Femme fatale, venomous or seductive by turns, the Sevillian cigarette factory girl of many faces has inspired a number of artists. The writer Célia Houdart turns her attention to the fortune-teller in this short fictional narrative with Bohemian overtones.
It was at the Saint Georges, a café near the station in Palaiseau. I was about to leave. I slid two coins along the counter in front of me. My fingers spread slightly, forming a V, as they moved the coins, like little ice-hockey pucks, over the zinc surface. The bartender was rinsing glasses and saucers. A football match was on the television. A young man came in. About twenty, tall, slender, high cheekbones, dark, almond eyes, a fiery expression. He asked if he could have a sandwich. The bartender wiped his hands on a tea towel.
“Ham and cheese?”
“Ham and cheese.”
The young man was wearing an electric blue polyester track suit top with a zip, a green bandana knotted around his neck and a pair of jeans that was far too big for him and fell in concertina-like folds onto pointed shoes spattered with mud. The bartender, busy, had still not picked up my money. The bottles of aperitifs and spirits hanging neck downwards formed a sombre-coloured frieze above him. I observed the young man, his singular appearance. He had his head turned towards the television: successive shots from different angles showed a player who had just been given the ball in a perfectly judged pass in the penalty area. At one point, the young man, doubtless sensing that I was watching him, turned towards me.
“You want my photo?”
He drew back his face, stiffened. Suddenly, as if drawing a weapon, he stretched out his palm towards me, pointing to it with the index finger of the other hand, and said,
“Anyway, my portrait is right there.”
I didn’t understand and I must have seemed a bit startled. He added,
“You can’t read that, can you. Huh?”
“Sorry,” I replied, “but what are you talking about?”
Him, irritated, “Don’t be stupid. You know very well.”
I insisted, “What?”
The man still had his hand open, the pressure of his index finger had left a little white mark in the middle of his palm.
“Ham and cheese!”
The young man shifted his position in order to seize the sandwich the bartender was holding out to him. Then, fixing me once more with his intense black eyes, the young man continued:
“ It’s my grandmother that reads palms. Not me.” Pause. “I’ll just finish this and then, if you like, I’ll take you there. She lives five minutes away.”
Me, half-scared, half-hypnotised: “Ah? … I don’t know.” And then, I don’t know why, when everything prompted me to refuse, I said, “Yes, why not?”
Ten minutes later, we were at the end of the road leading to the station, the young man and I, at a roundabout. It was cold and uniformly grey. On the other side of the avenue I could see a school with a dark green gate. The young man was very silent. I wondered if, beneath his calm exterior, my strange guide was not plotting something.
“It’s over there,” he said, indicating vaguely somewhere in the distance on the right hand side with his chin. Three school children brushed passed us going the other way. They advanced without looking where they were going as if blessed with internal radar permitting them to avoid obstacles whilst blithely commenting on what they saw in the little windows of their telephones. The avenue was flanked with houses, some of meulière stone, others their walls rendered, with gardens and paved paths behind wire fences or laurel hedges. An odour of humus and dead leaves.
“Did you go to school?” I asked, desperate to establish some semblance of complicity with the young man and forcing myself above all to conceal my misgivings.
“Yes. In Marseille, Orléans, Nanterre. Then in Brétigny where I took my certificate in car maintenance.”
Me, quick as a flash:
“So you know how to take apart a BMW and put it back together again.”
The young man replied in an enraged tone:
“And steal chickens! Is that what you’re saying? Pah! Gadjo!”
I didn’t know what to say. I was ashamed. I didn’t feel at all comfortable. I latched onto what I could see around me, the relative banality of which I found reassuring, or rather, which secured me within the simple reality of where I was: on my left, a little street going up and down a hill, a cat advancing in the damp grass, a deserted petrol station, its forecourt roughly concreted over where the pumps had once been. On the pavement I noticed a spray of flowers that had fallen from a bouquet or been thrown away. An acid yellow, downy cluster. I recognised them - cassia flowers, a bit damaged, with their leaves like little trembling wings. The young man remained silent until we reached an area that formed a huge gap on that side of the avenue. The ground was earthy, covered here and there with wood shavings.
“Welcome to Fourcherolles!” said the young man, smiling. A sign indicated a car park. Indeed, parked in front of us were about ten caravans. White. Large, all recent models, with tinted windows and awnings. At the foot of a slope, some washing was hung out to dry on lines. Children’s toys and a mountain bike lay on the ground. Up-turned basins formed patches of colour around which looped a long hose. A group of children crossed the place like a cloud of starlings to to greet an adolescent girl arriving on a moped. The young girl took off her helmet, threw back her head to loosen her long jet-black hair. From inside her jacket she drew out packets of biscuits and sweets that the children rushed upon with noisy enthusiasm.
The sky had gradually cleared. Pale rays of sun. A whirling flight of sparrowhawks above us, criss-crossing over one another. On lower ground, one could make out a small wood.
“In the middle of the wood, flows the Yvette,” said the young man. A little girl with dark curls ran past us. He caught her by the sleeve.
“Is she there? Lilo?”
The little girl pulled at the section of jersey that the young man was still holding.
“Look, you’re spoiling my jumper.”
Him: “Is she there then, Lilo? Tell me.”
The little girl held up her sleeve, with a tragic expression.
“It’s all stretched out of shape.”
She pushed the boy fiercely.
“Hey!” He raised his voice, insisting, “Where is she? D’you know?”
The little girl, with a mixture of pride and vexation, nodded towards a caravan.
“There, at her sister’s.” Then she ran away towards the slope. The young man approached the caravan and knocked. No answer. He knocked again. Still no answer. He opened the door, stuck his head and shoulders inside.
“She’s asleep,” he said quietly. “We must let her …”
“No, I’m not “ came a raucous voice suddenly. “I’m not asleep … I’m dreaming.”
The young man smiled.
“Lilo, would you agree to see some one for a consultation? It’s this gentleman.” He winked at me and beckoned me to approach. I approached slowly.
“He seems a bit lost but he’s harmless.”
Her, surprised, “Right this minute?”
Him, “Yes, now.”
“Alright,” she said. “But not here. I’ve got to be in my own caravan.”
The old woman got up and moved slowly, adjusting her shawl around her shoulders, a large, embroidered shawl with fringes, black and cherry red. The young man helped the old woman to climb down and then to hoist herself into the other caravan. Her gnarled hand gripped the doorframe.
“Some one’s nicked the steps. Them kids! …”
I followed her inside. Now, the presence of the young man reassured me a little. I found a furnished living room, with a settee, an armchair upholstered in flowery fabric and a gas fire. In an alcove, behind a little bar, there was a kitchen area, fully equipped.
“It’s too hot, don’t you find?” she said, taking off her shawl. “You can leave us now, Teddy.”
Him, almost insolent: “I’m off! Good luck to you! You can find your own way home, can’t you?”
“Yes, thank you.”
The old woman slid open a table with folding legs and unfolded a piece of purple velvet embroidered with sequins.
“We must do things … properly …” she wheezed … “You’re not too hot are you?”
She rummaged in a drawer and took out a large fan.
“This has been the saving of me!” She smiled. Brief flutterings of the fan. She had alert brown eyes, like coffee beans, and a very mobile face. I felt I had been categorised at first glance. She closed her fan with one swift flick.
“Show me your hand … You right-handed? … Yes? … The left one then.”
She opened my hand as one opens a card. She concentrated. Pause.
“Strange … I understand nothing of these lines … It’s confused, confused, confused …
I stared at her hands and her wrist, circled by a copper bangle.
“… Wait …” She leaned over, making her necklace of pearls and black carbuncles swing back and forth.
“… the Mount of Saturn … prominent, prominent … that life line has too many branches … Ah? … no … Definitely, it’s moving all the time … You see these two lines, they meet just there … I’ve hardly ever seen that before … only once … “
She saw my dismay.
“It could mean anything, you know… A change, the beginning or end of a powerful phase … particularly in love … Strange … It’s so blurred … I prefer the cards in cases like these … the cards are genuine… and they won’t lie … Have you got time? Shall I make you some tea?”
I thought of my grandmother playing patience on a little table that she covered with a green felt cloth. From outside came the sounds of laughter and bursts of speech.
“I don’t trust those little spies,” she said. She drew the curtains. “We’ll be more private.” Then she lit a candle. “My daughters tell me not to, but it’s so pleasant.”
I noticed a framed photograph on the sideboard.
“They are handsome, aren’t they?”
“They’re my parents”.
I saw a woman with a serious face, tanned by the sun, her hair in a bun held in place with a large comb. The man at her side had a fringe and a slightly prominent chin. They were both dressed in black. Thin, ageless, their gaze animated by the same strength.
“My father was a farm labourer. I was born in the camp at Rivesaltes.”
From a little tin box she withdrew a pack of cards. She showed me a few of them to satisfy my curiosity. She handled them with a certain reverence. The figures on them were not those of the tarot cards that I knew. These were engravings on a plain background: the tower of a burning castle, a wheel, a snake, a cello surrounded by long and short-bladed knives … She cut the pack.
“Your turn, dear. If I may be so familiar? … You cut as well … Take a card.”
She cut again. This went on for a while.
“Three cards here … Four there!”
One after the other, I drew the snake, the star and the dove. As the old woman explained the meaning of the cards, the expression on her face changed, relaxed, brightened or clouded with doubt. I too was uneasy. Again she tried to reassure me:
“None of us is ever serene when we come face to face with ourselves.”
Her necklace gleamed in the half-light. The flames from the fire and the candle heightened the unreal atmosphere of the scene.
On my way out, I noticed the young girl on
her moped surrounded by three boys. They were smoking and laughing. As soon as
they saw me, they froze. A conspiratorial silence united the little group. When
I got home that evening, I had a temperature of forty degrees.