The Destivelles come round to check everything is in working order. That’s what they tell Sophie, by email, two hours before. Truthfully, they want to feel more involved and they want to see what has become of their apartment. This world is not how they remember it.
They arrive early. Despite receiving no rent, they ring the buzzer and act as guests, removing their shoes, complimenting Sophie’s dress. She has to play hostess. Paul’s door stays shut. The others are asleep. It’s better they don’t seem here. Tea is made, an attempt at English charm, served in the glasses bought at the Vietnamese bazaar. Sophie avoids discussing the weather, or the bin arrangements, or any more delicate matters. It’s a difficult balance to achieve, this subtle lightness between the mundane and the unspeakable. The Destivelles try to make it easy. Three adults having a civilised conversation.
Domenique is the louder presence, charismatic, unable to sit without energy shifting into some extremity, a jittering leg, fingers drumming the tabletop. With no rhythm he raps the tine of his fork against the glass’s lip, as if typing code. He speaks with no inflection. All sentences begin and end at the same speed, each word of equal weight. So far, the only topic of conversation is Thomas, their son.
“Naturally fled himself to Brussels to the heart of some ridiculous institution and of course it is a good job and of course we are proud and financial security is clearly a priority but we cannot deny our how to say. Deception.”
“Disappointment.” Jocelyne, eyes blankly calm, rippling manicured nails through tinted hair, massaging her neck, clasping a wrist with a hand, seeming to Sophie to be continuously surprised by her body, carefully folded into an unsteady chair. Watching Jocelyne pull at her own skin makes Sophie uneasy. This woman ageing here, in front of her.
“It is a sad thing to say of your own child. But yes, we are disappointed.”
They both smoke without asking permission. It’s their apartment. Sophie wishes they wouldn’t, but provides an old terrine jar. Fragments of pink meat still cling to its sides. Dominique waves his hands and ashes fall to the rug. Sophie’s shoulder blades tighten.
“Nico was always such a positive influence,” he says. Sophie’s throat chokes a laugh. “We all saw such possibilities in him.”
Jocelyne sits forward in agreement. “Such energy.”
“We all were so impressed by his energy.”
“Where is Nico?” Jocelyne looks away from her hands to Sophie, who shrugs. She tries to look ill-informed, but well-meaning. Her neck prickles with sweat.
“Of course, we will not invade. You need your secrets.”
“Doubtless we would not understand, in any case, the kind of things you do now.”
“Technology. Such progression. Such possibility.”
Sophie nods. Regrets not having laid on food of some kind. But why should she do everything?
They cannot stay, what with the traffic out of the city. The plan is to arrive at their weekend house before lunch. Guests are expected in the evening. Important people, no doubt. As they gather their belongings, it occurs to Sophie she should offer money, despite having none.
“It is our pleasure,” says Dominique, “to help how we can. How long will we be helping?”
“I couldn’t say.”
“Another month? Beyond summer?” Jocelyne’s eyes narrow a little.
“Nothing lasts that long,” says Sophie, which isn’t an honest answer, but close.
In the car, stuck behind a thousand other cars creeping through the bottleneck of the periphique, the Destivelles discuss how it was thirty years ago. Skulking in the banlieues, surviving out of tins. All talk and no action, despite the promises, the threats. Not like now. It is both surprising and reassuring, the charisma and professionalism of these young people. They’d hoped to see Paul of course, after all they’ve heard. And it would’ve been good to see how Nico’s doing. Jocelyne in particular would like to see Nico. A charming child. Yes, it is a pleasure to let him have the apartment, particularly following his cousin’s decisions. It is both penance and an investment in whatever it is that goes on now. Communication is suddenly so simple. More than a pleasure. The Destivelles are proud to be once more at the raw edge of politics, after so long. Albeit vicariously. After all the failures of the radical left, the dilution of the Parti Socialiste. Thirty years ago and this was them, the anger, the energy. Then what was it? A kind of haze and decline. Things got better and they let the money that came to everyone lull them. Now they watch their children struggle. If questioned under oath, the Destivelles would deny any knowledge of the current goings on within their apartment, though they like to think they’ve a fair idea. They are sympathetic to the cause.
Once they’ve left, Sophie gets the room ready for the morning meeting. The first week they started at eight a.m. Today, it’s pushing eleven. The others emerge. Nico comes in the front door. Where’s he been? They sit.
“Surveillance,” says Paul.
“Surveillance?” says Nico. Slowly enough for sarcasm, his accent stretching the sounds like gum. Syur-vay-onse?
“Read the email,” says Paul. “Measures must be taken.”
Nobody’s read the email. Not even Sophie. Nobody’s had time. Paul writes at odd hours, includes anything. It’s better to hear him explain what he’s written, before reading. Otherwise, there are difficulties and ambiguities.
“Measures,” says Nico. He wants an argument, but won’t be supported; his criticism lacks any academic bent, threatens open scorn. “Measures against a restaurant.”
Sophie pours coffee for Paul, then for Nico, then for herself. Mark only ever takes weak tea, his guts being jittery. He doesn’t say much at meetings. On a good day he chews a little bread. Today he barely sips. Sophie’s laid the table, as she does every morning. Having the meeting at a laid table feels right somehow. At first the others cooed at the attention, but now it’s an assumed part of the process. Sophie likes this. It means that she is now an assumed part of the process. She feels she can speak.
“They’re there all morning,” she says. “They’re up to something. Your aunt and uncle were here. They noticed it. Parked the car at Bastille.”
“Keep all eyes open,” says Paul.
“So we watch them, watching us,” says Nico. “What do they want?”
“To see you, to see Paul. I was a disappointment.” Paul squeezes her shoulder.
“You are appreciated.” The hand stays on her back. Nico glares. “Use charm.” says Paul. He must mean Sophie. “Make an effort.” The meeting ends.
Why the waiters? We possess certain information, that’s Paul’s line, which he could say and does say about everybody problematic. Neither the exact nature of the information, nor its sources, are ever clarified. There’s no point asking certain questions. They’ve been hiding out here for five weeks. Well, Paul hides. The others come and go daily, are seen in the quartier, are known faces in the building and the alimentation. This worries Paul, and consequently he no longer ventures out in the daytime. But every night Sophie’s sleep is disrupted by the click of the latch, a change of air as the front door opens. She would never dare to ask Paul where he goes.
After the meeting she decides to sit with Nico and make amends. They always seem to be making amends. Sophie likes this and would happily admit it. They’re kneeling on the bare bedroom floor. Nico is laying out chemicals. He has elaborate hands. They’re Sophie’s favorite part of him, musical, except he’s not, twisting fingers, widest at the knuckle. Delicately, he taps crystalline powder onto a plastic chopping board between his knees. Should he wear rubber gloves? Sophie won’t say anything. She knows better than to offer advice. But she does want to talk.
“Well, I did not sleep,” she says. She yawns.
“I did,” says Nico. “Did you sleep well?” He doesn’t yawn.
“What?” says Sophie.
“Mark,” says Nico. “You look like shit.”
Mark’s sprawled across a mattress at the other end of the room, with the laptop. During the day everybody lies about in here, rather than the lounge, on account of it getting more light. It is, Mark feels confident enough to say, his bedroom. Or at least, it’s the room in which Mark alone sleeps. The room doesn’t belong to Mark in the same way that nothing in the apartment belongs to anyone. Sophie and Nico sleep in the lounge, unless Sophie’s angry, in which case she drags her sleeping bag through. It might be like this tonight. Mark prefers having other bodies in the room.
“Thanks,” he says. “I feel okay. I slept.”
He’s lying. He doesn’t get tired enough to sleep well. He’s been wearing the same T-shirt for five days. No one cares. Who knew activism would be so inactive? Mark spends his nights reading the books stacked up against the walls, the books he feels he should’ve read but hasn’t. It doesn’t help. The weight of the task overwhelms him and stops him reading anything well. Worst of all, every dinner conversation cleaves open new voids. All of them drunk on table wine, shouting about Russian populism or the Master-Slave dialectic. Mark nods and half-dreads, half-wills the question that could finally, shamefully, show him for what he is. Fraudulent. It would feel like relief.
Nico screws the lids back onto the powder tubs. Sophie and Mark watch. He takes the tubs back to the kitchen. They hear the refrigerator door swing shut. It’s a point of great contention, whether Nico should be allowed to keep this stuff in the fridge. Mark’s adamant they should have a separate icebox. When he tried to bring it up at morning meeting, Paul looked through him in a glazed sort of way. But they don’t keep any food in the fridge now, which is a compromise of sorts.
Nico comes back in carrying three warm beers and a rolling pin. He lobs the bottles around.
“Me, I’m a baby,” says Nico. “Nine hours passed out, no problem.”
“How wonderful,” says Sophie. He doesn’t look especially healthy, but he looks better than the rest of them. Being shut up like this is no good, stale air, dim light. Mark barely moves, seems to shrink into his clothes. Nico, conversely, looks stronger, better coloured than he ever did in London. He’s begun a regime of kinesthetic exercises, using the tubs of chemicals for weights, unconcerned by their volatility. Sophie watches him crush up the crystals with the rolling pin. Where did he get it? If she’d known they had a rolling pin she might have baked. Nico sings in rhythm with the push of his arms.
“You don’t hear noises?” Sophie asks. It’s a pointless question. Nico doesn’t wake in the night. He barely wakes in the day. He lives closer to sleep, she thinks. In the night when the lock clicks, she jolts, reaches out for him in the dark. He holds her tightly, but as a reflex, not in compassion. For Sophie, Nico’s ability to sleep deeply and in most physical positions is troublesome. How can there be true passion, or fire, or a sense of injustice in someone so perpetually close to complete relaxation? He loves to recount his dreams to her. They tend to be vivid and cartoonish and horribly unrelated to real life. His cool betrays her and everyone.
Nico scrapes the ground up powder into a jar and starts shaking it about. “It’s nerves,” he says. “You need a coping strategy.”
“I guess,” says Sophie.
“Shake for a bit.” She takes over. “Physical expression,” Nico says. He goes back to the kitchen.
“And you?” Sophie asks Mark. She sees light crack around his door at all hours. Listens to the rustle of pages turned too fast for reading. He must hear. Mark ignores the question.
“You want today’s latest?” He’s opened Paul’s email. Sophie nods.
Sent 4.43 A.M.: to all units
COMMUNIQUÉ #14 BUILDING SECURITY
Gloves of a soft material (EG. kid leather, silk?) are to be worn when entering SH2. If gloves are not available, a range of buttons on the dialing pad should be depressed before entering the correct DOOR CODE. Although this will not protect against FINGER PRINT identification, or limit the wear/tear of the dialing pad, it will prevent hostile persons from deciphering the DOOR CODE through abrasion of the relevant keys. We may as well leave them a fucking welcome pack!! The code will change at any time without prior warning. Do carry a phone.
Sophie would like to compile these emails, plus all Paul’s longer writings, into what she envisages as a sort of manifesto. The project is proving difficult. All the capitalised terms hyper-link to various other articles and websites. Occasionally, Paul writes in pictograms or little-used dialects. Sophie realises she’ll have to collate the communiqués in tandem with a corresponding glossary. Paul has a truly brilliant mind, Sophie thinks, if a little mis-wired. Her own is a blunt tool in comparison.
“That all makes sense,” she says. Mark doesn’t look at her. Sophie cannot tell if he finds Paul’s suspicions frightening or ridiculous.
“It makes no sense,” says Nico. He’s come back with more kitchen stuff. “It’s nonsense. Keep shaking.” Sophie’s arms are getting tired.
“I told you, I’ve seen them,” she says.
“And? Seen them doing what?”
“We can’t stay,” says Mark. “If they suspect, we can’t stay. Who might they tell?”
“Well you find another fucking flat,” says Nico. “Seventy square metres, central, no rent. You find another fucking flat.” He snatches the jar back off Sophie and gloops in vegetable oil, then shakes it again, more violently. It makes a glug glug sound. The powder becomes thick white paste. Poured onto clingfilm, it sits like dough.
“Is that safe?” says Sophie. Nico closes his eyes in exasperation. Or he’s napping upright. Mark opens a book.