. Nowadays, you only carry her in exceptional moments; when she cut her foot on a seashell during our summer holiday in Campania. You still are her idol, though.
My running shoes are drying on the balcony; I slipped on my tights first thing in the morning. Ouch. My tense shoulder blades fetter my movements. Shoes laced. I pick up my key and look at the bookshelves in the lounge. The Conference of the Birds is still waiting for me, next to Rumi’s poems. I whisk down the stairs and trot to the park. A magpie flies up; nobody else in sight. The maples and oaks are naked relics of summer; here and there, a pine tree adds a dark shade of green to the bleak landscape. I slip on a root and stumble on the muddy trail.
Oh, there is René on his daily walk. Our neighbour’s smile diffuses through the medical mask, and he lifts his fedora. The rotor blades of a military helicopter lash the horizon. The motor sounds like a giant lawnmower. A runner was shot at in a nearby park, with a weapon later used in a terrorist attack. Did somebody really test the gun, as if the jogging man was a clay pigeon? Do you think of that man when you go for a run, Pascal? You do not have much leisure for the outdoors lately; you spend most of your time at home preparing your classes.
Back in our apartment, after a quick shower, I take out the recipe for a goat cheese soufflé, your favourite dish. I’ll make one to celebrate Friday evening. Tomorrow, I’ll cook meatballs as a treat for Sarah. Blody porc eaters. You have it comin, said the text on my phone. I kept it, although I will not bother the police. It is not even a direct death threat. You say it was a joke. A younger brother playing with his sister’s phone. When has it become an insult to be a porc eater? And why do they call us crusaders? The Charlie Hebdo team was discussing how to fight racism when the men with the machine guns came.
Last year, a chubby boy, no more than eleven years old, asked me at the football club’s buffet if my meatballs were halal. They weren’t, and I felt sorry for him. For the buffet in December, I baked a tomato tart. When I walked downhill, tossing my hot mould from one hand to the other, I passed an elderly couple. A little girl bobbed around them. The gentleman’s skullcap looked Moroccan to me; it resembled the one the poet Rafik – I haven’t seen him in years – used to wear. The lady and the girl both sported Santa hats. We smiled and recognised each other as well-intentioned.
I spot two bay leaves at the bottom of our four-tier veggie trolley and extract one of them from the organic chaos. The goat cheese is a bit crumbly and dry, just the way we like it for a soufflé. It releases an earthy scent.
Since Charlie Hebdo, we huddle together around flowers and candles. We wave placards starting with I am and add the names of the latest victims. Music wrenches our hearts. Our tears have dried—they did not turn into moats. Words. Maybe we need words.
A muted vzzzzzt shudders on the kitchen bench.
(For Samuel Paty)
Claudia Bolz was made in Germany, lived in Paris, came to Aotearoa; fed on words. Over the decades, she gleaned snippets of longing and migration. Their story now asks to be told. Claudia holds a European Master of Conference Interpreting completed in Paris and a Master of International Law and Politics completed in Christchurch. She lives with her family and dog in Wellington.