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Chapter One Ernest He always walked slowly toward the building where he lived, never raising his head, always taking the same old way. It had never entered his mind to try the slightest variation in his route. He had never even crossed to the other side of the street. He would just take himself straight to school, then straight back home again. Every day he trudged up the same fifty-seven steps to the third floor. He never skipped steps or rushed. Ernest was never in a hurry. The ten years of his life had passed so far at a turtle's pace, as if it had been slowed down by the premature onset of old age.
Every day he put his schoolbag down in his room which, although the smallest, was the least cluttered in the house. It could have been a closet or a cell in an old prison: just a bed, a table, a chair, and a closet, all in immaculate order. He took out his schoolbooks and got ready for his homework before going to get his snack from the kitchen table.
A large green apple and a cracker had been waiting there for him since lunchtime. Every day, the housekeeper put them out after clearing away his lunch. The snack was always the same.
After a few bites he usually didn't feel like any more of the apple, but he finished it just the same. Then he began to do his homework, working methodically and with concentration. He knew that the quicker it was done, the sooner he would be free to take another look inside the only cupboard in the house which was not kept locked.
When his grandmother heard the creak of the book cabinet door, the chinking of its fine glass pane, she left her room and came to sit down with Ernest in the living room while he read.
"Good evening, Grandmother," said Ernest, joining her on the shabby velvet couch. No one had ever called her by her first name: Precious. It was hard to imagine anyone calling her that.
Grandmother tilted her head in greeting. She spoke rarely and little. Ernest always had the impression that if she moved too much, she would disintegrate. She was eighty years old, but the kind of eighty that is really old, like the grandmothers in fairy tales. Her skin was so wrinkled and crinkled and dry that Ernest was afraid if ever she happened to smile, it would turn to dust. But she never did smile. She walked with difficulty and ate without appetite. She looked after her grandson out of a sense of duty. She was all he had. She had brought Ernest up since his mother had died when he was born. In the Morlaisse family, people died from history's little accidents: the Second World War had claimed his grandfather, the First World War his great grandfather, and as for his father, he had disappeared: an unexplained disappearance after his wife's funeral, when Ernest was just one day old.
And so his grandmother had lost her own father when she was five and her husband when she was thirty, and when she lost her son at seventy, she had inherited a baby for whom she had neither the physical nor the moral strength. But she did what she saw had to be done.
She had instantly hired a woman hardly younger than herself to look after the baby's hygiene and nutrition. This woman, Germaine, had at that time just lost her husband. She had no children, and was looking more for an escape from loneliness than a salary. The two women got along well, because they had their prin-ciples in common . . . a lot of principles. They lived side by side in a parallel existence. Madame Morlaisse had offered to let Germaine live there, but Germaine preferred to come and go, except at the very beginning when the baby wasn't sleeping through the night yet, or sometimes if the weather was very bad.
Although Germaine was old, too, she tried to disguise her age with all the techniques of modern makeup. In fact, her creams and lotions were the only signs of the modern world in this machineless, televisionless house. Germaine struggled constantly against gray hair, wrinkles, and fat; however she had given up on the fight against depression. During his first years, she had spoken the only words Ernest ever heard, but as soon as he started school, she had clammed up like her employer.
Any conversation was limited to the strictly utilitarian, and even this was hardly necessary, for the house ran itself, apparently from sheer force of habit and lassitude; it seemed to be in a permanent state of regulated minimum service.
Germaine did the shopping and the cooking. She could have ordered the groceries by telephone, but there was no telephone. Another woman, a friend of hers, and just as old, did the housework. All their laundry was sent out.
Madame Morlaisse just sat, a silent mournful statue. At one time, she used to read beside Ernest, but now her eyes tired too easily. Often, Ernest would raise his head from his book and notice that Grandmother was dozing off, still sitting upright in her chair. Sometimes she even managed to snore, which added an extra sound effect to the usual tick tock of the clocks. Ernest knew that Grandmother wouldn't have liked to know that she snored, so he never said a word.
Even if she was in a deep sleep, she would suddenly rouse herself to listen to the eight o'clock news. The radio was one of the first models ever made, and getting her station was like trying to listen to the radio from London during the war, with the same faint sound and loud crackling. Madame Morlaisse was becoming rather hard of hearing, and it wasn't part of the newscaster's job to repeat everything three times just for her benefit. However, this was of no importance. Mrs. Morlaisse didn't really want to know what was happening in the world. From time to time she would react to certain words, names, or countries. If the newscaster happened to say Germany for example, she would repeat with a sigh, "Germany."
The important thing for her was to switch on the radio at eight o'clock, exactly as she had done every evening for all these years.
For his part, Ernest listened to the news with rapt attention from beginning to end. It was as if he half expected to hear the answer he was looking for. He wasn't interested in politics, politicians, or elections. What he was listening for, from his place on the sofa, was news of the outbreak of the Third World War, for, like those which had come before, it was sure to carry off yet another Morlaisse. At 8:30 the Morlaisses had supper. The menu was always the same: soup. Soup is easy to digest, it makes you grow, and it guarantees a good night's sleep ? that is, if it is salt- and pepper-free, of course. Germaine didn't come back in the evenings. Ernest would heat up the soup and then, having put the dirty dishes into the sink, he would go quietly to bed. Regular sleep is important for a child. Before brushing his teeth, he always said, "Goodnight, Grandmother, sleep well." Her eyes would blink in reply.
Thus, Ernest got up every weekday morning with the regularity of a well-oiled machine. He would eat two pieces of toast with marmalade (made by a cousin of Germaine's in the south of France), drink a glass of warm milk, put on his tie, pack his schoolbag, and go to school. Every day he came home for lunch, because both Germaine and his grandmother were suspicious of school food. To them, something canned or frozen wasn't food. And fish did not come in fingers, but with scales and heads. Potatoes arrived caked with mud, straight from the soil, without stopping at a processing plant. Madame Morlaisse was wary of too much salt, too much sugar, and bad influences in general. Germaine was suspicious of oil that might be rancid, fried food, rotten meat, and too much noise.
Ernest owned neither jeans nor a sweatsuit. Twice a year, a tailor would come to the house, take his measurements, and make him a suit too old-fashioned for this century and too modern for the last. It looked like something that might have been part of a school uniform. The same tailor supplied his shirts, ties, handkerchiefs, underwear, and socks, and his annual winter coat. This getup kept the other children far away from Ernest, as if he had something contagious. In any case, he would have avoided them ? not because he wanted to but because it was the safe thing to do.
Nobody made fun of him ? everybody was used to him. And he was by far the top of the class, except in composition when the subject was "My favorite TV Show," "My Vacation," or "My Sunday."
Ernest's Sundays were even less eventful than the other days of the week. The minutes clogged past like sand in a wet egg-timer. Germaine only came on Sundays to cook and serve lunch ? a Sunday lunch with meat, two vegetables, and stewed fruit for dessert.
After her nap, Madame Morlaisse would call Ernest into the living room, and, taking out a key from against her withered chest, she would open the door of the inlaid cabinet and extract a narrow china box which was the repository of the letter. She and Ernest would sit at the table that rested on a pedestal the shape of a golden lion.
"Will you read it, Grandmother?" Ernest would ask.
Madame Morlaisse would extract the sheet of paper from its envelope, carefully unfold it, and stare at it as if it contained the key to all the secrets of the universe. The only problem was, the letter was illegible. Even though Ernest knew this, every Sunday he would hope against hope. He might be at the top of the class, but he couldn't figure out even one of the letters. There were no a's, b's, or even z's. There was just a jungle of knots shouting their message inaudibly from the page.
His great-grandfather had sent this letter from a village near the front during World War I. Of all the secrets in the house, this one was the biggest ? or possibly the second biggest. Ernest hoped that if he continued to do well in school, one day he would be able to decipher all the secrets. Chapter Two Victoria Ernest was not the smiling type. At school, he spoke only if spoken to. His answers were always thoughtful and correct, and his comments sensible and intelligent. Ernest liked school, because the soothing music of other people's chatter made him feel less alone; he also hoped that school might hold the key which would one day enable him to unlock the secret scrawled on the faded page of the letter.
The boys at school always left him to his solitude.
The girls, on the other hand, did everything to try to attract his attention, to enter into his world and capture him with their warmth and their laughter. One thing that Ernest could never hide was the fact that he was handsome. All the girls dreamed of getting close enough to touch him, or at least to get him to look at them with those black eyes of his, which he only seemed to use for looking at the ground, the sky, or the pages of books.
On Ernest's desk, girls deposited cookies which would stay there until the cleaning lady cleared them away. Ernest was not impolite, he had simply never eaten a cookie, and he was afraid to try one. Germaine and Precious didn't eat them. Sometimes he'd find candy, or exotic fruit in the apartment, but he knew that the rules didn't allow eating between meals.
Often notes would come his way. He never even thought of opening them, so he had no idea of the messages inside: "Ernest, I love you." "You're gorgeous; I made this cake for you." "Please come to my party on Wednesday." Love notes full of hopeless hope.
At recess, Ernest sat on a bench reading. After class, he went straight home. He never looked right or left. Some of the girls would follow him, dreaming that he might notice them and say something. They knew where he lived, and would wait there, hoping for a hello that never came.
Ernest's routine life had no rough edges. Each day was an infallible repetition of the last. There were no surprises . . . that is, until one Monday at the beginning of November. The principal barged into the classroom, pushing a new girl in front of her. "I want you all to meet Victoria de Montardent. From now on, she'll be in your class."
Ernest was a bit surprised. This Victoria girl was different from the others. She was dressed a little like he was: navy-blue blazer over a pleated skirt, and a white shirt. Her long black hair was held back by a black headband. Since the half of the desk next to him was the only one free, the teacher told her to sit there. She sat down and without any hesitation greeted him with a cheery, "Hi there!" He had no choice but to return it.
When the teacher handed a book to his new neighbor, Ernest showed her the right page. He could hardly do otherwise ? as the teacher kept saying, "Ernest, I'm counting on you to explain everything to Victoria."
Ernest did as he was asked, like a robot, without looking at Victoria but making sure she understood by murmuring, "Do you see?" to which the reply was an emphatic, "Sure do, thanks to you."
At recess, instead of hanging around with the other girls, she followed Ernest to his bench, and read like he did ? except that since she had no book of her own, she sat next to him and read his, making herself keep up, so as to be ready when he turned the page.
After the break, Ernest shut his book and went back to the classroom, with Victoria tagging along. At lunchtime, Ernest put on his coat, and Victoria trailed behind him all the way home. When he opened his front door, she shouted, "I live a little further on. I'll pick you up on the way back. Have a great lunch!"
When he came out of the house, she was waiting for him. Ernest strode along, as if Victoria did not exist. To stop him from ignoring her, she grabbed his arm and asked, "Have you lived here for long?" Ernest nodded. "Don't you ever have lunch at school?" He shook his head. "Have you got any brothers and sisters?" He shook his head again. "Are your parents strict?" It didn't matter whether Ernest answered or not ? Victoria had enough conversation for both of them. "My parents are really strict. We can't even watch TV till we've done our homework. What's your favorite show? What's your favorite food? Who's your favorite singer? What do you do after school? I have piano lessons and swimming. Where do you go for vacation? Have you got a collection? I collect the aluminum foil from chocolate bars. Have you ever been to a foreign country? Do your parents let you go to parties?"
For someone who was at the top of the class, Ernest was very stupid about answering all these questions. He couldn't answer a single one. He didn't know the names of any singers or TV shows. As for his favorite food, he had never thought about it ? the rule was "you eat what is put in front of you." Maybe he should say it was soup, seeing as how that was what he ate most often. But in fact, he didn't particularly care for soup. As for a collection, the only thing he could think of were the fifty-seven stairs up to his apartment, or the number of steps he took on his way to school (he had often counted them). Or the number of minutes which ticked their way through the day without anyone noticing, or those other minutes which dragged along so slowly they made you feel like you were sleepwalking.
"I've asked enough questions for the moment. Don't you have any for me?"
Ernest was worried. Nobody had ever questioned him and he hadn't learned how to do it to other people. Anyway, curiosity about other people wasn't really his strong point. Nevertheless, he tried. He scouted around in as-yet unused corners of his brain trying to discover the tiniest hint of an interrogative. But nothing came as far as his mouth. It wasn't fair, when for once, he really did want to talk to somebody. As if she understood his predicament, she said, "Don't worry, Ernest. You're so good looking, you don't need to say anything to make yourself more interesting." She was still hanging onto his arm. Ernest couldn't believe his ears. Good looking. Him? This was the first he had heard about it. A question . . . any question. You shouldn't ask a question if you don't want to know the answer. He turned toward her suddenly and began with a stammer, "Um . . . Victoria! Um . . . Why did they name you Victoria?"
He was expecting a history lesson on some British queen, but she answered, "Because I was born after they had had twelve boys. My parents wanted a girl so much that they tried thirteen times . . . and finally they had me. My name means 'victory.'"
Ernest wondered if the twelfth boy had been named Defeat. "Twelve brothers!" he sighed.
"Well, now there are thirteen. My mother wanted to try one last time for another girl, but it didn't work. It was a boy. He's six months old."
"It's like an army," thought Ernest. All afternoon he couldn't stop thinking about Victoria, surrounded by those thirteen boys. It stopped him from concentrating, but he was so well trained that his work more or less did itself. Victoria still followed him around. At break, she read over his shoulder again. The other girls in the class hung around them in a circle of discontent, but "the couple" didn't seem to notice.
When, at the end of the day, the teacher handed Victoria a pile of worn-out schoolbooks, telling her to cover them by the next day, she plunked half of them right into Ernest's arms and demanded, "You don't mind walking me home, do you?"
copyright?1998 by Susie Morgenstern. Published by Viking/Puffin, a division of Penguin Putnam Books for Young Readers. All rights reserved.