Bliss and Other Stories
I do not know why I have such a fancy for this little café. It's dirty and sad, sad. It's not as if it had anything to distinguish it from a hundred others—it hasn't; or as if the same strange types came here every day, whom one could watch from one's corner and recognise and more or less (with a strong accent on the less) get the hang of.
But pray don't imagine that those brackets are a confession of my humility before the mystery of the human soul. Not at all; I don't believe in the human soul. I never have. I believe that people are like portmanteaux—packed with certain things, started going, thrown about, tossed away, dumped down, lost and found, half emptied suddenly, or squeezed fatter than ever, until finally the Ultimate Porter swings them on to the Ultimate Train and away they rattle. . . .
Not but what these portmanteaux can be very fascinating. Oh, but very ! I see myself standing in front of them, don't you know, like a Customs official.
" Have you anything to declare ? Any wines, spirits, cigars, perfumes, silks ? " page 72And the moment of hesitation as to whether I am going to be fooled just before I chalk that squiggle, and then the other moment of hesitation just after, as to whether I have been, are perhaps the two most thrilling instants in life. Yes, they are, to me.
But before I started that long and rather farfetched and not frightfully original digression, what I meant to say quite simply was that there are no portmanteaux to be examined here because the clientele of this café, ladies and gentlemen, does not sit down. No, it stands at the counter, and it consists of a handful of workmen who come up from the river, all powdered over with white flour, lime or something, and a few soldiers, bringing with them thin, dark girls with silver rings in their ears and market baskets on their arms.
Madame is thin and dark, too, with white cheeks and white hands. In certain lights she looks quite transparent, shining out of her black shawl with an extraordinary effect. When she is not serving she sits on a stool with her face turned, always, to the window. Her dark-ringed eyes search among and follow after the people passing, but not as if she was looking for somebody. Perhaps, fifteen years ago she was ; but now the pose has become a habit. You can tell from her air of fatigue and hopelessness that she must have given them up for the last ten years, at least. . . .page 73
And then there is the waiter. Not pathetic— decidedly not comic. Never making one of those perfectly insignificant remarks which amaze you so coming from a waiter, (as though the poor wretch were a sort of cross between a coffee-pot and a wine bottle and not expected to hold so much as a drop of anything else). He is grey, flat-footed and withered, with long, brittle nails that set your nerves on edge while he scrapes up your two sous. When he is not smearing over the table or flicking at a dead fly or two, he stands with one hand on the back of a chair, in his far too long apron, and over his other arm the three-cornered dip of dirty napkin, waiting to be photographed in connection with some wretched murder. " Interior of Café where Body was Found." You've seen him hundreds of times.
Do you believe that every place has its hour of the day when it really does come alive ? That's not exactly what I mean. It's more like this. There does seem to be a moment when you realize that, quite by accident, you happen to have come on to the stage at exactly the moment you were expected. Everything is arranged for you—waiting for you. Ah, master of the situation ! You fill with important breath. And at the same time you smile, secretly, slyly, because Life seems to be opposed to granting you these entrances, seems indeed to be engaged in snatching them from you and making them impossible, keeping you in the page 74wings until it is too late, in fact. . . . Just for once you've beaten the old hag.
I enjoyed one of these moments the first time I ever came in here. That's why I keep coming back, I suppose. Revisiting the scene of my triumph, or the scene of the crime where I had the old bitch by the throat for once and did what I pleased with her.
Query : Why am I so bitter against Life ? And why do I see her as a rag-picker on the American cinema, shuffling along wrapped in a filthy shawl with her old claws crooked over a stick ?
Answer: The direct result of the American cinema acting upon a weak mind.
Anyhow, the " short winter afternoon was drawing to a close," as they say, and I was drifting along, either going home or not going home, when I found myself in here, walking over to this seat in the corner.
I hung up my English overcoat and grey felt hat on that same peg behind me, and after I had allowed the waiter time for at least twenty photographers to snap their fill of him, I ordered a coffee.
He poured me out a glass of the familiar, purplish stuff with a green wandering light playing over it, and shuffled off, and I sat pressing my hands against the glass because it was bitterly cold outside.
Suddenly I realized that quite apart from myself, I was smiling. Slowly I raised my head and saw page 75myself in the mirror opposite. Yes, there I sat, leaning on the table, smiling my deep, sly smile, the glass of coffee with its vague plume of steam before me and beside it the ring of white saucer with two pieces of sugar.
I opened my eyes very wide. There I had been for all eternity, as it were, and now at last I was coming to life. . . .
It was very quiet in the café. Outside, one could just see through the dusk that it had begun to snow. One could just see the shapes of horses and carts and people, soft and white, moving through the feathery air. The waiter disappeared and reappeared with an armful of straw. He strewed it over the floor from the door to the counter and round about the stove with humble, almost adoring gestures. One would not have been surprised if the door had opened and the Virgin Mary had come in, riding upon an ass, her meek hands folded over hei big belly, . . .
That's rather nice, don't you think, that bit about the Virgin ? It comes from the pen so gently ; it has such a " dying fall." I thought so at the time and decided to make a note of it. One never knows when a little tag like that may come in useful to round off a paragraph. So, taking care to move as little as possible because the " spell " was still unbroken (you know that ?), I reached over to the next table for a writing pad.
No paper or envelopes, of course. Only a morsel page 76of pink blotting-paper, incredibly soft and limp and almost moist, like the tongue of a little dead kitten, which I've never felt.
I sat—but always underneath, in this state of expectation, rolling the little dead kitten's tongue round my finger and rolling the soft phrase round my mind while my eyes took in the girls' names and dirty jokes and drawings of bottles and cups that would not sit in the saucers, scattered over the writing pad.
They are always the same, you know. The girls always have the same names, the cups never sit in the saucers ; all the hearts are stuck and tied up with ribbons.
But then, quite suddenly, at the bottom of the page, written in green ink, I fell on to that stupid, stale little phrase : Je ne parle pas français.
There ! it had come—the moment—the geste ! And although I was so ready, it caught me, it tumbled me over ; I was simply overwhelmed. And the physical feeling was so curious, so particular. It was as if all of me, except my head and arms, all of me that was under the table, had simply dissolved, melted, turned into water. Just my head remained and two sticks of arms pressing on to the table. But, ah ! the agony of that moment! How can I describe it ? I didn't think of anything. I didn't even cry out to myself. Just for one moment I was not. I was Agony, Agony, Agony.
Then it passed, and the very second after I was page 77thinking : " Good God ! Am I capable of feeling as strongly as that ? But I was absolutely unconscious ! I hadn't a phrase to meet it with I I was overcome ! I was swept off my feet! I didn't even try, in the dimmest way, to put it down ! "
And up I puffed and puffed, blowing off finally with : " After all I must be first-rate. No second-rate mind could have experienced such an intensity of feeling so . . . purely."