I had recently moved to that neighbourhood. It was a busy district in Paris, in the 10th. I didn’t like the noise, the dirt, the crowded cafes with people slurping their coffees and smoking cigarettes as if the world would soon come to an end.
I come from a very small village in the north of Finland, where the only sound you can hear when reading quietly a book in the living room of your house is the leaves softly moving with the blow of the wind.
I didn’t have many options. I had received a bursary to finish my PhD in Paris University and I could not afford to live in one of the quiet districts of the Rive Gauche. Moving to the outskirts was neither an option as I didn’t want to spend hours in the smelly regional trains. So the 10th district was the only place I could afford in order to live at a reasonable distance from the University.
I was aware of the dissonance my physical presence contributed into that atmosphere, bursting with young students, immigrants from North Africa and young couples with their first child, who wanted to keep being cool for a few years more before moving to a bigger apartment in the outskirts of the city. Like everybody else.
I missed very much my hometown and it seemed that time was not really soothing the nostalgia, more the contrary.
I didn’t have a girlfriend, the only one I ever had, had left me a couple of years back. Probably being too bored of having to deal with a guy like me, always absorbed in my reading, not paying much attention to her feelings. Or anybody else’s.
I must say I didn’t miss her much after she left, I guess she was right and I was so concentrated on my research that I barely noticed her presence around me. I even have troubles now trying to remember any of our conversations.
Every day I walked the busy Faubourg Saint Denis on my way to the nearest metro station. I had to dodge bodies among the crowd, unknown faces, faces with bodies, bodies with souls. Which didn’t interest me at all. I don’t think I am what we can call a sociopath, but maybe close to one. I don’t feel the urge to kill anybody, but I must admit that people quite disgust me. Their physical presence, their talks, their manners. I think I have only tolerated two people in my life. My mother and my friend Thomas. My mother was a loving person with a high sense of discipline, mainly towards herself. She had been a classical ballet dancer when she was young, until she had me, being single. She then had to abandon her promising career to take care of me. I didn’t feel rejected, not by any means, she loved me very much but I know I had been a mistake. And a big one.
Thomas was my friend from childhood. He was a brilliant and happy boy, a year older than me, who taught me to hunt mice, and to talk backwards so nobody could understand our conversations. He left our school to move with his parents to Sweden when we were twelve years old. We never saw each other again. I still miss him.
It was a cold morning in Paris on my way to university when I crossed paths with that woman again. Always at the same time and wearing the same clothes. She continually looked down to the ground and we never crossed any look. I normally don’t pay much attention to people, so I am sure I can pass by the same person several times without realising.
The first time I saw her, I actually “saw” her because she was carrying a gnome in her arms. The typical horrendous figure made of ceramic that tacky people collect in their gardens.
What attracted my attention was the way she was carrying the object; with much care, almost as if it was her baby.
At that moment I just thought that she had just bought it in one of the numerous Marchés de Puces of the city and was on her way home. She was just protecting the small statue from the crowd, in order to avoid any damage.
When I saw her again, a couple of days later, she was still carrying the gnome. Her look was fixed on the ground and she was as careful with the figure as the previous time. The first thing that came to my mind was obviously that she was completely nuts. She would be one of hundreds of people who lost their mind in the big city. For the first time in years I felt sorry. I am still not sure why she triggered this feeling on me, given that I used to pass by tens of crazy homeless speaking to themselves every day.
I saw her five or six times more. Never in consecutive days. She always took me by surprise and I must say that after the third time I already looked for her in the distance. If I didn’t see her I felt disappointed. The curiosity was killing me. I felt a strong urge of knowing why. Why was she carrying that gnome? I wanted to know. She started to come out of the blue into my mind, in the middle of a class or when I was having a shower. Why a gnome? Had it anything to do with that stupid romantic French film that my ex-girlfriend forced me to watch once? Was it the last thing her dead child had played with before he died? Perhaps her husband had bought her that gnome before he had left her for a young hairdresser? For Christ sake, that stupid gnome was driving me insane! I even started to have nightmares with that ugly creature, I would wake up in the middle of the night bathed in cold sweat.
That was enough. I was going to ask her right away next time I would see her. I would have to wait several days for that. Very long days during which time was so thick that each day seemed to be much longer than the previous one.
That morning I hadn’t slept much. I drank my coffee and ran out in the street. I was anxious, I could feel my heart beating hard in my chest. I had made a very strong coffee that morning and I was already regretting it when I saw her. She was walking towards me at her usual slow pace. I accelerated mine in order to reach her as soon as possible. I was so nervous that I didn’t think about rehearsing how I would approach her with my vital question. So when I was just in front of her, I grabbed her by her left elbow with the intention of being cautious but with so bad luck that in my rush I grabbed her too hard, she then raised her head to look at me with her big deep black eyes, releasing, at the same time the force of her arm. My reflection came too late and I could not stop the gnome from falling down. It broke into pieces with such a tremendous noise that everybody around us turned to look. She looked at the pieces on the ground and then into my eyes with such a sad look that I can still see it every night when I close my eyes. She then opened her mouth in slow motion and produced the most horrible scream I had ever heard.
I ran away. And never stopped. I still run.
Photo: Hiking Gnome by Jeff Hester CC BY-SA