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FOUR

FIFTEEN YEARS AGO
IN LONDON

FLASH FICTION BY ANNE SERRE TRANSLATED BY MARK HUTCHINSON

Who? A pale face surrounded by heavy odorous furs. The moment she enters the room where a screening is about to take place, her eyes meet mine. She chats with friends but keeps looking round at me. I wonder if we have met previously, I have no recollection of having seen this young woman before, who can’t be a day over twenty and is wearing a sort of Thirties-style trenchcoat. It’s she who comes striding up to me before the screening begins, with a carriage of the head I find majestic: “I’m Ethel Clark,” she tells me, “Meagan Clark’s daughter. I met you in London with my parents about fifteen years ago, but as you can see, I haven’t forgotten you.” And she smiles.

To tell the truth, I have no recollection of a Meagan Clark either, even if the name vaguely rings a bell. Some fifteen years ago, I did indeed spend three months in London, but in a peculiar state of mind. I felt very lonely there, having nothing particular to do, no plans of any kind, and spent most of my time travelling about on buses. Before I left Paris, some friends had given me addresses of friends of theirs in London, but I hadn’t made use of them. I had found a room with an elderly lady in Bayswater, I hadn’t given my friends or family the address, I had decided to spend three months in London because I was tired of French, tired of speaking French. I wanted to be in a place where nobody spoke my language.

Those three months were the emptiest experience of my life. Nothing pleased me, nothing interested me, nothing excited me. Perhaps I was going through some kind of depression, I don’t know. The elderly lady in Bayswater may have been a bit worried about me, because she sent me off to spend the weekend with some friends of hers in the country. Pretty Ethel in her pale fur collar that looked as soft and light as whipped cream brought a fleeting memory to mind: I had gone to lunch with a young couple in London, the parents of two or three small children, but could no longer recall how I met them. Perhaps the woman who had welcomed me into her home was Ethel’s mother, Meagan Clark? I had been impressed by her ability to whip up lunch in ten minutes. In ten minutes, while chatting away to me, she had popped a dish of meat and vegetables on the stove, basting it continually with gravy or sauce, prepared an apple pie at prodigious speed, set the table, and since at the time I was continually shivering with cold, including in this poorly heated house, “Have a bath!” Meagan had said, dragging me upstairs, throwing open the bathroom door, handing me towels, and running a steaming bath. I took an instant liking to Meagan and spent an hour in that hot tub, while seated on the stairs was a little girl – was it Ethel? – babbling to herself in an English I couldn’t make head nor tail of.

“Do you remember if I took a bath at your house even though I had never met you before?” I asked Ethel. She looked startled, as if struggling to remember. “No,” she said, “I have no recollection of that. I remember being rather in awe of you because you were French and couldn’t understand a word we said and spoke very messy English. But no, I don’t think you took a bath. You had a handbag that I can picture perfectly, with a clasp made of bronze or brass, which my mother thought very pretty. She asked you if she could have a look at it, to try out the clasp, and I remember the bag was empty. You told us you had stolen it, but my mother said that was the wrong word, that you had bought it, of course, but were confusing the words ‘steal’ and ‘buy’ in English.”

I thought then that Ethel was herself confusing me with someone else, because I had never owned a stolen handbag with a bronze or brass clasp. But I said nothing. Why always try to set the record straight? And which record, come to that? “You haven’t changed,” said Ethel very graciously. “A tiny bit, of course, but hardly at all really.” “Neither have you, Ethel,” I said. “Of course you’re a young woman now, you look lovely in your fur collar and overcoat, do give my fond regards to your mother.” And so it is, when you meet in life, that you sometimes have the impression you have met before – which very often gives rise to friendships and love affairs, especially love affairs – when you haven’t at all. Or else you have indeed met, but in a fold in time somewhere, as if time, like a huge blanket spread across an enormous bed, formed tucks and bends here and there, dark tunnels where a thousand tiny experiences we have had live on with all their trappings. I wouldn’t be in the least bit surprised if one day – one day soon – I came across that handbag with its clasp made of bronze or brass in some flea market or car boot sale in a city I have never set foot in before. At which point I will take a picture of it and send it to Ethel, and Ethel will say: “Yes, that’s it, that’s the exact same handbag you were holding fifteen years ago in London, I remember it well.”

First line from Giacomo Joyce, James Joyce