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TWO

MORE MYSTERIOUS,
MORE UNKNOWN

FLASH FICTION BY ANNE SERRE TRANSLATED BY MARK HUTCHINSON

My mother is packed and ready to move. Then on Sunday afternoon, at the last minute, she calls and invites us over for dinner. “I’ve put my icebox on defrost,” she tells me. “I need to cook this chicken before it spoils.”

Nothing could surprise me more than these words from my mother, who’s an elegant woman, not much good at practical affairs, and never gives a thought to her fridge or cooking: for that she has a household helper, or a cook as they used to be called. “But maman,” I tell her, “I don’t understand, what’s going on?” “It’s like I say,” says my mother, who has never used that expression in her entire life, “I don’t want this chicken to go to waste, and besides, you and Françou can come for dinner from time to time, can’t you?” François is my partner, I’ve never called him Françou, nor has anyone else to my knowledge, still less my mother, who always addresses him as “vous”. “Maman,” I tell her, “something’s not right. You’re not yourself. You never speak like this.” And to my astonishment I hear a rather unpleasant chuckle: “Ha-ha,” says my mother, “that’ll teach you.”

I hang up at once, stunned. François is out and I’m not sure what to do. Maman is delirious, I tell myself, it’s senile dementia, and yet she’s only sixty-eight, but it starts early sometimes I’m told. I pace up and down the living room, then decide to drive over to find out what’s going on and, if need be, call a doctor. François and I live in town; maman in a neighboring village about twelve miles away. I don’t understand, I tell myself as I pull out of the garage, yesterday on the phone she was perfectly normal. “My dear girl,” she had said, “I really don’t want to trouble you. It’s very sweet of you, and very thoughtful of François, to want to take me along for the weekend, but I’m afraid I’ll be a burden. Feel free to change your plans, I’m fine at home, we can easily wait until next week to see each other.”

That’s my mother for you. That’s how my mother speaks and how she thinks. Never once has she mentioned the freezer to me or a chicken that needs finishing, or else in a different manner, a different tone of voice: “My dear girl, don’t you think we should eat this chicken, which has been in the fridge for several days now? Sandra will prepare it.” (Sandra is the cook.) And even then only when I’m round at her house, we’re in the kitchen and she sees me opening the door to the fridge. Otherwise, it simply wouldn’t occur to her.

What’s wrong with maman? I drive along, a bit worried, and by the time I pull up outside the gates to her house I can’t wait to see her and recognise her. I ring the door bell, then call out “Ooh Ooh” as I always do, to show that it’s me, and when my mother opens the door I’m relieved and at the same time taken aback. It’s her and it’s not her. It’s definitely maman, that is, with her hair tied back and her handsome face, but she’s wearing an outrageous, skimpy yellow dress that not only have I never seen on her before but is quite unlike her usual outfits. We kiss, she shoos me into the living room, which reassures me slightly because it’s a ritual of ours when I arrive, and she seems only mildly surprised to see me, which is also in keeping with  her character.

“It’s lovely to see you, darling,” she tells me, “but I wasn’t expecting you. What’s up?” She reminds me of Liz Taylor. That’s what it is. Not because of her hair, which is tucked up over the nape of her neck, but because of her neat pretty face with its small straight nose and dark blue eyes, and the peculiar way the actress had of being present both in her body and her face, and also because of this short, yellow, muslin dress. “That’s a lovely dress you’re wearing,” I tell her, “I’ve never seen it on you before.” “Bah,” says my mother, “it was in a wardrobe somewhere, it’s from the Sixties, I think, but it still looks good on me, no?” I force myself to give a pleasant laugh. “But it’s a bit of an odd choice for a Sunday in winter, don’t you think?” “You’ve always been a bit of a conformist, darling,“ my mother tells me, blowing smoke rings, though I have never seen her smoke before.

I know perfectly well that we know nothing of our loved-ones. Or a good part of them at any rate, which can remain hidden for a lifetime, only to be revealed to you all of a sudden after their death, in notes in a diary or journal, or letters. But still… It then occurs to me that my mother might have met someone, a man. That yellow dress, what else can it be? And her new habit of smoking, her resemblance to Liz Taylor? I find myself listening for footsteps in the house, a presence. I imagine a man standing in the doorway all of a sudden, saying: “Hi! Lovely to meet you, I’m Liz’s partner” (my mother’s name is Elisabeth). But no, the house is empty, it seems, apart from the two of us. I catch my mother staring at me in a most peculiar way: she’s observing me. I’ve never seen that look on her face before. Her usual attitude is one of beneficent indifference, as it were.

I persist. “What’s all this fuss about the chicken? I couldn’t understand why it was so important. Usually, you have no idea what’s in your kitchen cupboards or the fridge. They’re not your department.” My mother leans forward like a young woman, stubs her cigarette out in an ashtray on the carpet, then gets to her feet and walks across the room: “We change sometimes,” she says, rummaging through some papers on a desk. “Has it never happened to you? But you’re still so young.” Then she looks round at me, and in her yellow dress, with her handsome, resolute face and her eyes so blue that I suddenly recall a woman once saying to her: “Elizabeth, you have magnetic eyes,” I find her younger and more spirited than me, sexier, cattier, more mysterious, more unknown.

First lines (slightly modified) from “Boxes”,  Raymond Carver