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The alarm on my phone is set for 3:50 AM and I attempt to wake up with light taps on it. My body remains as if nailed to the bed and I don’t know what other people can think about at times like this, but for me, I rail in anger against life. I even blame it with everything that comes to my mouth. Then, as I do each time, as I always do, I calm down, I submit to my anger, pull the nails out of the bed, get up and dress myself like a good girl…
The first thing I do is to open the door to the balcony wide, breathe in a breath of the world, bathe my face in the black freshness of night. The lunch box for my youngest, a coffee, a cigarette, and I return to my navy blue bicycle, locked in front of my door. When everything is still in darkness and quietness everywhere, most people are asleep when I take to the road.
I then come across others who don’t sleep either, who get up and go to work, as I do, and also, those returning to their homes after their night shift, tired, exhausted.
Five kilometers stretch out between my home and my job. One street further, there is a bakery in an alley giving out on a wide avenue and, facing the avenue, large military barracks. Although these barracks have now lost their former power, old war tanks are still repaired there, they serve as a huge operating room. On some days around 4 AM, a line of tanks comes out of the huge metal gate, they look like dark iron coffins with their caterpillar tracks, their engineering adapted to all climates, newly restored. With their regenerated organs, they form like a large herd of monsters, marching toward improbable poor countries, to rip their bellies open.
Occasionally, peace movements organize demonstrations in front of these barracks, but its a waste of time, because the business was settled a long time ago, the coffins already loaded onto the wagons…
How do I know all this? Well, because there was a time when we owned that bakery… Back in the days when we were a family. At a time when I hugged my children against my chest, breastfed them, days when I took them to the parks, swimming, out for walks. Now they are grown. Although they go on calling me “mommyyyy” behind my back, long gone are the voices in which they pierced my heart when saying those words.
Barracks and a bakery. Such a paradox; one consumes, the other produces… One smears the innocent in red blood, the other feeds bellies with white flour.
Is that why we acknowledge bread before the four sacred books, kiss it and hold it to our forehead? 1 And thus, I instantly become the bakery while the Barracks act as the Master, controlling the bakery’s cash register.
There it is, the bakery with its four huge eyes, always open; even when I pass by it quickly and bear down on the pedals, it sees me every morning and howls behind me, and its cry makes me shiver. It bears down on my heart, the way the tanks do. And it says this, precisely: “Bear down, bear down more quickly, faster, you idiotttt!…”
It does this every time because it also knows that I have no other choice than to go through here. But I’ve decided that one of these days soon, I’l grab the bastard by the collar, stick my face up close to its four huge eyes and, with all my anger and my pain, I will say to it: “Tell me, oven, tell me how you laid a trap on your comrade, Eye, taking a bead, how you pressed down on the trigger. Bam!”
“Tell me, tell me how we were betrayed, come on, tell me !…”
I bear down on the pedals, faster, faster, faster… Darkness, everywhere…Having crossed the isolated back alley, I’ll feel better when I reach the main street where random cars and bicycles move about. A bit further, on the bicycle paths, I will reach my work place. My work place, like an octopus, spreading its yellow lights in the night, shooting out through the hundreds of windows, twisting its arms, waiting for me.
The entire town gets washed from this place, all the garbage collected, all the public toilets, streets, kindergardens, all existing municipal public services get cleaned up from this place. The town is cleared of its filth, its corrosion and its stink, thanks to the sweat of migrant workers, working from this place.
In front of this big rectangular five-storey building, an imposing blue lion rears up. On this lion, an inscription in white lettering; EAD…2. Card in hand, the godly power opening all doors, I register my time on arrival: 4:45…I take the elevator to the second floor in a closed-off and glassed-in section, grab a set of five keys, then those of the vehicle I’ll be using. Everything is in order now.
Victoria is waiting for me on the first floor. We go down to the garage. The Southern side is for us. At this time of day, there are four other groups like ours. All migrants… We disperse into the town’s open arms, and with god’s help, we will wash, swallow, lick down everywhere and leave everything spotless!
Soon, along with Victoria, after cleaning two child care centers consisting of large buildings with dozens of rooms, eleven sanitary installations, sports and game rooms, we will pour boiling water over the coffee we brought from home, light a cigarette, and thumb our noses at our tiredness for a while.
We are in charge of cleaning two kindergardens, two youth establishments, three public sanitary installations, ending with an 18th century villa, nationalized by leftwingers and now used by different cultural groups. Both of us are quick, we work fast and well…
Every morning, at 6:30, I call my youngest to wake him, remind him not to be late at school, not to forget his breakfast and to close the door properly.
Victoria, newly arrived from the Balkans has a 16 year old son here; her other children are in her country. Because of his violences, the separation from her husband was violent also. She was living in a one-room apartment and, when her son arrived, she gave him her bed. She was sleeping on a couch in the entrance. Victoria often had back pain.
She is a pious Christian, Victoria. On Sundays, she goes to church, lights candles for her children, and prays… We we finish our work, we leave the keys at the kindergarden, the car in the garage, register our end of work time on our cards, and Victoria takes off for another small job. On weekends, in a restaurant, she handles the service, the dishwashing and the mopping of the floor. This is a luxurious restaurant, patronized by bureaucrats, local notables. One of them has a reach that renders him untouchable…
It is quite difficult here, finding and renting apartments. A while ago, all the public housing was subjected to privatization to firms that often changed ownership. Which is why, although Victoria renewed her request every year to the social housing organism, like many others like her, she couldn’t obtain a decent roof to put over her head.
What was Victoria to do? Poor dear, while serving shish-kebab to the bureaucrat who frequented the restaurant, she opened up to him on the topic. Nothing could be simpler, he would solve the whole thing immediately, no problem. Victoria is average size, with blond hair, fulls lips, perfect eyebrows, a ravishing woman. She had to move faster than her age allowed, and grew up quickly. The entire responsibility for her shattered home rested on her shoulders.
As she was rejoicing, telling herself that her housing worries would soon be solved, the man bent toward Victoria’s ear while she was taking her cigarette break outside and whispered: “I’ll find you a pretty little apartment, with a balcony, not expensive and downtown, if you want. I’ll do it now with one phone call. But I have one condition…”
– What is it?
– You sleep with me, and the matter is settled…
Victoria gives me such a sorrowful look that my heart breaks. “Rapunzel, let down your hair so the creep can climb the golden stair…” I say.
Days go by like this, nights, weeks, the floors are cleaned, get dirty again, are cleaned again.
The bird flies off, rests on a branch, the cat miaows under the tree, I smoke a cigarette on my balcony, I cook, I clean my own space, I clean other people’s homes, I meet interesting people, I listen to terrifying stories…On Saturday nights, I write…
Perhaps I would like to pour out there everything gathered up in me?
Then I meet those who read what I write.
They look at my life as a bayonet and ask “you’re the one writing these texts?”
“Not at tall, ladies and gentlemen”, I tell them, “who am I to allow myself the right to write?”… I evade and take off, and I like being alone sometimes. I consider them, and I think that my worries wouldn’t even add up to a pair of sandals for anyone else. Having been around them, despite everything, I like people.
Victoria finally found her apartment… She moved in, furnished it, she finally had a room of her own. She even has a balcony where she can smoke. It’s downtown, no more expensive than the old one.
Victoria no longer has back aches, she no longer uses heating salves to ease her back pains. One night, Victoria’s back pain worked its way toward her heart. Victoria’s heart is in pain. Victoria’s heart suffers. Victoria suffocates. Victoria… my dear, my sister.
Floors get dirty, floors get cleaned, floor get dirty all the time. Myself, I fall in love with Persian music, I listen to Shajarian, I take off for faraway lands. I don’t listen to any psychologists, my little one comes into my bed, I hug him as close as the light of day, I kiss him, I take in his scent, and I even lie to him: “I’m cold, dear heart, I’m cold, hold me very very close”. He hugs me in his arms, I clear away the day’s table, and I fall asleep, clasping my son.
It is 3:50…
Next week, perhaps, I will go to the bakery, I will show up in the middle of the avenue, between the bakery and the barracks and, no matter the cost, I’ll settle my accounts with time.
To be continued…
Translation from French by Renée Lucie Bourges
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