The Fugitives

By Yves Bichet

Translated by Anthony Della Penna

 

1

            Night falls and everyone holds their breath. Clovis Barbanson, officer on duty, stops before the cypress hedge. He looks at his partner Vignaud, sunken into his chair from the bumps on the road, and asks him to repeat the remark. Vignaud, lost in his thoughts, rubs the nape of his neck. The wheelchair sets off again down the hill. The handicapped man, contemplating the waters of the Volane River, glimmering below, repeats in a solemn tone:

            “A woman doesn’t enter a woman…”

            Barbanson raises his eyes to the sky as his partner continues unabashed.

            “A woman doesn’t penetrate anything or anyone…She explores, she caresses but never deflowers. Hers is a mere garden-body. Do you get that, Clovis?”

            “I get that we’re late.”

            Vignaud, aggrieved, stiffens against the back of his chair. A moment later they hear someone racing by. Barbanson turns his head and glimpses Baron de la Croix a hundred yards ahead, slipping between the rows of trees. The former officer nods and veers directly toward the shortcut leading to the casino. They arrive, running to the gate. The nurse is already there, waiting for them with her key.

            “Shake a leg!”

            Clémence looks at her residents with a tender smile. Baron de la Croix, breathless, hurries to join them.

            “Gigi Louvain is also here.”

            Clémence frowns. Someone is heard running beyond the cypress. The sound of footsteps becomes clear and everyone glimpses the silhouette of Gigi hurrying down the hill, her dress flying off, unveiling her plump white thighs. Younger and more nimble than the rest of the retirees, she joins them just as the front gate partially opens. She blocks the entrance with her foot, adjusts her bosom, shaken up by the run, then turns toward the city and explodes with laughter. She’s already noticed their little game more than a few times. Jean-Denis de la Croix mockingly scratches his flabby thighs. Clovis Barbanson declares that the simpleminded women are jinxing them, then blows his nose, lets the tissue fall to the ground and pushes the wheelchair again. The nurse grabs her client’s arm.

            “I can’t let you leave, Gigi.”

            Big Bones looks at her with stricken eyes, tightens her fists, and braces herself against a tree trunk. A cry escapes from her throat, like a kitten’s meow, as she lets herself slip along the bark. The floral dress rises above her thighs. She tries to pull it back down but can’t and slumps to the ground, making a very poignant scowl and begins to whine in a bed of dead leaves. Baron Croix leans in, taking a cookie out of his pocket.

            “And what if we were wrong!” her banker neighbor in the wheelchair began again. “What if our Gigi Louvain, deep down, had a crush on someone else. The director, for example! A woman, a real one. A being with curly hair and a garden-body. Someone airy, vegetal, optimistic and completely folded up into herself. A flower. A bud.”

            Clémence smiles. Louvain stares at the men, looking lost. Baron de la Croix offers up his cookie, murmuring that he’s owed respect. Gigi munches on it then declares that she wants to sleep here every night that God creates or at least follow them to the casino and gamble with them forever. She rests her head on the moss, lowers her eyelids, sniffs the palm of her hand.

            “A woman doesn’t enter a woman…”

            No reaction this time. The nurse contemplates her little group of runaways huddled by the gate and asks herself if she’s right, tonight, to let them leave on a little jaunt. Gigi is under guardianship and cannot leave the institution unaccompanied. The other three are different. They are free to move even if the management formally prohibits this kind of getaway. She knows they are going to have a good time and that they will be careful to return before midnight. She knows it. She extends her arm to Gigi, slumped in the foliage, parts the strands of hair on her forehead, repeats that she can’t let her leave.

            They call me Gigi because they know that I really like to repeat syllables…I repeat all double syllables except Papa, Lulu and titties. Papa, because I no longer have one. Lulu because of Lu cookies. And titties because everyone sucks them, Big Bones’ little titties. Did that shock you into silence? Not me. Suck as much as you want, but immediately after you’ll be calm….then you’ll stop. You taste but you don’t enter anywhere because when you enter, nine months later there is someone who wants to leave from somewhere, and that’s not a good thing. If you could enter in such a way that nothing would ever come out, that would be better. Ghislaine Louvain, thirty-eight years old. I don’t like babies but I love this joke they whisper at the retirement home, winking: “Before, it’s not droopy. During, it’s not droopy. But after, it’s droopy…”  These words make me dizzy.

            The first vehicles park in the lot as a gentle sea breeze sweeps up the hill. The baron consults his watch then heads toward the garden’s supporting wall. He makes an initial trip around, stops to tie his laces, inspects the concrete buttress, makes another trip around, then rejoins the group, clearing his throat. He has something important to tell them.  The nurse stops herself from smiling but the others know it’s serious. The former officer sits in the dead leaves next to Gigi. Baron de la Croix pulls the banker’s wheelchair from the other side and Big Bones, now surrounded, stops whining and sniffing the palm of her hand. Baron Croix makes a circular motion above the city, as if making the world a witness. Gigi finds this motion very beautiful, very elegant. She clucks her tongue. He shoots her a glance.

            “We’re going to break the bank.”

            An appreciative silence greets this comment. In the distance, the gates are heard closing again as well as the voice of the director calling the latecomers. The leaves on the trees rustle above their heads. Baron de la Croix clears his throat, while the nurse continues to hesitate about what’s planned. Jean-Denis rubs his belly, gives a little cough, then spits in the hedges. He seems worried. He passes wind, a sign of powerlessness and regret. His back is stooped, his hands stained from cemetery flowers, but still, like the others, he dreams of running over the mountain, of hobbling along, of kissing the lips of women he passes as if they were the face of God. But everyone knows they’re not the face of God and that these kisses will never happen, never again. ..

            “We’re going to gamble, big time!”

            Clémence shrugs her shoulders, then leans over and gently arranges the front of her jacket. She contemplates her retirees. The former officer Barbanson, stiff and rigid as usual, the handicapped Vignaud in his wheelchair, the simpleton Gigi, and Baron de la Croix, who won’t take his eyes off her. The nurse sighs. Baron de la Croix’s nephews have returned, that’s for sure, and that explains everything. They show up every weekend, the two nephews, and harass poor Jean-Denis over the course of an hour after his lunch. Everything gets discussed: the stock portfolio, the life insurance policy, the upkeep of the manor, the tax returns and the unavoidable updates on his state of health. Today they were accompanied by an exceedingly scrawny lawyer who talked about transfers, living wills, usufruct, legal guardianships…The older nephew, slick and wily, was holding his uncle’s hand, punctuating the lawyer’s witticisms with friendly little rubs. Baron de la Croix, who doesn’t like vultures or manipulators, kicked them all out and didn’t sleep a wink. At the moment he’s contemplating the Vals casino, its windows glowing.

            “Did everyone take a tie?”

            Barbanson and Vignaud stick their hands deep into their pockets and take out a ribbon of black fabric sturdy enough to act as a bow tie.

            “I’m selling everything. Enough already. I’m getting rid of it all.”  

            Vignaud bends over the rearview mirror of the wheelchair and checks his suit.

            “I’m selling it all for cheap, I’ve decided. I’m selling my stocks. I’ll squander what’s left of the fortune and we’ll all have a good time!”

            Gigi once again clucks her tongue.

            Jean-Denis leans toward the illuminated city. Gigi brushes off the dead leaves stuck to her calves, then gets up, holding onto the tree trunk. The bark has stained her dress but she doesn’t care. She leers at Baron Croix. Their glances meet. He winks at her then turns toward the mountain and, in a lighthearted tone, as if it didn’t bother him at all, notes that it’s still hot at nightfall, unusually hot. The nurse nods, knitting up her brows. She opens the gate, tells them to get moving and, most important, to return, no matter what, before 11 pm. The retirees of Bosc agree one by one, then file out onto the path leading to the casino. The floral dress floats up in the semi-darkness. Big Bones’ thick white thighs shine for a second above the city. Baron de la Croix, in a single motion, folds down the rogue fabric, smoothes out the floral dress and wipes the cheeks of the mysterious Louvain, who is either mentally disabled, extremely clear-headed, or simply clever enough to be able to hide everything perfectly. He kisses her hand, then proceeds down the hill behind her.