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Robert got up at 4:00 A.M. As he had every day for the past forty years.
For him, it was neither a choice nor an obligation. It was just the way it was. It didn't matter to him whether it was daylight saving time or not: at 4:00 A.M. he woke up and immediately slipped out of bed.
He poured himself a cup of cold coffee. Added a drop of milk. Then he set the crossword puzzle aside so he could put his cup on the little table.
All his life, Robert had worked as a tool and die maker for a firm that manufactured agricultural machinery near Gien, in the Loiret region of France. He got to work at four-thirty on the dot and he had never been even a minute late. Well—regarded, valued by his superiors, not unionized, and polite. A model worker. Laid off as a result of down-sizing as he approached the age of fifty-five.
He sat down on the narrow bench and drank the bitter, cold coffee, grimacing with distaste. He could have warmed it up, but he couldn't be bothered. In any case, he wasn't allowed to put sugar in it, so he might as well swallow it as fast as he could. At one point he'd tried drinking tea but found that too severe a punishment.
Although he'd stopped going to work, Robert had not been able to re-set his internal clock. It drove his wife Solange crazy that he woke so early in the morning. So at the beginning of his involuntary retirement, he'd tried to stay in bed. To sleep in, at least until six o'clock. But he tossed and turned, wrapping himself in the sheets, so that his wife finally told him he could get up as soon as he woke. And then she had left him. A few months later. Bone cancer.
Robert poured the dregs of his coffee in the sink and rinsed his cup. The water pump was humming in its cabinet under the bench. He put the cup in the drain rack and walked out of the trailer.
It was the middle of June, and The Oleanders campground in Argelès was still almost empty. A few retirees like Robert and a handful of foreign tourists. The Dutch always got there first, then the Germans. Robert went directly to the toilets. The day before, he'd used the second stall from the left. Today, it would be the third. It was Wednesday.
He urinated slowly and voluptuously in a clean basin. A sweet odor of lavender filled the shack. That was what he'd liked right away about The Oleanders: the toilets were immaculate. They were cleaned regularly, and especially one last time late in the evening. Robert appreciated not having his nostrils brutally attacked first thing in the morning by the odors of the other campers' piss and shit.
He enjoyed it right down to the last drop that splashed against the smooth and still clean side of the urinal. When he'd finished, he looked at his watch. 4:19. He washed his hands, as he had the day before, at the nineteenth sink in an endless row. Then he wiped his hands on his pants. He was ready for his daily walk.
He had a feeling it would be the most difficult of his life.
The white gravel of the lane that ran down the middle of the campground crunched under the leather soles of his sandals. Usually he liked that delicate little sound, but this morning he paid no attention to it.
Robert and Solange had discovered The Oleanders in 1976. Earlier, they'd camped by the side of the road, or even simply slept in their old Dyane. But after their son Paul was born, they wanted more comfortable arrangements. Then Gérard and Florence had come along. The children had made friends in the campground. They were happy to see them again every summer. Robert and Solange had also formed habits. The parents of their children's playmates had become their friends, and vacations passed pleasantly, with games of pétanque, barbecues, and marathon card-playing tournaments.
Robert stopped by his trailer to be sure he'd locked the door. A mania of his. While his wife was alive, he'd controlled himself. But Solange was no longer there.
He turned the handle. The door resisted. It was locked. Of course.
Robert was proud of their campsite. The best set-up in the whole campground. There were two awnings that connected the trailer with a wooden deck next to a stone barbecue that he'd built himself in 1995. The year he was fired. The whole thing was enclosed by a wooden fence on which a dozen flower pots hung. Before, it was Solange who took care of them. The first summer after she died, the pots had remained empty. Then Robert had picked up where she left off. He liked putting flowers on the fence more than putting them on a grave.
Exposed to the sun and salt air, the green paint on the wooden posts was beginning to peel off. He'd planned to repaint them. He doubted that he could do it this summer.
The site was rented by the year. At the beginning of his retirement, they lived almost seven months a year at Argelès. Now the summer season exhausted him. He was sixty-five years old, and he felt tired. He would have preferred to spend the summer along the Loire River, but it was the only time when his children and grandchildren could come to see him.
He crossed the campground, walking slowly and silently.
A ray of light was coming through the crack under the door of a neighboring trailer that was registered in Germany. It belonged to a couple in their sixties. The man was tall and fairly bald. The woman was petite, heavy, and had a permanent. They'd argued loudly as they maneuvered the trailer into its spot. At first, Robert had laughed at them. Then he'd felt very strange. He missed arguments since he'd been living alone.
Just next door to the Germans, in the tent occupied by the young Dutch woman, there was neither sound nor light.
Robert arrived at the little gate that opened onto the beach. It was closed but he had the key. Charles and Andrée, the managers of the campground, knew his early morning habits, and had long ago given him a spare. Over time, they'd gotten used to each other. Robert sometimes gave them a hand doing maintenance work during the off season. A little job here and there. A sink to unstop, a part of the lawn that needed reseeding, a barbecue to be repaired. He liked doing that kind of thing, and in his trailer he didn't have much to do. Robert and Charles chatted as they worked and that occupied their minds. And then, contrary to what is often said, men are more likely to talk openly around a faucet they're changing than over a glass of anisette. Charles was the only one to whom Robert had been able to confide his distress when Solange died.
One time he had even gone so far as to shed tears.
He started down the path that crossed the Mas Larrieu nature preserve. The birds, indifferent to his torments, were chirping their eternal hymn to life. Behind their songs, the hoarse voice of the sea could already be heard.
The sea breeze was slowly rising, bringing with it a wild aroma of iodine and faraway places. The path led prudently between two wooden posts that were supposed to hold back the sand and channel the tourists. On both sides, flourishing prickly pears were vigorously growing their Mickey Mouse ears.
As he approached the beach, it became more difficult to walk, and Robert's feet sank into the sand. He kept as close as possible to the fence in order to put his feet on the meager tufts of grass. Near a thicket of reeds, he hesitated. Then he decided to walk down to the sea first.
After a few dozen yards he came out on the beach. The wind grew stronger, the aromas more intense. The surf was high this morning. On the horizon, the sky was already clearing. Life would go on. Imperturbable.
Robert walked as far as the changing line of the waves. He contemplated the somber mass of the sea and the white line of its crests. No sea would ever again carry his body, he told himself sadly. An immense loneliness invaded him. A total despair. His knees bent under the burden and forced him to suddenly sit down on the damp sand.
How he would have liked to turn the clock back a few hours. Yes, only a few hours ...
Thoughts struck his mind without ever sticking. A wild sea-swell washing over the rocks. Solange, Florence ... the only women in his life. Fragmentary memories of happy vacations surged up and were immediately wiped away by images of fury and blood. The storm was raging in his skull. He knew that it would stop only on the day of his death. As soon as possible ...
He remained prostrated for endless minutes. When he raised his head, a red line was cutting across the horizon. The sun would soon be up. The first children were running onto the beach, laughter, life ... With difficulty, he decided to return to his trailer.
He planned to go back to bed. To pull the covers over his head like a kid. Childhood was so far away, and he felt so old. People say that someday we fall back into childhood. If only that were true. To rediscover joy and innocence just before dying ...
But the hour of freedom had not tolled for him.
Back in front of the thicket of reeds, he imagined he heard a slipping sound. A strange noise. He moved cautiously forward through the tall grass, following a trail of broken stems. And it was there, in a minuscule clearing made by the mortal struggle of two bodies, that he found the bloody corpse of the young Dutch woman.
A gentle breeze cooled his chest, made sweaty by the heat. At a glance, he could take in the whole plain of Roussillon as far as the blue of the Mediterranean. To the north, the crest of the Corbières slowly descended toward the bay of Leucate; to the south, the Albères range hid Spain from his dazzled eyes.
The sun blurred the different shades of green but made the red roof tiles gleam. Every year, urban growth stole a couple of hundred acres of land from the vineyards and orchards. Subdivisions were slowly spreading over the plain. They surrounded the villages, submerging them and leaving no trace of their past except the silhouette of their old serrated Romanesque church towers. The population had grown continually over the past fifty years and the new arrivals eager for a pleasant way of life had to be housed.
Gilles was having a hard time catching his breath. He'd left the medieval town of Castelnou forty-five minutes earlier and slowly climbed the path that led to the Sant-Marti de la Roca chapel. The hill was steeper toward the end and it had forced him to stop and rest. Earlier, he hadn't had to do that.
From the rocky outcropping where he was resting, he couldn't see the Têt, but he could easily follow its course through the villages that bordered the river all the way to Perpignan. He could list the names of these villages, one by one.
He, too, had been a new arrival a few years earlier, one of those immigrants from the north that the Catalans received with a mixture of fellow feeling, pride, and resignation. Fortunately, he had a job. A trade he was no longer crazy about but which provided him with a sufficient salary at the end of each month.
He opened his canteen and drank two little gulps of the already-lukewarm water. He sprinkled a little on his head. The water ran onto the nape of his neck and then slipped down his back.
The sounds of human activity reached him diluted in a steady drone. Only the buzz of the fire department's Cessna, which was keeping the mountain ranges under constant surveillance, could be distinguished against the background noise.
Sebag thought again about Léo, his son.
That morning, the boy had cleverly avoided hugging him in front of the high school. The car had hardly stopped before he jumped out, mumbling something inaudible that probably meant "Bye" or "See you tonight." He'd been doing that for more than a month. It was his age. He was in tenth grade. High school. He was an adult now. He had no desire to show the slightest affection for his father within sight of his buddies. That's life, get used to it! Sebag tried to be philosophical about it. He'd always known that the time of hugs and kisses wouldn't last forever. With Léo as with Séverine. And he'd enjoyed each second, hugging their bodies to his, closing his eyes the better to imbue himself with their smell. He remembered the time, not so long ago, when Léo used to put his arm around his waist and leaned his head against his chest for a few moments before disappearing into the schoolyard. That time was over. Forever. The kid had fuzz on his chin and he was almost five feet eleven. In a few months, maybe a few weeks, he'd be taller than his father.
Nonetheless! Gilles felt a void. A lack. Physical. Stopping smoking wouldn't have been any harder.
He got up, stretched the muscles in his arms, and shook out his legs. His back was stiff and sensitive. A little more than usual.
He had to make up his mind to go down. To dive back into that turbulent world. And even if at the moment he didn't have much to do in the office, Sebag couldn't be away all day.
He put on his T-shirt and went toward the Sant-Marti chapel. A little break that he allowed himself.
It was open. He went in. Silence reigned in the chapel.
He took off his cap and held it over his belly in his crossed hands. He walked along the row of benches. Through a square opening in the west façade, he contemplated Le Canigou. The Catalans' sacred mountain was trying to retain in its hollows the last marks of winter. Spring had come late, and now, at the end of June, there was still some snow. Clinging to the mountain's folds, it made its relief more noticeable. Le Canigou, veined in white under the sun, was more majestic than ever.
It was time to leave.
Sebag didn't feel like going to work. He was finding it increasingly difficult to put up with the routine of his job.
Outside, the blazing sun forced him to close his eyes.
He took a last drink from the canteen and returned it to the pocket on his backpack. He set the chronometer on his watch. It would take him about half and hour to get back to the car. Twenty minutes' drive to reach Perpignan. Fifteen minutes more, long enough to take a shower in the locker room at the university's stadium.
He would be at police headquarters around eleven-thirty.
She was floating between consciousness and somnolence without being able to reach a shore. She couldn't move, paralyzed by an excessively deep sleep. Her numbed limbs permitted no movement. She was not in a hurry: the sun would come up soon enough.
She felt her dreams slowly slipping away from her. Already, she had only fleeting impressions. Warmth, a little tenderness, sweetness. Far, she supposed, from what awaited her upon awakening. No sound reached her. No image. The void. Night. Silence. She existed only through a transient thinking that refused to settle down.
As the cold spread through her body, she felt the pain growing. She hurt all over. Her legs, arms, head. Her back, too.
Her limbs were—she was beginning to understand—firmly bound. Her feet and hands were tied and attached by a rope behind her back. She couldn't move. At most, she was able, for a moment, to raise her heavy, feverish head. Her face seemed to be half-buried in a mattress that smelled of mildew.
She must have gotten involved in a very strange game. She no longer remembered the rules.
In addition to the contact with the damp mattress, she perceived another sensation on her face. A kind of cloth. Over her eyes, to be precise. Her eyes had been masked. She now realized that the sun would not come up. That it would never come up again, perhaps. This wasn't night but horror.
She tried to struggle against the immense terror that came over her.
It wasn't a game.
After finding it so difficult to emerge from the dense mist that had anesthetized her consciousness and her body, she would have liked to go back to sleep now. Maybe she would succeed in waking up somewhere far from here. In the snug comfort of a guest room, for instance. But her mind was becoming more and more lucid, stimulated by the throbbing pain that was rending her body. A word formed in her head, impossible, incredible, a word that she rejected.
She tried to remember. Nothing precise came back to her. Just the sensation of having gone to sleep with her head leaning against the window of a car, gently rocked by the curves of a country road. A recent memory or a distant reminiscence? As a child, she liked to let herself fall asleep like that on her way back from a delightful Sunday spent at her grandparents' home. Once again, she saw the light of the headlights piercing the pitch black of the Dutch countryside. She remembered the hum of the motor and her parents' quiet conversation. This time, she hadn't fallen sleep on the back seat of the car but on the passenger seat, to the right of the driver. That memory was at least precise.
Excerpted from SUMMERTIME, ALL THE CATS ARE BORED by Philippe Georget, Steven Rendall. Copyright © 2009 Editions Jigal. Excerpted by permission of Europa Editions.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Posted July 15, 2013
French police inspector on the Mediterranean coast tries to figure out a baffling crime and his own love for his wife and children. Put like that, it doesn't sound like much, but crime mysteries are interesting and love is important, explains the reviewer earnestly. Includes snippets of Catalan.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.