I thought for a change I would write down a little story, and the title gives it a nod to Camus, but a barely perceptible one. Thanks Mrs C. You can have it back when you like.
They had steak frites and salad. Steack, they spelled it. Why, she wondered. She often wondered why things were as they were. He never seemed to wonder about anything. It was uncomfortably hot, in the car, in the cafe, in the room they had booked ahead (by post, sending a cheque to the agent, this was before the Internet) and the air seemed to be full of grit. The two children were cheerful but tired. The girl, always the sunnier of the two, ate her dinner and mooned her eyes at her parents. She hadn't seemed to mind anything, although most of it had been horrible. They had had ten days in a gite, in Brittany, a truly vile place with mice. Mouse urine has a smell which gets into everything. She couldn't understand how it had seemed to get into the baguettes she brought back fresh from the boulangerie every morning, but to her it did. But the little girl, at four, was cheery and matter of fact. She said she was hot, she said her dress made her itch, she said she wanted a drink, but everything she said had a point. The boy was too little, he was a baby, and sometimes he was discontented. He would be discontented, she thought. She could imagine him, at perhaps nineteen, blond like her, white skin, pale eyes, tall, awkward limbs. He would get into trouble, she thought. She was an only child, and had sometimes thought that if she had been a boy she might have said no. No to being good. No to passing all your exams. No to doing your best to be the best you can. She might have joined the army if she had been a boy, or been a builder's labourer, or in some other way turned her back on it all, everything her parents had fought for and worked for and hoped for. She might have broken her parents' hearts. But she had not. She had worked, and studied, and now she was married, and here were these children, and here they were having holidays in gites.
His feet were always dirty, she thought again. Hers had been, too, once, that term at college when she had gone barefoot for seven weeks (and never worn a bra either) and the Christian Union had thought she and her best friend Lynne were a pair of Jezebels. But afterwards, not. Peppermint foot lotion, even. But his feet were dirty. He wore the same belt, always, no matter which trousers he had on. It had an enormous buckle that seemed to dig into the concave space between his hipbones. At this time he affected a pipe. She thought this was because he did not really like smoking, and used the pipe so he could spend most of his time tamping, and knocking, and puffing, without much tobacco result. She, she liked smoking. She did it all the time. In those days nobody minded smoking. You could smoke while you were changing your baby's nappy. She did that too, sometimes.
Now they were silent, at the table, in the stuffy and uncomfortable little cafe, above which was the room all four of them would sleep in tonight. The bar in the other half of the room, which had been empty when they arrived but for two old men with bright green drinks in front of them, had filled up. The television was on, football results and Mitterrand. "Dieu". was Mitterrand's nickname, she knew that much, which, although she was not religious, seemed faintly blasphemous. She had been brought up in a secular, rather non-conformist, household, the child of parents past their first youth, almost of an age when they might have begun to give up on the idea of having children, but if she had said "My God" at home there would have been swift punishment. Her mother had thought she was too fat, the last time they had met, a few months before, and she had half-heartedly followed the WeightWatchers recipes her mother had given her. There was no problem there any more. She remembered her mother in Amateur Dramatics, smoking a cigarette on stage and looking like Lauren Bacall. She herself had on a pair of black satin drainpipe trousers and a skimpy multi-coloured T-shirt. Her hair was naturally straight and blonde, her skin and eyes pale. She wondered, suddenly, if he would really do the things he often talked about. Would he lead a generation into a new understanding of the English vernacular literature and of the real meaning of the critical works of F.R. Leavis? She had no idea. But suddenly she remembered Madame Bovary. She had read this book before this holiday, thinking she would understand something about France. And what she had learned was that an adulterous woman must die.
She looked across the table at him. He had fallen silent, and gestured across the room for the bill. She knew he wanted to go across into the bar, and speak French with the locals. He had gone to school in Paris for a little while, as a child, and it had left him with a command of French she could never muster. She knew he wanted to drink more booze. The children were a hindrance to that, and anyway the boy's nappy needed changing.
She went upstairs, with the children. The room was a shoe box on its end, stuffy and gritty, with a tiny window high up. The bed creaked. The day bed, she supposed, was meant for the little girl, who was quickly and happily asleep across the end of the huge cot, whose purpose she could not quite work out, and which was too short for her to sleep on but too big for the baby. She used it to change the boy's nappy, smoking as she did so, and laid the boy down in the baby's cot. She lay down herself on the day bed, and opened the book again.
She felt unused, un-looked-at. She looked again at the book.
The death by poison was too horrible to read now. Gruesome. No. These things do not happen any more.
She lay there, much of the night, and read Emma, from Charles to Leon to Rodolphe to the end.