Let me come back, just for a second, to Emma Carpenter. She had been introduced by the chairman at a cocktail party and I thought, there’s something wrong with her. She smells funny. Indeed she did, a kind of acrid odour, like a frightened animal, and it seemed very odd to me that such a sophisticated young woman would turn up at a gathering of professionals, smelling.
Later, when she was gone, I made a casual observation to a colleague, a Frenchman, who claimed not to have noticed anything at all. But then again, Serrault is always claiming not to understand the obvious. I think he fancies it makes him seem more complicated than the rest of us. And it does, of course.
I knew very little about her actually, and I tried to keep it that way. For all the modesty of my professional accomplishments, my failings at marriage, my childless life, the faded-away friendships, in spite of all these things, I was quite a happy man and I didn’t need a mess. I observed, however, that she wore black, rather cheap running shoes to class; that she had waited two years before applying to graduate school. I have no idea what she did in the meantime; probably a great deal of sex; there was something of that in her, a kind of propriety which, one suspected, protects a pornographic imagination. I don’t know. Perhaps in saying that, I am revealing more about myself than her.
I can tell you something else about Emma, since you’ve got me gossiping. As a favour to Serrault, to whom she had been assigned, I read a number of her undergraduate papers. They were perfectly satisfactory, but she was brighter in person than on paper. Something froze in her when she “wrote,” a ball of ice that appeared to melt almost entirely in conversation, where she could be shockingly direct. More about that later. She also had a surprising talent for mimesis. One day, in an unguarded moment, I overheard her referring to a conversation that had taken place the day before in the faculty lounge. A professor of linguistics had been going on and on, the way they do, and in recapping his remarks she had allowed herself a small imitation of his voice, which was like a door that needs oil. She delivered his nasal creak with such aplomb, to such a degree of perfection, that for a second the man in question seemed to materialize in front of us. What an effect it had! It was as if she had suddenly broken into fluent Arabic. It implied, this little party trick of hers, the presence of alien creatures within her slender frame, a notion that I found alarmingly erotic. But I didn’t pursue her. By fifty-one I had learned the hard way that slim attractive young women . . . Well, why go into it. You know perfectly well what I’m saying. Besides, I had other problems.
For example, one fall day I was sitting in my study. It was a beautiful day and I’d left the back door open. You could smell autumn in the garden, the scent of the leaves, the cool air so sweet, so beyond-this-world. It was as if in the fragrance alone I could possess again the finest, most elusive sensations of my childhood, the clarity of things felt and seen and smelt and heard–a bird singing in the yard, a schoolboy’s mechanical recitation: porto, portas, portat.
A yellow cat wandered in, purring and drooling and rubbing against my leg. I was writing a course description for the next year’s calendar when I heard a strange sound, an irregular pop like a cap pistol. Pop, pop. Then silence. Then pop. But no, it wasn’t a child’s toy, it was something else. For some reason it amused me to guess what it was, and I stopped working and listened carefully. It didn’t sound metallic, it sounded rather like . . . I couldn’t put my finger on it, but I’d heard it before. But somewhere else, in an entirely different framing. It belonged back there with the vivid garden smells. But what could it be?
Finally, I went to see. Opposite my back patio, across a narrow lawn and a screen of rose bushes, stood a ragged flagpole on the next property. For some reason the tenant had raised a German flag. I’m not partial to Germans (although I rather like the sound of a woman speaking the language softly), but that’s not the issue. The issue was the flag flapping. It snapped, it cracked in the wind. Abruptly I recalled where I’d heard it: at summer camp. Late in the afternoons, limp from the sun and swimming, I used to lie on the dock, the drops of water falling from my brown skin. They made stains on the sun-bleached wood like little countries on a map. Closing my eyes, I would listen to the sound of the waves lapping under the dock, the sound of a motorboat across the bay–and a flag flapping overhead. But I didn’t remember it being so loud. This was like a starter’s pistol. Crack, crack, crack.
I went back to my study and resumed work, but once you notice something like that, after a while it’s all you notice. Gradually my typing disintegrated, a sure sign I don’t like what I’m writing, that my body is fighting it. Really, what a racket! Finally I surrendered and went for a closer look. I walked around the block and stood in front of the offending property. The sunshine was dazzling. I stared at the front parlour hoping by the intensity of my feelings to bring its owner to the window, as one can sometimes awake a sleeper by resting one’s eyes on him for a protracted length of time. A stocky woman passed me on the sidewalk, a dog trotting at her side. Possibly a poor selection, but I looked to her as an ally. She nodded politely, deferring to my age I assume, but the reason I smiled at her didn’t register, distracted as she was by the log-dumping hound that bounced empty-headedly beside her. My stomach began to ache; acid dripped like the inside of a sweating cave. This was intolerable. Too many provocations. But what could I do? How do you tell someone to take down his flag? Especially a German. Since the collapse of the Wall and the creation of their own army, I’ve noticed a new emphasis on civil liberties, chez eux. One always knows where that leads.