One Deadly Summer

Sebastian Japrisot, Translated by Alan Sheridan

The following is an exclusive excerpt from One Deadly Summer, the classic noir from Sebastian Japrisot set during a sultry summer in the South of France, newly reissued by Gallic Books. The following passage introduces the mysterious Elle, played by Isabelle Adjani in the 1980s film adaptation.

I said OK.

I usually agree to things. Anyway, I did with Elle. I slapped her once, and once I beat her. But apart from that, she usually got her own way. I don’t even know what I’m saying any more. I find it hard talking to people, except my brothers, especially Michel. We call him Mickey. He carts wood around in an old Renault truck. He drives too fast. He’s as thick as shit.

I once watched him drive down into the valley, on the road that follows the river. It’s all twists and turns and sudden drops, and the road is hardly wide enough for one car. I watched him from high up, standing among the fir trees. I managed to follow him for several kilometres, a small yellow dot, disappearing and reappearing at every bend. I could even hear his engine, and the lumber bouncing up and down with every bump. He got me to paint his truck yellow when Eddy Merckx won the Tour de France for the fourth time. It was a bet. He can’t even say hi, how are you, without talking about Eddy Merckx. I don’t know who he gets his brains from.

Dad thought Fausto Coppi was the greatest. When Coppi died, he grew a moustache as a sign of mourning. For a whole day he never spoke, he just sat on an old acacia stump in the snow covered yard, smoking his American cigarettes, which he rolled himself. He went around collecting butts, only American ones, mind you, and he rolled these incredible cigarettes. He was a character, our father. He’s supposed to have come from southern Italy, on foot, pulling his pianola behind him. When he came to a village or town he’d stop in the square and get people dancing. He wanted to go to America. They all want to go to America, the Ritals. In the end he stayed, because he didn’t have the money for a ticket. He married our mother, who was called Desrameaux and came from Digne. She worked in a laundry and he did odd jobs on farms, but he earned practically nothing, and of course you can’t go to America on foot.

I usually agree to things. Anyway, I did with Elle. I slapped her once, and once I beat her. But apart from that, she usually got her own way.

Then they took in my mother’s sister. She’s been deaf since the bombing of Marseille, in May 1944, and she sleeps with her eyes open. In the evening, when she sits in her chair, we never know whether she’s asleep or not. We all call her Cognata, which means sister-in-law, except our mother, who calls her Nine. She’s sixty-eight, twelve years older than Mamma, but Mamma looks the older of the two. All she does is doze in her chair. She only gets up for funerals. She’s buried her husband, her brother, her mother, her father, and our father, when he died in 1964. Mamma says she’ll bury us all.

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We’ve still got the pianola. It’s in the barn. For years we left it out in the yard, and the rain blackened and blistered it. Now it’s the dormice. I rubbed it with rat poison, but that didn’t work. It’s riddled with holes. At night, if a dormouse gets inside it, it makes a real racket. It still works. Unfortunately, there’s only one roll left, ‘Roses of Picardy’. Mamma says it wouldn’t be able to play anything else anyway—it’s got too used to that tune. She says Dad once dragged it all the way to the town to pawn it. They wouldn’t take it. What’s more, the road into town is downhill all the way, but the return journey . . . Dad was exhausted—he already had a weak heart. He had to pay a truck driver to bring the piano back. Yes, Father was a businessman, all right.

The day he died, Mamma said that when my other brother, Boo-Boo, was grown up, we’d show them. All three of us boys would set ourselves up with the piano, in front of the Crédit Municimate, the bank in town, and play ‘Roses of Picardy’ all day. We’d drive everybody crazy. But we never did it. He’s seventeen now, Boo-Boo, and last year he told me to put the piano in the barn. I’ll be thirty-one in November.

When I was born Mamma wanted to call me Baptistin, after her brother, Baptistin Desrameaux, who drowned in a canal trying to save someone. She always says if we see anyone drowning we’re to look the other way. When I became a volunteer fireman, she got so angry with me she kicked my helmet around the room. She kicked it so hard she hurt her foot. Anyway, Dad persuaded her to call me Fiorimondo, after his brother—at least he died in his own bed.

Fiorimondo Montecciari—that’s what’s written in the town hall and on my papers. But it was just after the war, and Italy had been on the other side, and it didn’t look right. So they called me Florimond. Anyway, my name’s never done me any good. At school, in the army, anywhere. Mind you, Baptistin would have been worse. I’d like to have been called Robert. I often used to say I was called Robert. That’s what I told Elle at first. Just to top it off, when I became a volunteer fireman they started calling me Ping-Pong—even my brothers. I got into a fight over it once—the only time in my life—and I got a name for being violent. I’m not a violent person at all. In fact, it was about something else.

When I was born Mamma wanted to call me Baptistin, after her brother, Baptistin Desrameaux, who drowned in a canal trying to save someone. She always says if we see anyone drowning we’re to look the other way.

It’s true I don’t know what I’m saying half the time, and I can only really talk to Mickey. I can talk to Boo-Boo, too, but it’s not the same. He has fair hair—or light brown—and ours is dark. At school they used to call us macaroni. Mickey would go mad and start fights. I’m much stronger than him, but as I said, I only got into a fight once. At first, Mickey played football. He was a good football player—a right winger, I think, I’m not sure—his speciality was scoring with headers. He’d be in the middle of a crowd of players in the goal mouth, then suddenly his head would pop up, and send the ball into the goal. Then they’d all rush up and hug him, like on TV. All that hugging and kissing and lifting him up, it made me sick watching it from the stands. He was sent off three Sundays in a row. He’d get into a fight over anything–if someone grazed his shin or said something to him, anything—and he always fought with his head. He’d get hold of them by the shirt and headbutt them. Next thing, they were laid out on the ground, and who do you think got sent off? Mickey, of course. He’s as thick as shit. His hero is Marius Trésor. He says he’s the greatest football player who ever lived. Eddy Merckx and Marius Trésor: if you let him get started on those two, you’ll be there all night.

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Then he dropped football and took up cycling. He’s got a license and everything. He even won a race at Digne this summer. I went to it with Elle and Boo-Boo, but that’s another story. He’s nearly twenty-six now. They say he could still go professional and make something of himself. Maybe he could—I don’t know. He’s never even learned to double-clutch. I don’t know how that old Renault is still going, even if it is painted yellow. I have a look at the engine every couple of weeks—I wouldn’t want him to lose his job. When I tell him to be careful and not to drive like an idiot, he looks all sorry for himself, but really he doesn’t give a shit, just like when he swallowed some chewing gum for the first time. When he was a kid—he’s five years younger than me—he was always swallowing chewing gum. Each time we thought he’d die. Still, at least I can talk to him. And I don’t have to say much—we go back all the way, after all.

Boo-Boo started school while I was doing my military service. He had the same teacher as us, Mlle Dubard—she’s retired now. Every day he took the same route to school as we had—three kilometres over the hill, and at times the path is practically vertical—only fifteen years later. He’s the cleverest of the three of us. He passed his exams and he’s now in the final year of sixth form. He wants to be a doctor. This year he’s at school in town. Mickey drives him in every morning and brings him back at night. Next year he’ll have to go to Nice or Marseille or somewhere. But in a way, he’s already left us. He’s usually very quiet. He just stands there stiffly, his hands stuck in his pockets, shoulders back. Mamma says he looks like a lamp post. His hair is long and he’s got eyelashes like a girl—he’s always being teased about it. But I’ve never seen him lose his temper. Except with Elle, once maybe.

It was at Sunday lunch. He said something, just a few words, and she left the table and went up to our room, and we didn’t see her for the rest of the afternoon. That evening she said I would have to talk to Boo-Boo, stick up for her. So I talked to him. It was on the cellar stairs. I was sorting through empty bottles. He said nothing, just started crying. He didn’t even look at me. I could see he was still a baby. I wanted to put my hand on his shoulder, but he pulled away, then walked off. He was supposed to come with me to the garage to see my Delahaye, but he went to the cinema or out to a disco somewhere.

I’ve got a Delahaye, a real one, with leather seats, but you can’t really drive it. I got it from a scrap dealer in Nice, in exchange for a clapped-out old van I’d bought from a fishmonger for two hundred francs—we then went to the café and spent the money on drinks. I’ve replaced the engine, the transmission, everything.

I don’t know what’s wrong with it. It should be fine, but when I take it out of the garage where I work, the whole village is there waiting for it to break down. And it does. It stalls and starts to smoke. They say they’re going to set up an antipollution committee. My boss goes mad. He says I’m stealing parts, and I spend too many nights there wasting electricity. Sometimes he gives me a hand. But mostly he doesn’t want to know. Once I drove all the way through the village and back before it broke down. That was a record. When the car began to smoke, no one said a word. They couldn’t get over it.

There and back, from the garage to our house, is 1,100 metres. Mickey checked it with the odometer on his truck. If a 1950 Delahaye, even one allergic to cylinder-head gaskets, can do 1,100 metres, it can do more. That’s what I said, and I was right. Three days ago, on Friday, it did more.

Three days.

It was in that cinema I first saw Elle, long before I ever talked to her.

I can hardly believe time always passes at the same speed. I went away, then I came back. It felt as though I’d lived through a whole other lifetime, and everything had stopped while I’d been away. What struck me most in town last night when I came back was that the poster outside the cinema hadn’t changed. a I’d seen it during the week, coming back from the station. At the time I didn’t even stop to see what was on. Last night—it was before the intermission, and they’d left the lights on outside—I was sitting at the café across from it, in the little street behind the old market place, waiting for Mickey. I’ve never looked at a poster for so long in my life, but I couldn’t describe it. I know it showed Jerry Lewis, of course, but I can’t even remember the name of the film. I was thinking about my suitcase. I couldn’t remember what I’d done with it. And anyway, it was in that cinema I first saw Elle, long before I ever talked to her. I’m supposed to be on duty there on Saturday evenings to stop young lads smoking.That suits me fine—I get to see a film. On the other hand, it’s a pain in the neck, because they all call me Ping-Pong.

Elle stands for Eliane, but we’ve always called her Elle. She came here last winter, with her father and mother. They’re from Arrame, on the other side of the pass. It’s the village they demolished to build the dam. Her father was brought over in an ambulance, just after the furniture van. He used to work as a road mender. Then, four years ago, he had a heart attack in a ditch. He fell head first into the dirty water. Someone told me he was covered in mud and dead leaves when they brought him home. His legs have been paralysed ever since—there’s something wrong with his spine, I think, I don’t know—but he spends all his time yelling at people. I’ve never actually seen him—he stays in his bedroom—but I’ve heard him shouting. He doesn’t call her Eliane, either—he usually calls her Bitch. He says worse things than that.

Her mother’s German. He met her during the war, when he was doing forced labour. She loaded anti-aircraft guns during the bombing raids. I’m not joking. In 1945 they used girls to load guns. I’ve even seen a photograph of her wearing boots with her hair wrapped in a turban. She doesn’t say much. In the village they call her Eva Braun—they don’t like her. I know her better, of course. I know she’s a good person. That’s what she always says to defend herself: ‘I’m a good person.’ With her Kraut accent. She’s never understood a word that’s been said to her —that’s the secret. She got herself pregnant at seventeen by a poor slob of a Frenchman and she followed him. The kid died at birth and all she ever got out of our beautiful country was a road mender’s wage, people who stuck their tongues out at her behind her back, and, a few years later—on July 10, 1956—a daughter to put in the cot that had never been used. I have nothing against her. Even Mamma has nothing against her. Once I wanted to find out who the real Eva Braun had been. First I asked Boo-Boo. He didn’t know. So I asked Brochard, who owns the café. He’s one of those who call her Eva Braun. He didn’t know. It was the scrap dealer in Nice, the one who sold me the Delahaye, who finally told me. What can you do about it? Even I call her Eva Braun sometimes.

I often saw Elle and her mother together at the cinema. They always sat in the second row. They said it was to get a better view, but they weren’t well off, and everyone thought it was to save money. I found out later that it was because Elle never wanted to wear glasses, and if she’d been in the ten-franc seats she’d never have seen anything.

I stood through the whole film, leaning against a wall. I kept my helmet on. Like everyone else I thought she was pretty, but since she’d come to live in the village I’d never lost any sleep over her. Anyway, she never so much as looked at me. She probably didn’t even know I existed. Once, after buying some ice cream, she passed close by me and looked up at my helmet. That was all she could see—the helmet. After that I asked the woman in the ticket booth to look after it for me.

I’d better explain. I’m talking about before June, three months ago. I’m talking about how things were then. What I mean is that before June, Elle impressed me in a way, but I didn’t really care that much. If she’d left the village I don’t think I’d have noticed. I could see that her eyes were blue, or grey-blue, and very big, and I was ashamed of my helmet. That’s all. What I mean is…oh, I don’t know…Anyway, things were different before June.


From One Deadly Summer. Used with the permission of the publisher, Gallic Press. Reissue copyright © 2018 by the estate of Sebastian Japrisot. 

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