I am shown into a small, drab room, told to sit down and wait. Six empty brown plastic chairs face each other on tired linoleum. In a corner, a fake green plant, shiny leaves coated with dust. I do as I am told. I sit down. My thighs tremble. My palms feel clammy, my throat parched. My head throbs. I think, I should call our father now, I should call him before it gets too late. But my hand makes no effort to grab the phone in the pocket of my jeans. Call our father and tell him what? Tell him how?
The lighting is harsh, glaring strips of neon barring the ceiling. The walls are yellowish and cracked. I sit there, numb. Helpless. Lost. I long for a cigarette. I wonder if I am going to retch, bring up the bitter coffee and stale brioche I had a couple of hours ago.
I can still hear the screech of the wheels, feel the sudden lurch of the car as it veered sharply to the right, careering into the railing. And her scream. I can still hear her scream.
How many people have waited here? I think. How many people have sat where I am sitting now and waited for news of their loved ones? I cannot help imagining what these jaundiced walls have seen. What they know. What they remember. Tears, shouts or relief. Hope, pain or joy.
The minutes click by. I watch the round face of a grimy clock above the door. There is nothing else for me to do but wait.
After half an hour or so, a nurse comes in. She has a long, horsey face, skinny white arms.
'Yes,' I say, my heart in my mouth.
'You need to ﬁll out these papers. With her details.'
She hands me a couple of sheets and a pen.
'Is she all right?' I mumble.
My voice seems thin and strained.
She ﬂickers watery, lashless eyes over me.
'The doctor will tell you. The doctor will come.'
She leaves. She has a sad, ﬂat arse.
I spread the sheets of paper over my knees with trem¬bling ﬁngers.
Name, birth date and place, marital status, address, social security number, health insurance number. My hand still shakes as I print out 'Mélanie Rey, born August 15, 1967, at Boulogne-Billancourt, single, 49 rue de la Roquette, Paris 75011'.
I have no idea what my sister's social security number is. Or her health insurance number for that matter. All that stuff must be in her bag. Where is her bag? I can't remem¬ber anything about her bag. Just the way her body slumped forward when they hauled her out of the car. The way her limp arms hung down to the ground from the stretcher. And there I was, not a hair out of place, not a bruise on my skin, and I had been sitting right next to her. I ﬂinch. I keep thinking I am going to wake up.
The nurse comes back with a glass of water. I gulp it down. It has a metallic, stale taste. I thank her. I tell her I don't have Mélanie's social security number. She nods, takes the sheets, and leaves.
The minutes inch by. The room is silent. It is a small hospital. A small town, I guess. In the suburbs of Nantes. I'm not quite sure where. I stink. No air-conditioning. I can smell the sweat trickling under my armpits, gathering around my groin. The sweaty, meaty smell of despair and panic. My head still throbs. I try breathing calmly. I manage to do this for a couple of minutes. Then the helpless, awful feeling takes over and swamps me.
Paris is more than three hours away. I wonder again if I should call my father. I tell myself I need to wait. I don't even know what the doctor has to say. I glance down at my watch. Ten thirty. Where would our father be now? I wonder. At some dinner party? Or watching cable TV in his study, with Régine in the next room, on the phone, painting her nails?
I decide to wait a little longer. I am tempted to call my ex-wife. Astrid's name is still the ﬁrst one that pops up in times of stress or despair. But the thought of her with Serge, in Malakoff, in our old house, in our old bed, with him in¬variably answering the phone, even her mobile, for Christ's sake – 'Oh, hi, Antoine, what's up, man?' – is just too much. So I don't call Astrid, although I long to.
I stay in the small, stuffy room and try once more to remain calm. Try to stop the panic rising within me. I think of my kids. Arno in all his teenage glory and rebellion. Margaux, a creature of mystery at fourteen. Lucas, still a baby at eleven, compared with the other two and their raging hormones. I simply cannot imagine myself telling them, 'Your aunt is dead. Mélanie is dead. My sister is dead.' The words make no sense. I push them away.
Another hour creeps by. I sit there, my head in my hands. I try to sort out the mess building up in my mind. I start thinking about the deadlines I need to keep. Tomorrow is Monday, and after this long weekend, there are many urgent things to be done – that unpleasant Rabagny and his god-awful day-care centre I should not have taken on; Florence, that hopeless assistant I know I have to ﬁre. But how can I possibly think of this? I realize, appalled at myself. How can I think of my job now, at this precise moment when Mélanie is somewhere between life and death? I say to myself with a sinking heart, Why Mélanie? Why her? Why not me? This trip had been my idea. My present for her birthday. That fortieth birthday she was so upset about.
A woman of my age comes in at last. A green operating gown and one of those funny little paper hats surgeons wear. Shrewd hazel eyes, short chestnut hair touched with silver. She smiles. My heart leaps. I rush to my feet.
'That was a close call, Monsieur Rey,' she says.
I notice small brown stains on the front of her uniform. I wonder with dread whether those stains are Mélanie's blood.
'Your sister is going to be all right.'
To my horror, my face crumples up, tears spill out. My nose runs. I am acutely embarrassed to be crying in front of this woman, but I can't prevent it.
'It's okay,' the doctor says. She grips my arm. She has small, square hands. She pushes me back down into the chair, sits beside me. I bawl the way I used to when I was a kid, deep sobs that come from the gut.
'She was driving, right?'
I nod, try to tidy up my damp nostrils with the back of my hand. 'We know she wasn't drinking. We checked that. Can you tell me what happened?'
I manage to repeat what I told the police and the ambu¬lance people earlier on. That my sister wanted to drive the rest of the way home. That she was a reliable driver. That I had never been nervous with her at the wheel.
'Did she black out?' asks the doctor. The name on her badge reads: dr bénédicte besson.
'No, she didn't.'
And then it comes back to me. Something I had not told the ambulance people, because I only remember it just now.
I look down at the doctor's small, tanned face. My own face is still twitching with the crying. I catch my breath.
'My sister was in the middle of telling me something . . . She turned to me. And then it happened. The car drove off the road. It happened so fast.'
The doctor urges me on.
'What was she telling you?'
Mélanie's eyes. Her hands clasping the wheel. Antoine, there's something I need to say. I've kept it back all day. Last night, at the hotel, I remembered something. Something about . . . Her eyes, troubled, worried. And then the car driving off the road.
She fell asleep as soon as they were able to make their way through the sluggish suburban gridlock that circled Paris. Antoine smiled as her head dropped back against the car window. Her mouth opened, and he thought he heard a tiny snore. She had been irritable that morning when he came to pick her up just after dawn. She hated surprises and always had. He knew that, didn't he? Why the hell was he organizing a surprise trip? Honestly! Wasn't it bad enough turning forty? Getting over an agonizing break-up? Never having been married, not having any kids, and people mentioning biological clocks every ﬁve minutes? 'If some¬body utters that word one more time, I'll hit them,' she hissed between gritted teeth. But the idea of facing the long weekend alone was unbearable for her. He knew that. He knew she couldn't stand thinking about her hot, empty apartment above the noisy rue de la Roquette, and all her friends out of town leaving joyful messages on her voice mail: 'Hey, Mel, you're forty!' Forty. He glanced across at her. Mélanie, his little sister, was going to be forty. He couldn't quite believe it. Which made him forty-three. He couldn't quite believe that either.
Yet the crinkled eyes in the rear-view mirror were those of a man in early middle age. Thick salt-and-pepper hair, a long, lean face. He noticed that Mélanie dyed her hair brown. Her roots were unmistakably grey. There was some¬thing touching about her dyeing her hair. Why? he mused. So many women dyed their hair. Maybe it was because she was his kid sister. He simply could not imagine her grow¬ing old. Her face was still lovely. Perhaps it was even lovelier than it had been in her twenties or thirties, because her bone structure had such class. He never tired of gazing at Mélanie. Everything about her was small, feminine, delicate. Everything about her – the dark green eyes, the beautiful curve of a nose, the startling white smile, the slim wrists and ankles – reminded him of their mother. She didn't like being told that she looked like Clarisse. She had never liked it. But to Antoine it was like their mother peeping out from Mélanie's eyes.
The Peugeot gathered speed, and Antoine guessed they'd probably be there in less than four hours. They had left early enough to beat the trafﬁc. Despite her questions, he hadn't breathed a word about their destination. He had just grinned. 'Pack enough for a couple of days. We're going to celebrate your birthday in style.'
There had been a minor problem with Astrid, his ex-wife. A little smoothing-out to do. That long weekend was normally 'his'. The kids were supposed to be leaving Astrid's parents' place in the Dordogne to come to him. He had been ﬁrm on the phone. It was Mel's birthday, she was forty, he wanted to make it special for her, she still wasn't over Olivier, she was going through a bad patch. Astrid's voice: 'Oh, merde, Antoine. I've had the kids for the past two weeks. Serge and I really need some time for ourselves.'
Serge. Even the mere name made him cringe. A photog¬rapher in his early thirties. The muscular, rugged outdoor type. He specialized in food. Natures mortes for luxuri¬ous cookery books. He spent hours trying to get pasta to glisten, veal to look tasty, fruit to look lus cious. Serge. Every time Antoine shook his hand when he came to pick up the children, he was confronted with the hideous recollection of Astrid's digital camera and what he had discovered in its memory card while she was out shopping that fateful Saturday. At ﬁrst, puzzled, he had seen only a pair of hairy buttocks clenching and unclenching. And then he had realized with horror that the but tocks were actually pumping a penis into what looked extraordinarily like Astrid's body. That was how he had found out. He had confronted Astrid, laden with shopping bags, on that doomed Saturday afternoon, and she had burst into tears and admitted that she loved Serge, that the affair had been going on ever since that trip to Turkey with the kids, and that she felt so relieved that he now knew.
Antoine felt tempted to light a cigarette to ward off unpleasant memories. But he knew the smoke would wake his sister and she would make some cantankerous comment about his 'ﬁlthy habit'. Instead, he concentrated on the road opening up before him.
Astrid still felt guilty about Serge – he felt it – about how he, Antoine, had found out about their affair. About the divorce. About the aftermath of it all. And she loved
Mélanie dearly. They had been friends for a long time, and they worked in the same ﬁeld, publishing. She hadn't had the heart to say no. Astrid had sighed, 'Okay, then. The kids can come to you later. Give Mel a hell of a birthday.'
When Antoine stopped at a petrol station for a reﬁll, Mélanie at last yawned and rolled the car window down.
'Hé, Tonio,' she drawled, 'where the hell are we?'
'You really have no idea?'
'You've been asleep for the past two hours.'
'Well, you did turn up at dawn, you bastard.'
After a quick coffee (for her) and a quick cigarette (for him), they got back into the car. She seemed less petulant, Antoine noticed. 'It's sweet of you to do this,' she said.
'You're a sweet brother.'
'You didn't have to. Maybe you had other plans?'
'No other plans.'
'Like a girlfriend?'
The thought of his recent affairs made him want to stop the car, get out, and weep. Since the divorce there had been a string of women. And a string of disillusion. Women he had met via the Internet on those infamous websites. Women of his age, married women, divorced women, younger women. He had thrown himself into the dating process with gusto, determined to ﬁnd it exhilarating. But after the ﬁrst couple of sexually acrobatic stunts, coming back heavy-hearted and drained to his new empty apart¬ment and his new empty bed, he found the truth staring him in the face. He had shied away from it long enough. He still loved Astrid. He had ﬁnally admitted that to himself. He still loved his ex-wife. He loved her so desperately it made him feel sick to his stomach.
Mélanie was saying, 'Probably had better, more exciting things to do than to take your spinster of a sister on a long weekend.'
'Don't be silly, Mel. This is what I want to do. I want to do this for you.'
She glanced at a signpost on the motorway.
'Hey, we're heading west!'
'What's west?' she asked, ignoring the affectionate irony in his voice.
'Think,' he said.
'Um, Normandy? Brittany? Vendée?'
'You're on the right track.'
She said nothing, listening to the old Beatles CD Antoine had turned on. As they drove on, she uttered a little scream. 'I know! You're taking me to Noirmoutier!'
'Bingo,' he said.
But her face had sobered up. She looked down at her hands in her lap, her lips tightening.
'What's wrong?' he said, concerned. He had been expecting laughter, whoops, smiles, anything but her static face.
'I haven't been back there.'
'So?' he said. 'Neither have I.'
'It's been' – she paused to count on her slim ﬁngers – '1973, right? It's been thirty-four years. I won't remember a thing! I was six years old.'
Antoine slowed the car.
'It doesn't matter. It's just, you know, to celebrate your birthday. We did your sixth birthday there, remember?'
'No,' she said slowly. 'I don't remember a thing about Noirmoutier.' She must have realized that she was acting like a spoiled child, because she swiftly put a hand on her brother's arm.
'Oh, but it doesn't matter, Tonio. I'm happy. I am, really. And the weather is beautiful. It's so nice to be alone with you and to get away from everything!'
By 'everything', Antoine knew she meant Olivier and the wreckage their break-up had left behind. And her ﬁercely competitive job as a publisher at one of France's most famous publishing companies.
'I booked us into the Hotel Saint-Pierre. You remember that, don't you?'
'Yes!' she exclaimed. 'Yes, I do! The old, lovely hotel in the woods! With Grand-père and Grand-mère . . . Oh, God, so long ago . . .'
The Beatles sang on. Mélanie hummed along. Antoine felt relieved, at peace. She liked his surprise. She was happy to go back. But one little thing niggled at him. One little thing he hadn't taken into account when the idea of going back had occurred to him.
Noirmoutier 1973 had been their last summer with Clarisse.
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