First published, Bridport Prize Anthology, 2014
The passenger door opens and winter and fields and rain tumble in with the man. ‘Merci, merci, merci, merci’ he says and keeps on saying. He is shivering. Howard says nothing, leaves the engine idling. He does not even look at him. For a while they sit beside each other in silence apart from the sound of the heater at full blast and of the man’s teeth, chattering. Howard wonders how he can now make him go away. He feels as if he has conjured him into existence, this wet, steaming, primal force. Eventually they say to each other, in the same moment: ‘Où allez-vous?’ ‘Je vais sud’ says the man. Howard considers this for a moment, and then he pulls away.
He has nothing but his shirt, trousers, a pair of boots. He has a tough face, a crew cut. He’s young, perhaps ten years younger than Howard. They drive through the dark, rainy night in silence for two hours, but when they reach Le Mans Howard needs to pee, and he needs coffee if he is to drive through the night, and he needs some food, some small thing. ‘Here we are,’ says Howard in French, ‘Le Mans.’ ‘Yes’. ‘I’m going to stop and eat. You can get out here – get another lift.’ For a moment the young man looks afraid. ‘You’re going south?’ ‘Yes’ ‘I’ll wait for you’. Howard doesn’t want the man in his car, alone, with his things. He looks at him. He’s well-built, strong-looking. How can he make him leave? ‘Look, come. Come with me.’ They start to walk, but then Howard stops. ‘Wait.’ He goes back to the car and fumbles in the boot until he finds a spare coat, a parka. ‘Here’. It’s a little too small, but the man puts it on and, for the first time, he smiles.
They eat together in a small brasserie. Howard buys the man a beer, an omelet. He knows without asking that he has no money. He has budgeted for this trip precisely. If he could have afforded to pay for someone else he’d have brought Andrea. They’ve been married for three weeks and she wanted to come, though that was not really what he’d have wanted. He’s used to travelling alone, used to the routine of it. He’s a translator – he speaks eight languages. Usually his jobs last two or three weeks. This one is in Marseille – a logistics firm, wanting to sell services in the UK. It’s not very good money. He finds himself telling this to the man, who is called Jean-Jacques. By the time they have eaten and returned to Howard’s Ford Cortina it is agreed that they will travel to Marseille together. At around three in the morning Howard cannot stay awake any longer. He pulls into a lay-by somewhere south of Tours. Jean-Jacques has been asleep for the last hour. He has told Howard little about himself. He was in the army, was sent to do peacekeeping in Lebanon. Has seen bad things, but doesn’t want to say what things, how bad. He went home to his parents’ farm near Abbeville on leave. He’d cried in front of his father, been called a coward, walked out. That is when Howard found him, by the side of the road. Howard knows that young men who join the army sometimes crack, become depressed, become drunks, sleep rough. He guesses such a thing will happen to Jean-Jacques. He feels a little sorry for him. That is all. The lay-by has two large Norbert Dentressangle trucks parked for the night. Howard parks behind them, cuts the engine and within a minute he is fast asleep.
It is almost light. Jean-Jacques is not beside him. Howard’s wallet is open on the dashboard. With a sick feeling, Howard looks inside. A couple of fivers are still there, but the eight hundred francs is gone. In its place in his wallet is a slip of paper: Un jour, je vais vous rembourser pour votre cadeau, Jean-Jacques Broumart. No phone number, no address. Jean-Jacques is a man with nowhere to go. Howard wonders for a moment whether to go to the gendarmes, but he will be laughed at if he does, he knows that. He does not think he will be repaid for his ‘gift’. He doesn’t tell Andrea about his misfortune when he calls her from Marseille. He sleeps in his Cortina for the first few days he is there instead of checking into a chambre d’hôte as he’d planned. Sometimes he sees a young man in the street and he looks to see if it is Jean-Jacques. He doesn’t know what he’d do if he found him. Soon he forgets him.
For thirty years he does not think of Jean-Jacques. If someone asked him to remember that night in 1982 he would not be able to. Andrea and Howard are ‘downsizing’. He runs the term through his mind in Russian, German, French, Italian, Serbo-Croat, but it is ugly in all languages, though English is the ugliest. They cannot afford to live in their house any more. Howard took an interest-only mortgage in the early-90s, and as a result they have paid a lot of money for something they don’t own, as Andrea often tells him. She has retired as a primary school teacher and is newly infused with a girl-like pleasure in everything that leaves Howard unsettled, alone. He is pretending that his already diminishing workload is a matter of choice. ‘There will always be translation to be done’ he recalls saying, and he is sure this must still be true, but not, it seems, by him.
He’s in the garage, which is full of a life’s accumulation of books, broken suitcases, table legs, rolls of carpet, CDs, videos, photograph albums, school football trophies that he cannot imagine his son, now married and in Australia, will ever want. In a shoebox he finds old passports, not just his but his father’s and mother’s and Andrea’s parents’, too. He flicks the pages. The photo of his father as a young man, his mother as a young woman, ready to travel, ready to live. Long dead. In his own expired passport all of the old Eastern European visas from the eighties. How exotic they seem now, Czech and Hungarian and Polish, filling whole pages, with date and place of entry, of departure. But his jobs were not exotic. Long drives, bleak hotel rooms, suspicious clients, bad food, cheap beer, dreary work. Tucked beside the passports are worn out old wallets. He opens them. They smell musty, of dried leather and ancient sweat. Some old currency is tucked there. Zwanzig Deutsche Mark, cinquante Francs. Old passport photos of himself as a thirty-year old. That silly beard. And a piece of paper: Un jour, je vais vous rembourser pour votre cadeau, Jean-Jacques Broumart. He remembers.
On a whim Howard types the name into Google. There are just a few with such a name. Two in Quebec, one in Paris. Howard thinks it likely that he went to Quebec, or that he is dead. But then he sees that the Parisian Broumart has many entries, even a Wikipedia. This Jean-Jacques is a successful man. He owns a security firm, his vehicles transporting money to banks all over Europe. His firm has equity in many other businesses, too. There is a photo. A man of around fifty, tanned, fit, strong-looking. Unmistakably the man he collected from the side of the road, nourished by three decades of life well-lived, of expectations met. Confident that it will never be read, Howard sends an e-mail to Broumart Company HQ. He is careless in what he says, even rude. He is certain it will be read by a secretary and deleted. ‘For the attention of Jean-Jacques Broumart. Dear Jean-Jacques’ he writes, ‘You stole eight hundred francs from me in 1982, after I collected you from the side of the road and fed you and gave you a coat. You said you would pay me back. When will you do this? Interest would be nice. Sincerely, Howard Askerswell.’
Howard drives the table legs and the videos and the trophies and the rolls of old carpet and the rest to the dump. He feels as if he is driving a hearse. He does not feel sad. They deserve to go, all of them. Andrea does not offer to help. It’s all his stuff, she says. She’s busy, she says. What she is busy with since she has finished teaching Howard cannot fathom. It seems she has a lot of TV to catch-up on and she must meet the girls for coffee at least once a day. The girls are all sixty or so. At one time they would have had coffee at each other’s houses, and perhaps have baked a cake. Now they go to Caffé Nero, as if they were eighteenth century philosophes preparing to overthrow the Ancien Régime. He seems to resent her happiness, and he doesn’t know why. She never tells him he is a failure. Never. He thinks she is keeping it in reserve, like the nuclear deterrent. He’s translating a cook book. It is very popular in the Czech Republic, and the publishers paid a considerable amount for it at Frankfurt. Had it been one of the very fine Czech novels that Howard has never been invited to translate, he would have taken huge pleasure in caressing the author’s every word. But this is a very bad job. The language of cooking is inexact and corrupt. It uses words from other languages and slides them around, like sleight of hand. Howard believes that if he doesn’t look at his e-mails, he can genuinely say to his editor that he did not see the latest request for a rewrite, or the message that tells him he is in breach of contract and will not be paid.
It is on a Tuesday in March that he reads his e-mails and notices there is one from Jean-Jacques Broumart. ‘Dear Howard. Your message fills me with great joy. I have often thought of you. You saved my life, did you know it? I felt so guilty leaving you that night, but you made me believe in life when I believed only in death. I felt very guilty for taking your money. I know very well that you did not have a lot of it. Now I want you to come to stay with me – you and your wife. You were married to Andrea. Who now? I will show you Paris and I will pay you back. With interest. Send me your phone number. We will talk. Sincerely, Jean-Jacques B.’ Howard recoils from his laptop. His fingers feel numb, dirty. He walks around the house. Andrea is out for coffee. He wanders distractedly along the road and through the park. He cannot imagine going to see this man – a man he never knew. If he is wealthy and successful, Howard would feel pathetic and small exposed to him. And if he is humble and grateful and kind, that would be even worse. Howard needs to talk to someone, get some advice. But his only friend these days is Tom, good for a pint and an argument, but Tom is unfortunately too stupid to give advice. Tom would say ‘Yeah. Go. Where’s the harm? You only live once. Live a little. Paris in the Springtime. A bit of hanky-panky and ooh la-la,’ and chuckle, as if he had said something amusing or, at least, meaningful. Tom speaks in clichés and, on Saturdays, sits at a stall in the shopping mall getting people to sign a petition in favour of leaving the European Union. Howard cannot ask Tom for advice.
Andrea appears to believe that Howard must either have been involved in a criminal conspiracy with Jean-Jacques that he is keeping from her, or that they were lovers. The truth, which it seems obvious to Howard is far more plausible than either of Andrea’s fabulations, seems unacceptable to her. ‘But why didn’t you tell me?’ she demands. ‘What were you covering up?’ ‘I was embarrassed.’ ‘So you are covering something up.’ ‘I was embarrassed to have been robbed in such a stupid way.’ In the end Andrea insists they must go to visit Jean-Jacques, because she needs to find out the truth. They book a cheap hotel in the 10th arrondisement and suggest to Jean-Jacques a restaurant where they might meet not far from Republique that has good reviews and is not too expensive. Jean-Jacques in response instructs them to drive to Biggin Hill airport where his private jet will collect them. Andrea immediately arranges coffee with all her friends so that they can be informed. Howard feels sick.
Their suite in Hotel George V is filled with flowers. A bottle of Dom Perignon is on ice. Hotel staff keep arriving with small items – fruit, a raincoat for Andrea (it is raining), a complimentary smartphone for their use while in France. Howard is worried that he will soon run out of money for tips. Andrea turns to Howard with tears in her eyes. For a moment he thinks she is happy. ‘Why couldn’t more of our lives have been like this?’ she says. Jean-Jacques has arranged for a limousine to collect them at 7.30pm. They are taken only a few hundred metres to a quay on the Seine where a boat is waiting. On the boat is a large saloon with a champagne bar, a quartet playing modern jazz in a muffled sort of way and five couples, seemingly awaiting their arrival and already in easy conversation with each other. Andrea speaks poor French, and will be anxious. But the conversation switches smoothly into English. Two of the couples are British – they work for Jean-Jacques. The other three couples are friends of Jean-Jacques and his wife. They are all a little younger than Howard and Andrea, who is soon regaling them with all that is wrong with Britain. She talks ceaselessly, yet is steered skilfully again and again onto innocuous topics by her dinner companions, who are clearly fluent in the conduct of dinner parties. She is happy, taking this strange affair from Howard and making it her own. He feels gratefully relieved of responsibility.
At eight o’clock Jean-Jacques arrives, accompanied by a plump, dark haired woman who is introduced as Rachida, his wife. Jean-Jacques is wearing a t-shirt and jeans, much as he had been thirty years earlier. He is thicker in the waist and arms and neck, but still youthful. Tom would call him ‘in the prime of life’. He would probably also call him ‘a cocky frog’. The supper party of fourteen sit around a large, circular table in the middle of the enclosed deck and are served a good, though, notes Howard, an unspectacular meal. Paris slides past them, greasy in the rain. At some point the conversation switches from English to French and Howard observes, in a detached way, that Andrea continues to join in, but now following rather than leading the conversation. He also observes that he is drunk and appears to have lost the use of his legs. He needs to go to the toilet, but can see no sign of one. He is afraid that if he stands he will fall over.
Jean-Jacques taps a knife against a glass, in the manner of one who does this many times each week. He stands and begins to speak. Howard has to close one eye in order to see just one Jean-Jacques, who begins by telling his select audience that he joined the French paratrooper regiment at seventeen years of age, and at this they applaud him. He then tells them that he was sent as a UN peacekeeper to Lebanon as soon as he had finished his training. Howard applauds this, but no-one else does, and Andrea casts him a disapproving look. Then, unexpectedly, Jean-Jacques pauses. He seems to struggle for breath. His head droops and tears spill onto his plate. It is obvious to Howard that his friends have not seen him like this before. They lean forward, concerned, but unable to act. Finally he begins to speak again. He says that he watched while Lebanese militia shot a woman’s three small children in front of her and then walked away. His best friend was shot in the back as he patrolled beside him. And worse things happened, worse than that. For ten minutes, twenty, gripping the side of the table and never looking up Jean-Jacques tells this little group of the things he saw, of the hard times he went through as little more than a boy. He has never told anyone of these things before. Rachida places a hand on his hand and keeps it there. Eventually he speaks of the night that Howard picked him up on the side of the road in wintry northern France. The act sounds as small and insignificant as it was. But Jean-Jacques changes one detail: he says that Howard gave him all the money he had, an act of generosity that saved his life. Jean-Jacques does not mention that he stole the money and this omission, this twisting of a fact is, Howard understands, an act of generosity to them both – thief and victim. Andrea looks suspiciously at Howard – had he given the money to Jean-Jacques? Had Howard lied to her?
Jean-Jacques slides an envelope over to Howard, and asks him to open it. Inside is 180 euros, which represents the 800 francs plus interest, as promised. Howard smiles in relief and pleasure at the precision of the repayment, at the lack of further obligation this gesture symbolises. He stands and makes a very short speech about just rewards and is surprised by his own neat eloquence. It is only when he sits that he remembers he is drunk. He notices that Andrea has turned a thunderous dark purple, and wonders vaguely if she has eaten a bad oyster.
‘How dare that man, that coarse man, bring us all the way out here in that show-offy way of his and then have the cheek to give you an envelope with nothing but small change in it.’ They are back in their suite. The room is lit by more than a dozen table lamps which, reflecting light from the heavy yellow silk curtains, give an effect that Howard finds stifling. He feels as if he is inside a gilded tomb. ‘But it’s what he owed me. Exactly what he owed me. Why would I want anything more?’ ‘You stupid man. At last you have an opportunity and what do you do?’ ‘I don’t know. What did I do?’ ‘You just listened. You drank – too much – and listened.’ ‘Mainly I was listening to you.’ Andrea shoots him a pellet of a look. ‘And did he steal the money or did you give it to him.’ ‘I wish I had given it to him now.’ ‘I knew you were too weak for me when I married you.’ ‘So why did you?’ ‘I thought I could make you better, stronger.’ At this she walks over to him and puts the palms of her hands on either side of his face, as if he is a child. To his surprise she kisses him on his lips. ‘Never mind. You’ve suited me. You have really. There’s something about you. Some….’ ‘Some what?’ ‘I do love you. You need to know that. However stupid you are.’ The room overwhelms Howard. He gasps for breath, goes over to the windows and tears at the curtains. Andrea tries to stop him. He goes to the next window and the next and eventually he finds a pair of glass doors which lead onto the small balcony that he had noticed when they arrived. He steps out into the wet night air and breathes. He can see the Eiffel Tower not far away, twinkling for midnight.
A week after their return they put the house on the market. The following day Howard receives a call from an editor at a large publisher who occasionally gives him small pieces of translation to do, a foreword or introduction, sometimes a list of further reading. They have met occasionally over the years and are almost friends. ‘Margaret, how can I help? I’m not doing cookbooks any more. You need to know that.’ ‘This isn’t a cookery book, Howard. It’s nothing like a cookery book.’ Margaret is American, but has lived in London since the eighties. She is a smoker, and has affected a way of slurring her words that seems offhand, whatever she is saying. Perhaps she is calling him to warn him he is to be sued by someone. It wouldn’t surprise him. ‘It’s something you’re going to like. A lot.’ Howard detects a curve of excitement in her voice, something he does not associate with work-related calls. ‘So…?’ ‘You’ve always been an admirer of Cilic, right? Can’t understand why he isn’t translated into English, right?’ He feels absolutely still. He thinks of the phrase ‘taking pause’. He is taking pause. He knows what has happened. ‘And you’re going to offer me the right to translate his entire works, right?’ Margaret is surprised. ‘Right. How did you know?’ ‘And you’re going to offer me a huge advance for the work.’ ‘Right again, Howard. Has someone tipped you off, because….’ ‘Because no-one apart from you knows. You have authority for this from the top. Right? You’ve offered Cilic silly money, right?’ ‘Right, Howard. Your sources are impeccable.’ She sounds impressed, confused. ‘And do you think I’m good enough to translate all of Cilic’s work?’ There is a silence. ‘Margaret?’ ‘Well, I’m sure you’ll do a good job, Howard, but it is going to be tough.’ ‘I’m not good enough to translate Cilic.’ ‘We’ll need to work together. It will be fun. A major project.’ ‘I don’t think so.’ ‘Howard?’ ‘And I can’t be bought.’ Margaret laughs. ‘I’m not trying to buy you, fella.’ ‘But you are. Or someone is. And you know what? I am very buyable, aren’t I? No reputation…’ ‘Take it steady, Howard.’ ‘No reputation, no money come to that. And I’m being offered the thing I want most in life, the chance to translate Cilic.’ ‘So put out the balloons.’ ‘It’s not my birthday. You know why I don’t want it?’ ‘Really, I don’t.’ She sounds exasperated. ‘I don’t want it because I don’t deserve it. I haven’t earned it. Margaret, I gave someone a lift in the rain thirty years ago. That’s all.’ ‘Howard, are you on painkillers?’ ‘In a manner of speaking. In a manner of speaking, yes.’ He puts a finger over the little red symbol to hang up, but he has something else to say. ‘Tell your boss to tell her boss to tell his boss that the man they want for the Cilic says he isn’t good enough, that he never was. Will you do that?’ ‘I don’t know, Howard.’ ‘Just do that. Do it for me.’ ‘Why should I?’ ‘Because I’ve just saved your reputation, that’s why.’ He pops his finger on the red symbol. Interest, he thinks, running it through the languages that jostle in his head: something unearned.