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Literary

Alter Egos

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[This story originally appeared in Issue 28 of Tigershark magazine- The Festive Season, December 2020]

 

Become who you are

Part 1

Growing up, Marie hated the place where she and her mother lived together in a fifteen-storey building in one of the many social housing projects that surrounded Paris. People who did not live there and only heard about these banlieues in the news mistakenly tended to believe that the southern suburbs of the French capital were not as bad as the northern ones. Marie felt that they were wrong. It was obvious to her that living in the projects was bad anywhere in the world. She also hated people talking wisely about matters they didn’t have a clue about to begin with. Those who pretended to know better simply illustrated their flagrant lack of knowledge in the matter, on top of their inability to keep their ignorance to themselves.

She and her mother, Aline, lived in a small flat which had only two rooms, one of which being the living room where her mother slept on a convertible couch. The only real room was Marie’s. Although she was only eleven years old, she had a solid understanding of the circumstances that surrounded her life and her mother’s. She was convinced that all children who lived in her neighbourhood and in the adjacent buildings had that very same grasp of reality but lost it during adolescence to society’s expectations towards them – or, the way Marie saw it, to the country’s heartless economic working-class engine that steadily and relentlessly ground every single one of its cogs into dust, only to see them replaced by the next generation.

Aline worked six days a week at a hairdresser’s and often did house calls for friends and neighbours on Sundays. Maurine, the only neighbour they knew on the same floor, was one of her clients and the two women had a mutual agreement. Being a fortune teller, Maurine sometimes read people’s fortunes with tarot cards in her spare time. And whenever she told Aline her fortune, Maurine was happy to get her hair done in return, free of charge. It was a sensible arrangement since, out of principle, Maurine never asked for payment for reading someone’s cards. It was, however, common knowledge and understood for all her clients that no work should remain unpaid. Therefore, people always made a donation, either in money, usually a small, symbolical sum, or in goods such as a pack of flour or a home cooked meal. The difference with Aline was that their exchange was set at a fixed price.

Sometimes Marie’s mother and their neighbour spent some of their off time together, having coffee or just chatting and, on occasion, even went out together. During a conversation, while Marie had been waiting patiently by her mother’s side, she overheard that Maurine was of Irish origins. Her name was a variation of Marie’s own, but the girl never noticed a surname (although she could have sworn that Maurine must have had one). When asked about where in Ireland Maurine was from, she just said evasively that her mother was born in a travelling community called Tinkers.

Judging from the woman’s appearance, the girl decided that Maurine had to be about the same age as her mother, who was forty. Strangely enough, Marie had felt somehow connected to the dark-haired, pale woman next-door ever since she and her mother met her for the first time. Moreover, and as far as Marie could tell, Maurine was the closest thing she knew her mother had to a friend.

Since Aline earned just enough to pay for the bills and buy food, when Marie wanted pocket money for things her mother wouldn’t buy her (or couldn’t afford), she had to work for it. So when Mrs Aliagas, an elderly widow who lived on the ninth  floor, just below Marie’s and Aline’s flat, needed some groceries, Marie went with her to help her pick the items she wanted and carry the bag back up to her flat. When Mrs Aliagas was too tired or aching from arthritis, she sent Marie to go on her own. The old lady always gave Marie five Euros, once back at her place. She was kind, though rough around the edges, always swearing, and wore glasses as thick as bottle necks. Marie often marvelled at how they didn’t fall off her steep, freckled nose from their sheer weight. Marie also thought that it was a terrible thing to be so old and helpless; with no one else to look after you.

Little Marie also walked the elderly Dariot couple’s pug, Hector. She hated dogs, too, but it was easy money to walk the stupid mutt around the courtyard until it had thoroughly urine-poisoned even the most resilient samples of suburban flora and dropped a couple of lengthy turds on the concrete walkway, right next to the dried-out flower patches and nettles. No one really cared anyway. People kept their children indoors after nightfall. Then, youths and small-time gangsters took possession of the benches and the entrances to the tower blocks.

Marie didn’t like it when it got dark. Not that she liked it any better at daytime. But she struggled to accept the commonly used adage stating that’s how it was. If that was truly the case, she contended that it sucked tremendously.

Since she was a small child, Marie had always thought of herself as being different from the other children in her neighbourhood and at school, and usually preferred to keep to herself. She enjoyed learning, which made it somehow easier for her classmates to ostracise her – and ultimately leave her alone. No one around Marie, including her mother, understood how anyone could enjoy learning. She relished the thought in advance of going to school the next day to learn. And despite her mother’s failure to understand her daughter in many other aspects, Aline understood that Marie was not like the other children, perhaps even special (although she didn’t have a clear notion as to what exactly that implied). She knew, though, that her daughter liked to read. Therefore, Aline came home from work early every Saturday to take Marie on a two-hour library tour of all the libraries in a ten kilometre radius in their drafty olive green 1989 Renault 5, in order to provide for her daughter’s intellectual cravings.

Books and magazines were Marie’s best friends at that time, though not her only ones. She did also have two girlfriends, Nadia and Corinne, with whom she could share her impressions of the latest episode of Dawson’s Creek, Beverly Hills 90210 or of the latest Backstreet Boys and Ricky Martin songs. But teenage-friendly popular culture was the limit of what she could share with her human friends. They would not have understood it, had she ever mentioned that she also indulged in Star Trek, Jane Eyre and Sherlock Holmes.

#

When MTV began airing Daria on French television, the show turned out to be a revelation for young Marie. She had instantly recognized a kindred spirit in the satirical cartoon girl and elected Daria at once her very own favourite heroine (all-media considered). Soon she had created her own imaginary interpretation of the misanthropic, nihilistic nerd girl in love with books and with travelling through history, fiction and around the world, even beyond it, into the stars. And rather than stooping to the intellectual level of most of her fellow pre-adolescent peers for acceptance and recognition, solitary Marie found great comfort in dreaming of being able to metaphorically kick all the mental Beavises and Buttheads around her into the ground with spite, spunk and spirit. Daria had helped Marie to better understand herself and, for that matter, everyone else.

The thing about television in the 1990s was that commercials were an integral part of televised entertainment. One knew that there was going to be a break every twenty or thirty minutes or so (at least on most public channels) and people didn’t think twice about its usefulness – they went to the loo, fetched another drink or a snack in the fridge or (for the lucky ones) made out. Advertisements were generally accepted, on top of being largely unavoidable except if one zapped to another channel or turned off the television (hence taking the considerable risk of missing part of the programme if one tuned back in too late).

Especially during children’s programmes, the profusion of toys, sweets and accessories that were punched through the screen and through the developing consumer’s retina into their minds in twenty to thirty second intervals proved to be most effective. Children sooner or later ended up badgering their parents for one toy or the other – and sooner or later their parents would give in to the mass consumption doctrine, the high and mighty force at work.

Like many French children of her generation, Marie, too, watched the commercials with transported interest. Even more so since her mother could hardly ever afford to buy her any toys, plushies or dolls. But seeing them at Nadia’s and Corinne’s homes, her friends being slightly more fortunate than herself for simple and almost insignificant reasons – having two parents, for instance – made Marie resentful of her own situation and envious of her friends. She realized that she would never be able to walk enough dogs and shop for enough old ladies to be able to buy all the things she began to feel an increasingly urgent hunger for.

#

The first time she stole something was a celebrity tabloid. It had been a sort of means to test herself, to see if she had it in her. Her target didn’t even have to be something interesting but might as well be, of course.

One afternoon during the summer break, she went to the grocery store at the bottom of the neighbouring building and leisurely browsed through the aisles. It was so hot the omnipresent concrete felt as though it was going to reach the boiling point any day. Children and teenagers wandering aimlessly through stores or shopping malls in search of some relief from the furnace were commonplace. When Marie had reached the newspaper and magazine aisle, she checked carefully, without wasting precious time, if the air was clear. Once she was sure, she stealthily slipped an issue of Closer Magazine into the back of her jeans hiding the rest of it under her t-shirt and walked out empty-handed.

No one had seen her take it and Marie was delighted about her first successful misdemeanour. Back in her room, she could still feel the tingle of exaltation in her stomach. For that feeling alone, she thought, it had already been worth the risk.

Although delinquent Marie didn’t become an adrenaline junkie, she still went on stealing through the summer and the next few months until Christmas. Her being envious of her friends caused her to steal from them, too, a couple of times – a bangle and a lipstick. But on those occasions she had actually felt bad about what she had done. While she didn’t want to ruin her friendships by confessing, Marie decided she would not do it again and rather focus on magazines instead. On particularly successful days she would nick a Glamour or Elle for Nadia and Corinne, too.

Her mother barely noticed the rather sudden profusion of celebrity and lifestyle magazines in her daughter’s bedroom during the following months. Aline had too much on her plate already and was too exhausted most days after work to inquire about a bunch of magazines she assumed her daughter had bought with honestly earned money. She had no reason to believe otherwise.

#

On the first day of October, every year, the amount of toys, sweets, electronic devices and home gadgets of all sorts that were advertised on television, when Marie was still a child, increased drastically almost overnight. It was hard to tell exactly how there could be more commercials than the rest of the year with even more products on show, but to eleven-year-old Marie it certainly felt that way.

And then, on a Saturday morning in mid-December, there she was; wedged right in between two parts of an episode of one of her cherished Japanese animation series, along with seven minutes worth of even more magically delightful and oh so desirable toys: Business-Woman-And-Evening-Gown-In-One Barbie. During the day, she was a young, attractive and successful high class business woman in a smart perfecto-and-knee-long-skirt combo that magically turned into an extraordinary princess-style evening gown to go dining in a classy gastronomical restaurant and dancing with her boyfriend, Ken, after work.

There was nothing in the whole world that young Marie could have wanted more than to possess that doll. The commercial break ended and the anime show resumed at a crucial turning point in the plot – but Marie was not paying attention anymore, mesmerized. She had to have that doll. And she was sure that, although she knew that many things required a certain amount of patience in order to achieve fruition or satisfaction, her patience would run out very soon.

She decided to go into town that day, took the train into Paris and the Metro until she reached the huge and famous Paris department store. Any larger supermarket would have done; there was a Toys R Us much closer to her home. But Marie wanted to avoid being seen by anyone who could have recognized and denounced her to her mother. So it seemed to be a very reasonable choice to put as much distance between where she lived and the crime-scene-to-be.

The entire excursion had taken her several hours. Marie arrived back home with just enough time to bask in the joy of having achieved what she had set her mind to and – much more importantly – the joy of possessing the doll from the commercial. Aline arrived half an hour later and all along that Saturday’s library tour found that her daughter was in a particularly good mood.

Every day until the Christmas holidays, Marie beamed with the sheer joy of knowing that she had her wonderful doll waiting for her in her room. Of course she had to play with it in secret since a brand new expensive doll would doubtlessly have aroused her mother’s suspicion. But Marie was cautious.

On the last Sunday before Christmas, Aline had invited Maurine over for lunch. Much to Marie’s surprise, Maurine had brought a Christmas present for her. Marie didn’t know Maurine well enough to be able to say she liked her, but she sensed something, even though it was just a feeling, that made her feel comfortable with their neighbour.

The girl had thought on occasion that they did both have the same raven black hair. There also was something about the oval shape of Maurine’s face, and about her thin lips that somehow reminded Marie of her own. She considered Maurine to be neither pretty nor unpleasant to look at but plain, and judged that she was of medium height with a rather shapely stature and what Marie decided was a decently sized bosom and not quite flat buttocks. Maurine’s brown eyes had a depth Marie had never noticed in anyone else before, except maybe, possibly, in her own. And she had an aura about her of someone Marie was sure she knew, but for the hell of it could not figure out from where or when – like a permanent yet untraceable déjà-vu.

Marie quite naturally thanked Maurine politely for her present and asked if she could open it right away, Christmas being still a couple of days away. Maurine having no objection, the youngster eagerly proceeded to unwrap her present.

Never had Marie known a greater disappointment than when she had removed the wrapping. In her lap she held the same doll she had stolen the week before.

#

Part 2  

Just as Marie was showing out Mrs Aliagas, her floor-neighbours stepped out of the lift. She correctly deduced from the pile of books the little girl was hugging that they were returning from their weekly library raid. The girl liked to read.

The four of them greeted each other, inquiring briefly if everything was well and within a couple of minutes the exchange had covered everyone’s state of health, school, work and the weather before the mother and daughter disappeared into their flat with a promise to talk more soon. Meanwhile, the elderly lady made it slowly and persistently into the lift. At her age, Marie had decided a long time ago, one had a right to take one’s time and Marie always saw Mrs Aliagas to the lift and remained on the landing until she heard the elderly lady close the door to her flat, just below her own. It was a Saturday afternoon ritual for Mrs Aliagas to have Marie read from the cards to her.

Marie had always had some doubts about the validity of what she told people from the cards and the importance they attached to her prophecies. Although she was quite certain about her ability to read tarot cards and understand their meaning for herself, in a sense, privately – it was her neighbours’ hopes and emotions that made it into a mitigated experience for her. She didn’t as much think of it as telling someone’s fortune as she considered herself to be providing a public service, because she could, by dispensing a small measure of comfort to the people around her – a little light of meaning in the vast, frightening darkness of uncertainty.

The news that Marie was a card reader had spread like wildfire around the residents of her building and, in fact, of the entire neighbourhood when the subject had come up during a neighbourly conversation. Even her next-door neighbour, Lina, had become one of her clients.

Since the forty-something-year-old mother had helped Marie move in and solve some starting problems involving an unreliable heating system with the social housing administration, the two women had become friends.

Although Marie and Lina both had exhausting weeks – she, being a social worker for student counselling in several schools each week and Lina, being a single-mum and a hairdresser – they got to know each other better and eventually got together for a chat and coffee. They even went to a music festival in the summer now and then or to the Christmas market. Marie often worried about Lina and her little daughter, Maurine, remembering her own childhood with a single parent and how difficult life could be when you were only a family of two.

But remembering was a delicate matter, she had realized; as when her clients talked to her. How often did it happen that a person told her about events – even from a recent, almost immediate past – that had been unwittingly deformed by the teller; not on purpose but because of people’s inability to recall certain details, thereby altering the nature of recalled events.

From a radio podcast about mental illness and memory loss, Marie had learned that, over time, the brain autonomously decided to store memories of memories, copies really, rather than to call up the initial memory of an event. And each time an event was recalled, it was actually the copy of the previous time the event had been remembered. And each time, the previous memory underwent slight, minute alterations in the process of remembering. To Marie this could only mean that the more one remembered something, the more the first memory of an event became over-written, as if one were driving away from a fixed point looking at it in the rear mirror until it left one’s sight completely and what remained was merely the idea of what had left one’s sight. After that podcast, Marie had found herself wondering whether she remembered actual events of her past or if she remembered a minutely altered copy of a previous memory.

She remembered distinctly that she had discovered her ability to read cards when one of her neighbours gave her a set of tarot cards when she was a pre-adolescent teenager. Ever since then, she had practised each card’s significance, possible interpretation and the subsequent combinations. Marie remembered distinctly that, as a teenager, being able to call upon the cards to read events from the past, present or future had given her great comfort. It still did. But, now, some of her clients said she could predict the future, which she couldn’t – no more than she could prevent it from happening. Marie had learned that it merely meant she could catch glimpses of what may still come or already happened. Cards didn’t discriminate between past, present and future, they just stated – something.

She had also learned not to stretch that point since people were usually happy with even the slightest hint of certainty about their futures. They didn’t need more uncertainty than they already had.

Mrs Aliagas’s door clicked shut. The elderly woman had come to Marie seeking to know what the cards could tell about her son: Would he find a respectable young Greek wife while she was still alive? She had been worried about him not being married at forty-one. Marie had been able to tell her that he would marry; the Ace of Cups had come up quite early in its positive orientation, indicating a positive family event. However, she did not tell Mrs Aliagas that it was unlikely she would be pleased with her son’s future bride. In fact, Marie suspected he was already together with the bride-to-be but had not yet told his mother. Out of principle, Marie never told her clients the negative readings, rather focussing their attention on the positive ones.

She went back inside, drew some cards from the deck for herself and laid them out on the coffee table while she sat down in her armchair. She pondered the implications of the combination she had uncovered for a while, sighed and put the deck back together into a fit-to-size engraved oblong wooden box upon which were added delicately traced permanent marker lines and curls and mysterious symbols. The box went into a drawer below the flat screen television which she then switched on to watch a quiz show until dinner time.

#

On the penultimate weekend before Christmas, a combination of time-worn materials and insufficient maintenance caused the main heating regulator valve for the entire building to blow out over-night. When the residents woke up that Saturday morning, it took some of them a moment to remember which season of the year it was – winter or summer. They found themselves emerging from their sleep with images of sunny beaches on their minds and thirsting for an ice-cooled drink. Unable to reduce the suffocating heat to a comfortable level on the thermostats, all residents opened the windows to let in the freezing air from outside and create a heat exchange with the doors opened on to the staircase. It felt like the height of August inside Marie’s flat, ten days to Christmas.

Like most of her neighbours, she opened her door to get a sense of whether she was the only one having the same problem. It had happened before, she had heard from some of the elder residents of the building.

When she got on the landing, Marie realized that the problem concerned all the people around her. Most of them were taking stock of the situation, talking to their next-door neighbours in their bathrobes, morning gowns or already in shorts and t-shirts. Some of them were happy about the heat but most were not. It was still a few minutes before sunrise.

The hotline at the housing administration head offices rang all morning. By 9 a.m., the answering machine was bursting with complaint messages. Naturally, the technician on weekend shift would be dispatched as soon as they managed to get in touch with him. It was only a matter of hours.

Marie wasn’t sure how the day would turn out but decided to take it easy. She tilted the kitchen window and went to the bathroom to brush her hair and teeth before she turned on the television to listen to the news broadcast in the background, while reading a magazine until it was time for breakfast.

During the morning, the staircase had been filled with the clatter of crockery, neighbourly chatter, blaring television programmes, music and the straining grunts of a young couple’s blessed morning workout on one of the upper floors. At some point, after the couple had exhausted their mojo, Marie had heard her next-door neighbour’s door shut. Since Lina usually left around 8:30 a.m., it must have been her daughter going out for a spell. Marie hoped that Maurine was dressed warmly enough against the cold. Despite the equatorial climate indoors, it was still sunny but doubtlessly freezing winter outside.

She thought of the fancy new doll she had seen on television and bought for Maurine, after submitting the idea to her mother. It was something, she thought, she would have enjoyed when she was a child and now she was happy being able to offer it to little Maurine; more so since she knew from the cards that it was very unlikely that anyone other than her mother would give her anything.

Once, shortly after they met for the first time, Marie had been curious about whether there would be any relatives to be expected to visit – perhaps a handsome brother of Lina’s – but hadn’t felt comfortable enough to ask directly. She had asked the cards instead which revealed, rather sadly, that there wasn’t anyone, not even the girl’s father. When Marie came to realize, much later, that Lina never once mentioned any relatives, she felt all the more justified to give Maurine something nice for Christmas. In her opinion, children should have something nice for Christmas; they should be smothered in presents.

Then, on the last Sunday before Christmas, Marie was invited to lunch at Lina and Maurine’s place. She had brought the present with her to put under the small plastic Christmas tree on top of the television. But when Maurine saw the gift-wrapped box, she pleaded with her mother that it would be cruel having to wait until the 25th of December to open it knowing that it would be there, waiting for her. Lina said that if it was alright for Marie she could open it right away.

Marie had been looking forward to this moment for the better part of a month. She was eager to see the expression on the child’s face, hoping that she would be delighted. Marie was terribly excited when she handed the gift to Maurine – and dumbstruck by the brutal contrast between her own anticipation and the girl’s reaction when the gift wrap revealed what it was. Instead of leaping with joy, the girl’s previous excitement broke in on itself, like a sandcastle in the tide. Her smile fell apart, became a distorted mask of sorrow and disappointment.

For one heartbroken moment no one spoke. Lina was just about to ask her daughter if there was something wrong, if she was alright, but before she could speak Maurine’s face almost mechanically switched back to a happy smile. She hugged Marie diligently and forced herself to laugh in an attempt to suppress her urge to cry. Marie had a feeling that Maurine was lying when she said that she was so surprised at first, and so overjoyed, that she didn’t know what to say.

While Marie had a great time with her neighbours that Sunday afternoon, she noticed during their conversations that Maurine’s laughter had become somewhat hollow and almost imperceptibly tainted with sadness. The doll she had brought for the girl had remained sealed in its box. It would have been impossible for her to know why Maurine was unhappy or that she already possessed that same doll.

Although Marie did not understand it, she sensed that Maurine’s sadness resonated within her, somewhere deep inside. It was both a diffuse and parasitic sensation impossible to shake or point out precisely, but strong enough to make her aware that there was something wrong.

#

Part 3

Time stopped.

It did so because it was sufficiently self-aware to know that it had only a limited choice of things to do; apart from accelerating, slowing down, expanding and retracting, it sometimes stopped. It was perfectly free to do so, too, since there was no one around in the variety of universes who could tell Time what to do or when to do it. It did not have anything else to do either, for that matter. Time simply knew that it did certain things but never with any knowledge of its own motivations, or the way in which it went about them. It was also aware that it did not have exactly the same aspect in all regions of itself, that there was sometimes more or less of it.

There was no way of telling what Time would do next, although it knew (even though not why or how) that many have considered the implications of this undeniable, unavoidable and unforgiving circumstance throughout the aeons.

Then, something odd happened, which felt new – but Time wasn’t quite sure whether it actually was new. It didn’t really mind, either. Not knowing specifically what to do, or why or how to do it, Time began to fold in on itself, carrying in its wake the entire fabric of itself and the surrounding area; all the untold regions of itself with their myriad variations, moulding itself into another self-similar version of itself. The whole process was immeasurably fast and, when it was over, Time found itself to be almost exactly the way it had been before – only slightly different. It had the inexplicable feeling, somewhere deep down in its gut, that it was going to do it again.

#

Part 4

The building’s main heating system had gone haywire late in the night of the second Friday before Christmas. Fortunately, rather than to cease functioning entirely and have everyone freeze stiff, the heating was running on its upper limit. While the outside temperature was just below zero, it was consistently thirty-five degrees Celsius inside the building.

On the following Saturday morning, most flats had their windows and doors open early to create a cooling draft between the outside and the staircase. The residents put up with the heat by dressing in shorts and t-shirts, tank tops, underwear or less, which made for a surrealistic scene in the middle of December.

Christmas was less than two weeks away.

Marie had woken up early, sweating uncomfortably and confused after a dream. By the time she got out of her bed and to the bathroom, around 6.30 a.m., she didn’t remember anymore what it was about, but there remained the lingering impression of two diffuse shadows that could have been one cast by streetlight in a thick night fog, there, at the fringes of her consciousness.

She checked the thermostats of every heater, in disbelief, having almost absolute certainty that she did not raise the temperature before going to bed. Not that much, at any rate. Then, she dialled the number for the technical support of the social housing administration and got the answering machine. After considering whether or not she should leave a message, she decided against it and rang off. She thought of calling a neighbour but, after considering the time of day, decided against that, too. Marie didn’t want to disturb anyone this early. She tilted the kitchen window ajar and went to the entrance.

On the landing, she realized that the heating problem appeared to be the same for all her neighbours. She could see some doors open when she leaned over the railing. Two neighbours a couple of floors down were already debating the situation in front of their respective flats. The door across from her was still closed but Marie suspected that Lina would be getting up soon. The hairdresser’s where she worked opened at 9 a.m. and Lina always arrived there early. Marie left her door open, turned back inside and put on a pot of strong coffee.

About one and a half hours later, she was distractedly reading a cooking magazine in her pink fleece bathrobe while listening to the news on television when she heard Lina leave. From her armchair facing the television she could see across her hall and the landing to Lina’s doorstep. Noticing the open door and Marie looking up from her reading, Lina called over to wish her a good morning.

“Do you know what’s going on with the heating?” asked Lina.

“I tried to call the administration but there’s just the answering machine,” Marie said. “And Mrs Aliagas just told me she got through and said someone will be sent to fix it soon. Are the two of you alright, apart from that?”

“Yes, we’re fine, thanks. I just need to get going. Maurine is watching television.”

Right before she disappeared out of sight, Lina asked Marie if she could keep an eye on her daughter.

“I told her to come over to you, if there’s anything.”

“Of course,” the reply came on cue. She always kept an eye on Maurine when she was at home, when it was possible, although she and Lina didn’t always mention it explicitly. It was understood. Their exchange ended there since Lina had to be on her way. Marie drained the last bit of her second cup of coffee and put the cup down next to the ornamented wooden box on the coffee table and went back to reading the magazine.

When she heard a door shut and a keychain drop on the floor with a short-lived jingle, she knew it was Maurine. Marie peeked past the door frame, said, “Hello, Maurine. Everything alright?”

The girl was straining under the layers of her winter gear while she knelt to put on her shoes. She was obviously dressed for the cold with a burly blue winter coat, a chequered scarf wrapped around her neck and up to her chin. There was a pair of gloves and a red woollen hat next to her on the doormat. She looked up a little out of breath saying, “Hi, Marie. I’m alright, thanks. How are you?”

From her own doorstep, the woman noticed an air of excitement about the little girl.

“I’m well enough, thank you for asking. Mind if I ask what you are up to?”

“Just going into town,” said the youngster while she straightened up again.

Maurine appeared to be all set, ready to leave. But something caught her attention as she began to sniff the air in front of her. There was something flavoursome around. Her neighbour must have carried the smell with her, the girl thought; it appeared to be emanating from Marie’s kitchen. For one moment, it was all Maurine could think of. For one moment, she even forgot about the doll she had set her mind on getting.

“What is that?” she demanded a touch indignantly, as if such odours where unheard of, and before Marie could answer, she added with glee, “It smells delicious!”

Although Marie was quite confident in her skills as an amateur chef, she enjoyed a compliment when she got one, and smiled in half-humble half-proud appreciation.

“Oh that, that’s just a butter chicken simmering on the stove. I was planning on cooking some jasmine rice and make a little cucumber raita on the side,” she said matter-of-factly to Maurine’s brightening face.

The girl was also becoming rather hot on the landing of the overheated building. Marie had no intention of interfering with Maurine’s plans, so, she offered to put some of the food aside, if she wanted to have some later. But Maurine was still standing there, in front of her flat, like an indecisive Esquimaux. The two women eyed each other impassively for a few seconds, in silence.

After a few seconds Marie felt that it was up to her to continue; send Maurine going or say the next best thing.

“But if you’re not in too much of a hurry,” she ventured, “I think it should be ready soon.”

She saw that Maurine was hesitating, still breathing in the succulent, silky, spicy smell of hearty Indian comfort food, wavering.

“Or you can wait until you get back and there’ll be a bowl ready for you.”

#

Maurine had really just wanted to find out what was at the source of that gorgeous smell. So, when she peeled herself out of her winter gear, she was still convinced that she would have time to go into town to get the doll she so eagerly desired and be back home before her mother returned from work. But upon crossing Marie’s threshold for the first time she had immediately felt at home. Maurine wanted to know what was in each pot and pan and what was in Marie’s fridge; and she wanted to sit in the armchair to see if it was comfortable, and to know what television shows Marie liked to watch. When the youngster asked about the hand-sized wooden box on the coffee table, Marie said it was for cards and that she could show her later.

After lunch, she offered her young guest another glass of ice tea with lime and peppermint which the girl accepted happily. They talked like old friends – almost as if they had known each other their whole lives. Then, her glass still half full, Maurine was beginning to feel very satisfied from the delicious meal topped with ice cold drinks and cinnamon biscuits. She stretched her limbs which had become a little sore from sitting. She was still thinking of the doll, but just not with the same intensity anymore.

It occurred to Marie that the girl could want to follow her initial idea now and she led the conversation back to Maurine’s reason for going out. But Maurine did not seem quite as excited about the subject as she had been two hours earlier. Marie’s eyes followed the child as she rose from the table and walked around the small living-room, quietly investigating photographs, books mixed with DVDs on a shelf, magazines stacked around the television.

Something caught Maurine’s attention, as if she had noticed something peculiar without realizing it right away while the thought had crept onto the front stage of her consciousness. She swayed back to the photographs.

They were mostly time-yellowed Polaroid colour cilchés, some in sepia, of young and older people, in front of a hut or cabin, standing by a horse cart, in a field or on a prairie, women laughing around some sort of improvised camping kitchen. There were varying groups of children, and a couple of photographs of what appeared to be an entire family clan; at a glance, she counted over twenty individuals. Some of the children were also in the first row of the family portraits along with youths, cousins, parents, aunts, uncles, grandparents and possibly great grandparents, Maurine decided. One of the older children was cuddling a new-born baby sister or brother. Next to them was a small dark-haired girl right there, in the middle, perhaps about Maurine’s age, who bore an eerie air of familiarity.

She looked closer until her nose almost met with the glass and held her breath. Goose-bumps started crawling up her spine up to the nape of her neck. Had it not been for the faded sepia, the setting she had never seen or been to and what appeared to be traditional garments, she could have sworn this was a fresh picture of her. The resemblance was uncanny.

She was on the verge of saying something when it struck her that the possibility of this being the case was just unbelievable and she dismissed it. Caught by a sudden doziness, she let herself drop into the armchair, her mind sunken in the first stages of a light trance. Marie decided to let her be for a while. She cleared the table, leaving the glasses and a saucer with the biscuits and left the room to give her some space.

When she returned a few minutes later, Maurine was still sitting in the armchair but Marie sensed that the child’s aura had undergone a shift, from sleepy to inquisitive; she was staring intensely at the wooden box, as if she were trying to move it through psychokinesis, not daring to touch it.

And suddenly it moved. In her dozy, half-meditation Maurine’s consciousness noticed Marie’s hand around the box. Somehow, the box appeared to be realer, though, than the hand, as it took off smoothly, floating in mid-air through the room until it landed again, over on the table where Marie placed it in front of her. She sat down, opened the lid and waited. Maurine took a seat opposite her once more.

Then her host reached for the cards.

“Are those playing cards?” asked Maurine.

“In a sense, they can be,” Marie answered without looking at them as she slowly, almost languidly, began to place one card at a time in an imaginary rectangle between her and the girl. All the while she kept her attention on Maurine taking in each card with its symbols.

“What would you like to be later?”

“You mean after school? I don’t know yet. Maybe a veterinarian. Or a journalist.”

“Uh-hum.” Marie went on to the next line, still focussing her attention on Maurine. “So you want to help the small and helpless and inform those who need informing.” It wasn’t quite a question.

“Yes,” the girl said crisply.

For a moment they were both silent. Marie finished the third line and went on with the same trance-like slowness to the last one. Her guest kept following each part of the process carefully – Marie’s left hand slipping one card after the other from the deck in her right hand; the soft rasping of card after card against the table cloth; discovering each new picture.

“What’s this one?” she wanted to know.

“The Justice.”

“What’s it for?”

After only the shortest pause, Marie ventured, “Have you ever thought of becoming a teacher?”

Maurine looked up at her, as if she had just been the object of a minor insult; not outraged but ostensibly hurt. While Maurine enjoyed learning, she disliked most of her teachers and said so.

“Well, I know what you mean, believe me. But then again, they’re not all the same, are they? Sometimes there’s one that’s not so much like the other teachers, someone who makes the whole school experience more bearable, right?”

It was true, she thought, since she had a distinct soft spot for her History teacher, not a sentimental crush, not at all, but genuine sympathy and respect for him.

“I guess,” she said guardedly.

“It certainly looks as if there’s something like that in your cards.”

The girl stared incredulously – her thick furrowed brows over her dark brown eyes translated how credible that was – at Marie.

With the faintest of bemused smiles, Marie laid down the next to last card in the rectangle. Maurine’s expression changed when she saw the bare-boned figure with a skull head holding a scythe.

“Oh, don’t worry,” said Marie reassuringly. “It seems to me that you are confusing this card,” she said, turning around the last card, “with this one.”

A man was hanging from a tree by a rope on one leg with the other bent to form a triangle with the first. His hands were tied behind his back. Marie checked the girl’s face, found her initial shock had been overruled by curiosity, and said, “Now, this is the Hanging Man.” After a pause, she slid her finger back to the previous card. “But this one here,” she continued, “this is the Reaper.”

Maurine looked at each of the two cards, the hanging man and the skeleton.

she asked, “What’s the difference? To me they both look creepy.”

The woman nodded knowingly. “Well, this one, the Hung Man, is what happens to all of us, ultimately; death and demise, corruption, at least of the flesh but often of the spirit and the heart, too. But it can also mean elevation of the spirit, closeness to the heavens.” Pointing to the card next to it, she said, “The Reaper, on the other hand, is different. He usually has a flower, a rose blooming somewhere near, or a wheat shaft, symbolizing rebirth, revolution and change.”

The girl was drinking in every word. Marie smiled when she said, “Don’t fear the Reaper.”

Maurine spent the whole afternoon with Marie. Her motivation to go out hours before had faded to the merest shadow of that reason. By the time she got back over to her flat, to get ready for the library tour, Maurine had all but forgotten about the doll from the commercial. When she and her mother got back home, a maintenance technician had fixed the heating system. Even when Maurine saw her doll in the commercial later that day, although still tangible, the desire to have it had become really bearable.

#

On the last Sunday before Christmas, the following weekend, Marie had been invited over for lunch with her neighbours. She had brought a gift-wrapped box for Maurine with a big red glitter bow. When the girl was done un-wrapping it, Marie sensed a sudden shift in her aura. For a few moments time seemed to stand still. Perhaps it did. And then Maurine’s face began to glow with joy. At that moment, she was the happiest girl there ever was.

 

 

 

David Clémenceau (GERMANY)

David Clemenceau is of French and German origin and lives in Germany with his French-Iranian partner and their two-year-old son. He has been writing since he was 19 and wrote his first short story in 2016. He has been a German teacher at university in France, among many other professions. He is currently working on a short story collection. He thinks and writes mostly in English, is fond of science-fiction, world history, space travel and firmly believes that everything tastes better with cheddar.

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