Eric Leblanc left the train station Paris Saint–Lazare.
The station clock showed at nine o’clock. The hands of the clock, looking down from the sandstone façade on passers-by, have made their rounds uninterrupted for decades even during the war.
A clock signifies the loss of time, which we try to regain or bring to a halt. Eric’s view fell on a book in a bookshop window next to the station, written by Proust, ‘In search of lost time.’ Where is the time gone?
Eric had come from a visit of condolence to his friend Daniel Bernstein.
Daniel’s mother, Mrs. Bernstein, had died the day before and all mirrors in the apartment had been covered for the seven days of mourning. Kabbalists have given an explanation for covering mirrors. They say that all types of evil spirits come to visit the family of the dead. Death leaves a void, an emptiness, prone to be filled by dark forces. These demons cannot be seen by the naked eye, but when looking into a mirror one may catch a glimpse of their reflection.
It was an unpleasant November evening. The rain had turned into a kind of snowfall. Eric raised the collar of his raincoat and crossed the road. The lantern light reflected on the damp pavement. The later it got, the colder it became, and fewer people were inclined to spend time outdoors.
Circumstances of death cling like a limpet. They hang in the clothes, and one tries to shake them off. They are looking forward to some distraction, a cozy atmosphere, a good drink and a meal. He remembered a brasserie nearby, located on the top floor of a neoclassical building in a side street not too far from the station.
Standing in front of this building, he saw a dark, uninviting façade. Pillars, ornaments, gargoyles seemed to put the rain to shame. A row of balconies protruded over the entrance, one had some miserable pot plants, tossed to and fro by the strong wind.
The large entrance door of the house gave way to a stone staircase, decorated like the entrance to an old-fashioned underground station. At the foot of the stairs stood a naked woman with a voluptuous bosom, a lyre pressed to her body. Obviously, she did not know what to do with the instrument. She did not move. She was made of stone.
A lift in Art Deco style carried him upstairs. In the lift cabin hung a mirror. He turned away from his reflection, rearranged his tie and combed his hair.
An elegantly dressed middle-aged woman stood in front of a large mirror in the vestibule and focused on her image. The mirror had a wide, thick gold frame, carved with designs of leaves and flowers.
Magic mirror, on the wall – who is the fairest one of all? He felt that she looked at him as he passed by. Why do mirrors have such an attraction? Why do mirrors need such decoration?
Is the reflection of a person, for seconds, not enough?
Eric stepped into the pleasant warmth, into a smell of tobacco, spices and coffee. At the entrance, he asked a woman behind the reception desk for a single table.
At the bar, three guests, silent, forlorn, sat in front of their drinks. A young man in a bright-coloured jacket spoke to a girl in a most beautiful Parisian accent.
A pale man behind the counter sorted coins into the semi-circular compartments of the checkout drawer, reminding him of his colleague Jean-Jacques, who had died six months earlier. Was the man him or did his senses fool him? When he looked back at the counter again, the man was gone.
A few inconspicuous couples ate silently. They seemed to be from another era, in costumes of the 18th century. Eric sat at a window, from where he overlooked the street.
A howling wind whipped the rain against the bare rain-soaked windows, through which he saw a wet roof landscape. In front of an attic window of an adjoining house, a dingy piece of laundry tumbled sadly in the wind. Alternately, it puffed out in the damp wind and then contracted like a heart.
Windows in lighted apartments attracted and provoked voyeurism. In one room, a woman was changing her clothes uninhibitedly. In another, a man in his nightgown, read a book. Directly opposite, a high chimney protruded from the chaos of the roofs: Was it steam, coming from a bakery? Eric imagined that he could smell fresh baguettes.
Hazardous fire stairs clung to the outside walls of the houses, gloomy cages connecting the buildings. Hostile, five floors high, mercilessly exposed to the wind. They provide an escape from money collectors and bailiffs, for a man on the run, or when the husband of the girlfriend comes home unexpectedly.
From a window opposite, Mrs. Bernstein waved. Wasn’t she dead? But she waved vividly.
Eric, likewise, had to bring himself into balance. A glass of red wine can sometimes be more beneficial than a piece of bread, which the waiter put in front of him in a small basket with a tiny piece of butter.
Wordlessly he handed him the menu: Oysters, onion soup or Chateaubriand?
Mirrors cover the walls of the brasserie, giving the impression of a wider, nearly endless space. Another illusion, from which we wake up when we bang against the wall or the corner of the door, which are showing us our limitations. A false impression of an endless room produced by mirrors facing each other and multiplying those, who pass by or sit in the restaurant. Reflections haunted him. He hated to see himself from a million different angles.
A mirror creates the illusion of having company, but one is terribly alone with oneself.
The restaurant emptied. Only the old waiter stood impatiently in the distance waiting to present the bill.
Eric paid eventually, finished his brandy, took his coat and went to the toilet outside the restaurant door on the same floor.
Was he the last guest? When he left the toilet, the bistro was closed, the employees had obviously rushed home because it was late, and the weather was stormy and rainy. All lights were switched off. It was pitch-dark in the hallway, and a leaden silence was omnipresent.
Eric tried to find a light switch, then groped in the dark for a button to call the lift.
There was no light on the lift display. The lift was switched off as well. He was looking for the green EXIT sign, but could not see any. There was not a trace of light. He made his way carefully along the wall. The wall was like the skin of a dead person or of a reptile. It felt as if there was something but from another world, lifeless, but still emanating cold humidity.
Eric had come to the bistro to forget the dead, to forget death, the ritual connected to it, vanity, but was here surrounded again by thoughts and feelings, which were blowing like covers for catafalques and biers. The same godforsaken feeling, as for relatives or friends, when a coffin of an executed person was brought in the night to the Père Lachaise Cemetery.
The first flight of the stairs was hard to find. With the tip of his shoe, he touched the step, held himself at the railing and inched carefully forward.
There were faint voices in the basement, a door shutting, a car starting. Finally, silence surrounded him again.
He took another step and felt as if paralyzed, abandoned, as in Dante’s limbo. There were whispers, but he could not locate where they were coming from.
With great care, he made his way to the next lower floor and stood in front of a door looking for a light switch and could find none, when he saw a dim light through the curtain on the frosted glass windows of the door. A doorbell protruded like a nipple asking to be pressed. After a while, the door opened. An old woman stood in front of him, long, grey, shaggy hair, unkempt, wearing a black dress, which looked more like a rag and she had a toothless mouth. She seemed to stare at him, but the face had no eyes.
She turned away and disappeared. Surprisingly it did not frighten him. It seemed rather unreal. Candlelight shimmered in a room in the back.
Candles were arranged around a person, who was laid out. It was a young woman. The Latin word EXITUS came into his mind. This euphemistic expression for death. Is death an exit into another reality, a transition?
When he took a candle from a table at the door to provide light, a soft voice said: “Thou shalt not steal.”
He dropped the candle and ran to the door. In the weak shine of the light, he recognized the stair rail and made it to the next floor below. The light of the street lanterns poured a yellow light into the night. It seemed like gold dust mixed with a soft bluish mist, illuminated particles appeared and glowed for a moment like glow worms.
Bleak silence and an oppressive atmosphere prevailed, as if people were present but invisible, surrounding him.
Eric stepped down further. The stone figure in the hall came to life and played a tune on the lyre. He looked into the mirror and saw himself and behind him an old man with a white scarf, who made a movement with the hand as if he repelled a fly.
The stone woman solidified again to a grey statue. He turned around, and the old man was gone as if he had never been there.
Eric pulled the heavy door open and fell out into the dawn. A black and white cat rushed over the road, looking at him with questioning eyes.
A church bell rang six. He must have spent hours to descend from the top floor of the house to the exit. It was like in a deep dreamful sleep.
Mornings have a promising future, but this is a deception. Mornings are never harmless or innocent. Before we awake, a lot could have changed. Overnight circumstances may have conspired, have changed their colour, have swapped their nametags. Each lonely morning the road wakes up in a different way. Empty roads are like deep wrinkles of a town, a wrinkled face we love. When we love a town, a quarter, then it is constantly in the background of what we are doing. Like a stage set. Jealously it is asking for a measure of attention. Every movement, every incident, and every activity have particular importance, a story, which has to be told, not for one’s sake, but the town’s sake. The town keeps us; we do not fall easily off the earth’s crust. Conditions tend to hook together. They drop anchor.
A homeless person went from a waste bin to waste bin and looked for something useful. He wore a blue wind jacket. He took his own night with him.
In front of a closed pub, heaps of cartons and a pile of newspapers and magazines were building up. A smell of alcohol and urine hung in the air.
Soon the sun would rise, refuse trucks will clear the streets, the couriers will appear on their bikes, and the rag collector with his horse and cart will exclaim: waste paper, rags, metal.
Eric walked on to distant himself from this place and arrived at Rue du Rocher. At last, he succeeded in hailing a taxi driver, who smiled kindly and smartly, knowing that Eric would pay any price when he took him out of this area in the early hours of the morning.
Paris rushed by. The 9th, 8th arrondissement. The old taxi driver was still smiling. Eric nodded off and woke up again. A sign showed: 7th arrondissement. He arrived at his destination Rue de l’Université. The taxi driver stopped the taximeter: Twenty-one Euros.
The driver had a white scarf, similar to the white scarf the old man in the mirror of the entry hall was wearing.
The driver made the same movement with his hand as to repel a fly and drove off.