Frédéric Debierre was happy to live in a house where the ground floor accommodated a bistro. He had all that he needed to live, to survive. Shower, heating, toilet provided in his apartment, which was on the first floor and he availed of the service of the bistro downstairs: drinks, coffee, breakfast, food. It served also as post office for him, because the postman left his mail in the Bistro for convenience sake. He had no need for a fridge or a dishwasher, he had no television. Frédéric had breakfast every morning at the same time in the bistro: Café au lait, two croissants, a poached egg, a mineral water. During the day he ate nothing, his dinner in the bistro consisted of tomatoes and cheese with a few slices of brioche and ham and some wine or a pastis. He had entertainment, more than a television could offer, when he sat at his table and watched the guests. And he had women, who followed him from time to time to his room upstairs to share the loneliness of the city.
The house was an old house, near a railway bridge spanning over Rue Sémard. The colour on the facade was peeling off and the ledges were covered with pigeon droppings. A small tree grew out of the rain gutter. In summer, tables and chairs stood on the sidewalk, which was now wet and empty.
On the other side of the street were small hotels, which poured out tourists in the morning only to suck them in again in the evening. At the top of the street was a restaurant that was mainly frequented by Moroccans and Algerians. He went there now and then, but gave it up as he felt strange between people who talked about the villages in the Kabyl mountains, the latest gossip from Oran and Casablanca or the job of their relatives in the port of Bejaia.
Each day on his return from work he passes the door of the bistro that leads to the street. He enters the house through the side door and runs up the stairs to the first floor. On the floor over him lives an old man. He meets him at irregular intervals in the bistro. He is a man with unruly white hair, who always wears a worn blue housecoat. He talks to himself: “Too far away, too far away”. The old man never has a conversation with someone.
The house door is carelessly unlocked day and night. He does not have a key. One night when he came back late, he met on the staircase two gays, which were occupied with their oral love. A hustler and his client apparently. He walked silently past them and slammed his apartment door. The house was close to the main artery of the city centre, only fifteen minutes walking distance to Opéra and Printemps department stores, close to two metro stations. People are tempted to meet.
The house belonged to the owner of the bistro, which he had inherited from his parents, who were also bistro owners and landlords before. Therefore, he, as tenant, had no domiciliary rights and he did not care, who went in and out or who made love on the staircase. Nobody cared about him or his fleeting chance acquaintances either.
The women he had towed in were his age group, with weathered elegance, marked by loneliness, boredom and hopelessness. They were not prostitutes but guests of the bistro like himself, who drank a coffee on the way into town or on their return. They wanted to talk, longed for company. These are the signs of an anonymous city with millions of people: Loneliness, the need to meet with someone you can talk to, whom you can tell your problems, who gives some understanding, or even warmth and tenderness, the short night of love, kisses, holding hands under the bistro table.
It was still warm and the window was open. He saw a woman on the other side of the road who struck a man with both fists on his chest. “Tell me the truth !!”, cried the woman.
Truth, thought Frédéric, what is the truth? Probably she was one of those women, who always want to hear that you love them or want to know if the partner had a mistress.
What is love? Frédéric was shooing away his thoughts. He devoted himself to the Pastis Richard and his coffee. He took a newspaper from a pile and read the articles.
The other day it became late, the night had finally settled over Paris and the traffic died down. Frédéric Debierre was about to enter the bistro, when some guests, who were inside crowded into the open and began to look at the moon. He now saw the moon, which changed his colour. It looked as if the moon was leaning on the railing of the railway bridge over the road. A man standing next to him, pushed him in the side. He resembled his former mathematics teacher Monsieur Forgeron. The moon was now scarlet like the face of a person with dangerous hypertension. “Now he passes through the Earth’s shadow,” said the “mathematics teacher”. Frederic felt like beating the man. He could not stand math teachers. Moreover, this man had dandruff. One could see it clearly in the soft street lantern light.
He went back into the Bistro and sat down by the window. The voice of Édith Piaf cut the silence: Quand Tu Dors. The guests returned to their tables. The only sound one could hear when the song ended, was a muffled conversation. Frédéric looked around. He searched for Josephine. She was a senior secretary, who lived in a street next to Rue Sémard. She was well poised, elegant, always wearing lace gloves. Her full red lips invited a kiss.
He ordered a bottle of red wine. The landlord came to the table, uncorked the wine, let Frédéric taste, filled the glass after he nodded approval and put a small stack of mail near the wine glass. The host was taciturn. He spoke only once or twice a year when he had to speak. So it seemed to Frédéric anyway. He paid the rent regularly so there were no points of friction or contact.
He went through his mail and sorted out the advertisements. He had the habit to throw the advertisement letters back into the nearby post-box. Penalty fees might eventually put the companies off. He hated advertisements, advertising letters and promotional mailings. Often he wrote on the envelope: ‘Recipient unknown’ or ‘Recipient died’.
He paid and left, a tired jaded man shuffling to his abode, unknown, his address soon swiped off the advertising register of many companies, sinking into oblivion as so many others in an anonymous city.
Edward Schmidt-Zorner was born in Germany. He has lived in County Kerry, Ireland, for more than 25 years and is an Irish citizen. He is fluent in German, English, French, Spanish and basic Russian. He is a freelance artist, translator and member of five writing groups in Ireland.