Hold Back the Night

by Denis Tillinac

Sample translation by Sandra Smith

François' Journal

            The clock has just struck midnight. The sad music of rain against the window pane. Time flows by slowly, one grain of sand after the other trickles down its enormous hourglass.

            And far away, she is in that house, which I hate, with her husband who perhaps…

            And I am here, feeling her absence.

            Writing to conjure up my solitude. It would be better to sleep but I can’t. Better to cry but I don’t know any more. And yet, the tears will soon come.

       Claire is upstairs, asleep in our bedroom. Claire, my wife of thirty-seven years, the mother of our two sons. I write in secret, in my office, she mustn’t know. Ever since it began, secrecy was our lot. We had no choice. Secrecy exhilarated us, bound us together. In the end, it became our accomplice.

            Hélène is sleeping, or pretending to, twenty kilometers away, on the other side of the Loire. Unless… To make things even more unbearable, I know that bedroom. Impossible to imagine her asleep while wiping out the presence of her husband.

            I went to Blois this afternoon, in between two house calls, keeping to the left bank to avoid the outskirts of Les Grouets. I stopped in front of Gabriel Bridge. A grey town in the rain. I hoped to see Hélène appear. She always turned around when she reached the obelisk to make sure she hadn’t been followed. Hélène’s silhouette on that bridge against a background of the spires of Saint-Nicolas, the château, the Cathedral of Saint-Louis, the high bell tower of the Basilica of the Trinity, the rooftops: images of our love.

            Hélène pushed open the door of the brasserie. Always late, always out of breath. “I can’t stay long.” Always running out of time, trying to outwit it. During opening hours, she ran the art gallery with Sylvie. In the evening, she became Franck’s wife again. Her daughter Laurence often came from Paris to leave her two kids with her. They often all spent the weekend at La Baule where they have a house. Time was always precious, and we were always on our guard.

            Ten numbers tapped on my cell phone and I would hear her voice, and her slight accent that bathes her in sunlight. A voice somewhere between a flute and a cello. This phone is a kind of torture to me. Every time it rings I hope it’s her. “Hello, Doctor.”  It’s never her. We decided not to see or speak to each other for a month. Or rather, she decided and I accepted it. Towards the end, too much bitterness was spoiling our pleasure – and never enough time to bring the problem out into the open; I fear it is all my fault.

            I won’t hold out for a month. Neither will Hélène. I wish for her call but fear her verdict. If she abandons me, I’ll go away. I brought up the subject of moving somewhere else with Claire, somewhere far from here where we can gradually live out the rest of our days. By the end of the year, I will have retired; I’m tired of watching the Loire flow along the bottom of our garden. Tired of this whitish godforsaken place doomed to guard an historic château. Tired of the routine of a country doctor. I loved Chaumont – a white, horizontal streak, a great patch of dark green that hides the château. A landscape in the style of Madame de Staël. I loved the endless river that flows away in the distance between its little islands and sandy banks. I loved getting back to provincial life, the soothing rhythm of the four seasons. Everything has changed too much, I have nothing to hold onto in the world any more. Did I ever? I pretended to be an adult; I continue out of politeness, but it no longer amuses me; in the place where Hélène and I came together, we didn’t need to play games.

            Claire has nothing against the idea of going to settle down somewhere else, even though she has always lived in Blois and then Chaumont. My wife is accommodating. Nothing troubles her, nothing upsets her, she takes life as it comes; she’d follow me wherever I want to go. But where? Back to Charolles, where I was born? Before Hélène, I’d thought about it; to see out my days close to my family’s tomb seemed if not desirable, at least restful for the spirit.

            Before Hélène… I see him now as if he were someone else, this doctor in his office at the side of the road, next to the cliff, beneath the château’s chapel. My visits between Rilly and Candé-sur-Beuvron with my big leather bag, a birthday present from Claire. “Hello, Doctor.” Evenings at home, with Claire and our two boys until they spread their wings. Then alone with Claire, without them. Weekends at Bracieux in my mother-in-law’s house, or in Nourrayin my father-in-law’s place. Vacations in Charolles, always at Christmas and in August. My lazy days had little moments of joy, a ray of sunshine on a grapevine, a Haydn sonata, a hare leaping out of a thicket, a heron alighting. Youthful adventures that seemed to just happen, never solicited; I’m far too shy. But never refused either: before Hélène, I partook of femininity whenever women opened their arms to me, without indulging in sophisticated eroticism. “Natural” romantic adventures, in the way people might describe organic food. At night, I had my books. Especially novels with a romantic heroine, in the broadest sense of the term. I lived with the sylphs who recreated and idealized impossible scenes of love with my cousin Bénédicte. Lived is not an exaggeration: my days were nothing more than an open parenthesis that quickly closed; I was eager to get back to my dear companions in misfortune – those tragic women in love with whom I escaped in my dreams.

            Before Hélène, there was Bénédicte – the haunting regret of my beautiful, mad cousin, the inviolable sanctuary of a feeling of sentimentality that lie fallow, then died.

            Before Hélène, I carted around a version of myself calcified into a predictable personality. Me as serving others, egoless and ever more sociable.

            Before Hélène, I loved Bénédicte, an illusion. Then Claire, a great deal. To my surprise, our relationship wasn’t affected at all. Nor were our bodies, even after living together for a long time: spaced out, but at regular intervals, they continued to merge as before beneath the sheets of our Charles X bed, respecting an unchangeable scenario. It cost Hélène nothing. Bodies have their own logic, which don’t always follow the Map of Tendre*; Claire’s was linked to Hélène’s love, due to a form of alchemy whose secrets remain unknown to me. Alas, I concluded that, perhaps, under the sheets of her marital bed…

            We won’t go away. I won’t leave Claire. Hélène and I dreamed of running away to a pure place in our pasts, a treasure island, a starry sky in the tropics. Or Cahors, Hélène’s native city, which I idealized without ever having been there. After all, I was going to retire, our sons live far away, I’ll always have more money than I can spend.

            It was just a dream. It would have meant a divorce. I reproached Hélène for only agreeing unwillingly, but with lamentable bad faith on my part, for I never truly imagined leaving Claire high and dry. Hélène knew that. She reproached me for cheating that way; I’m afraid it might drive her to a final farewell. She wanted to socialize with Claire and Franck in a sort of intimate foursome. As if it were thinkable that I could watch him put his hand on Hélène’s shoulder again. Everything followed from that gesture. I’d rather not see her any more. Writing this, I am frightening myself and lying to myself: I’d rather die than give her up.

            Why so late? Over sixty, romantic feelings are no longer appropriate. The engine misfires, the bodywork is scratched. You count the painful parts of your body and your Social Security contributions. You start to sense that your stay in this world will end up beneath a tombstone or in an urn, your choice. The patients I have of my age, who used to be energetic, have all lost their illusions, their aspirations, their ambitions; they shut themselves away to keep old age at a distance. Or pretend to defy it, but I know them too well, they’re all afraid. I watched old age come with a sense of resignation tinged with melancholy that was more sweet than bitter, conscious that fate had been rather kind: a sheltered childhood, an irreproachable wife, a admirable career, two loving sons who were pretty respectable. Life without sharp edges, lived by the son from a bourgeois family in the provinces, as it used to be long ago. A life that harks back to the past, like the world of Proust that I reread with relish, barely tinged with moroseness, when Hélène arrived to take her place among Oriane, Gilberte and Albertine*. Obsolete through familial heritage, old-fashioned through every fiber of my sensitivity, I lurked about in an indefinite past – a past that was constructed, deconstructed, reconstructed, and which gradually, almost without my knowing it, shaped me into the false person I am today.

* A map of an imaginary land called Tendre appeared as an engraving in the first part of Madeleine de Scudéry’s novel Clélie (1653). The map shows a mythical geography entirely based around the theme of love. (TR)

* Female characters in Proust’s novels. (TR)

Hélène’s Letter (p. 99)

            Beginnings: Cahors, Lot. A baby-boomer, an almost model little girl lives out her dreams in the fluffy universe of the novels of the Countess de Ségur. My best friend is Madeleine de Fleurville but I also like Camille, Marguerite de Rosbourg and Sophie de Réan*. Châteaux, crinolines dresses, straw hats for picnics on freshly mown lawns dotted with daisies.

            My mother is the daughter of a notions dealer from Gramat, in south central France. My father was brought up in a dilapidated hovel in Saint-Médard-Catus by his mother, Amélie, a maid, his father having run off before he was born. My maternal grandfather died in the 14-18 war, leaving a widow, Julia, who did not approve of her only daughter’s marriage. My mother works at the BNP Bank, my father is a manager at the Social Security office. A low-level manager. We live in a house near the Lot River, inherited from an aunt on the Gramat side of the family, the best side, so to speak.

            The Gramat side is Catholic, with a tendency to be morbid: we have sinned, we must repent; we have not been put on earth to enjoy ourselves. My mother got into the habit; I sometimes saw her smile, but she would never burst out laughing. Later on, I’d learn that my father was inducted into a Masonic Lodge, perhaps as revenge, perhaps to have a say in the matter: at home, my mother made all decisions, and he complied. She was the one who decided to have me educated at Notre-Dame, on the Rue du Château-du-Roi, next to the prison. There’s never any sun on that street, and the good Sisters are as old-fashioned as can be. I don’t dislike it. I’m a hard-working, obedient schoolgirl, not unruly. I like the services in the chapel, the stained-glass windows, the pictures of the Virgin, the statues of the saints, the Latin and the Gregorian chants. I like emptying my bagful of silly sins in the wooden confessional and finding myself in a state of grace after doing penance. I love Jesus and he loves me back. My dreams of love are contained in the half-light of religion where pride in having a soul like the saints and feeling high-minded emotions, like Camille de Fleurville, co-exist in a confused state.

            Adolescence converted this mess into the vague expectation of a knight who was less mundane than my high school friends. Because at sixteen, I rejoined the secularity so dear to my father by attending the Lycée Clément-Marot. There I discovered diversity, grenadine cordials in the bars along the Avenue Gambetta and Paul Anka’s howling on the juke box. “Oh please, stay with me, Diana…” The gentle strumming of electric guitars and the multicolored pinball machines opened the doors to an era for me: my era. There I was, a modern girl, skipping Sunday Mass to listen to “Little Sister” on my record player, in my room done up in pink, with my teddy bear in my arms. I studied hard in English class so I could translate “Are You Lonesome Tonight”. I went to parties with Gloria, my best friend, a Portuguese girl more beautiful than Sylvie Vartan, more beautiful than Françoise Hardy, just as beautiful as Maria from West Side Story. She left school at 16 to get a job as a waitress in a restaurant; her parents are poor. There are some rich kids, like Bruno, the son of a pharmacist, who rides a Vespa, orders Martinis with Bordeaux wine and smokes Benson and Hedges, then the poor ones, like Gloria. We’re in between the two; I’ve never seen my mother without her hair in a bun, or my father without a tie. But we’re near the bottom of the barrel: the lower middle classes who have almost no money. The grey Simca Aronde that gets us to Saint-Médard-Catus or Gramat on Sundays was bought second-hand and on credit.

* Characters in the romantic novels by the Countess de Ségur [TR]