Writer’s Note: This flash piece was inspired by a very real woman who used to sit at my tram stop, but has now disappeared. There is no one I can ask about her. Perhaps this summer was simply too hot. The story evokes a sad episode in French history: in 1962 people like her would have been called ‘pieds noirs’, people of European descent fleeing Algeria after its independence from France. Nowadays my city’s younger, newer immigrants are of Moroccan origin. Most passengers are so rushed and focused that anyone sitting still after the tram pulls away is a lonely exception. Few are interested in initiating a conversation, each absorbed in their telephone, although if chat does break out, everyone is helpful and friendly. I realise that I, too, was more open to others and to conversation when I first arrived in the city, before I slipped into routines and preoccupations like everyone else. One should always keep a notebook to hand when arriving in a new place…
What day is today? she asks me, on my first day in the neighbourhood.
She has applied lipstick on and around her lips. There are food stains on her cardigan. She never takes the tram, just sits in the shade of the tram stop all afternoon, facing the street, arms folded. She avoids eye contact.
What day is today? she asks every day. She walks lots: mornings to the air-conditioned seniors club where they give her coffee. I’ve seen her through the window, solitary in the big empty room. No one goes there in the morning. Then she goes home for lunch and re-emerges for the afternoon at the tram stop, regardless of the temperature.
I ask nothing but, little by little, she tells me things. She was married twice. Both husbands drank and smoked – she unfolds her arms, gestures drinking and smoking, rapidly, every time she tells it. They were never any good, she says.
Do you dream? She asks one day. Last night I dreamed my building burned. There was a flood too and I wrestled a giant snake. I was looking for a gun a friend had given me for protection. I wondered how to find the gun before police and firemen came. What could you make of that?
She doesn’t expect an answer.
On the hottest day of the year, she says, It’s my birthday tomorrow. She tells me she was born in Algiers, and the year, but is unable to calculate her age. I tell her that makes her eighty years old. She recounts waiting on the quay, with her parents and siblings, to be evacuated to France. It was the early 1960s and they were going to a motherland none of them had ever seen.
She stares into the distance.
So I’ll be 80? She straightens up and changes the subject. This neighbourhood has changed, she says. They’ve tricked it all out but young people keep moving in and out, making noise, doing the wrong things with the garbage. Nothing ever stands still.
Next afternoon she doesn’t appear at the tram stop. I walk to her condo with a small gift. Hers is the only condo that isn’t gated, anyone can walk in. Kids and women hang out in the front yard. The forecast said it would feel like forty degrees. It feels more like fifty, hammering living things to the ground. I don’t know her exact building or number. I wander a bit but she never appears. I hope this means that someone is helping her celebrate her eightieth birthday.
A few days later she turns up, bedraggled. She tells me that for her birthday she stayed home and ate a small cake she’d bought herself. She talks about Algeria again, then her gaze freezes and she breaks off. In the silence I calculate that she would have been a teenager when her family was evacuated. Perhaps she was even in love.
So now I’m eighty, she says.
Mary Byrne is the author of the short fiction collection Plugging the Causal Breach (available from Regal House, Amazon, Book Depository, etc.).
Short fiction published, broadcast and anthologized widely. Writes the odd poem. Born in Ireland, she lives in France. Tweets at @BrigitteLOignon.