There are some lives that don’t begin in earnest until they are almost over. Time is almost used up before the moment is reached, the decision taken that will give life some meaning. Until that moment, only holiday snaps show that time has moved at all. Children grow up, then move away and there are no more holidays, no more snaps. Time passes unnoticed.
François had lived all his life opposite the market, had worked from the age of fourteen as a butcher on the market for the same patron. Children came and went, like his wife, with few regrets. The bistrot was always the same, same regulars, same old faces from his days as a butcher. The changes in the neighbourhood washed over him. He’d seen the Spaniards arrive and settle, then the Portuguese, the West Indians, and the Arabs. Now it was the turn of Black Africans, and the rowdy buggers who came from God knew where and looked like Gypsies. All brought their own preferences in food and drink. The African women sashayed down the middle of the pavements in their gaudy clothes and glitzy jewellery. Portuguese all in black scuttled to the market and back with their huge shopping baskets, keeping to the side, out of the way. Each group brought its own brand of noise. But they all settled down in the end, became part of the scenery.
François stepped off the pavement to avoid the drying racks, dripping with washing, and ducked a few footballs. It was Friday, his day for Les Bons Copains, the bistrot opposite the market entrance. There was that unmistakeable end of the week feel to the neighbourhood. People knocked off work early, kids dribbled home in noisy gaggles from lunchtime onwards, and even at the beginning of the afternoon the street was full of people just waiting for the final whistle. Wasn’t like that when he was a lad, he thought, as he watched a bank employee light up on the pavement and lean back against the wall with a distracted look on his face. Don’t know they’re born, he thought. Across the way, the women from the African hairdresser were doing the same. Only louder. He stared at them admiringly for a few moments. Big bums and bosoms. Clothes so tight they looked sprayed on, showing all the folds and crevices. Real women, he thought.
Sunlight fell across the pavement, making the dust glitter, and rebounding from the cans and cigarette packets that had accumulated since the street sweepers had passed in the morning. People were dirty buggers, François thought, and stared at a tightly wrapped bundle in the gutter, wondering why anybody would change a baby’s nappy in the street. He carried on walking to the intersection, slowly, distracted by the strange things people threw away: a single stiletto-heeled shoe and a bit of lace he took to be knickers; a pair of skis leant against a litterbin. He wondered at the strange lives some people led.
He didn’t know what made him stop as if he’d forgotten something, when he could almost taste the odours of coffee and pastis from Les Bons Copains. Perhaps it was the foul smell coming out of the kebab house on the corner; perhaps it was the beggar woman sitting on her plastic tub with outstretched hand and beseeching, unintelligible whine. Whatever it was, perhaps simply the sight of blossom on the trees by the side of the road that reminded him that spring had arrived, he changed his mind, and turned back the way he had come, passed his own corner, and carried on to the park.
He often walked through the park. Doctor’s orders. More exercise, less time sitting in the bistrot. He had always been corpulent; you had to be in his line of work. Whoever heard of a wimpy butcher? But he had to admit, his corpulence was beginning to look suspiciously like fat. His mates were all on the florid side too; butchery was thirsty work. They all had ill-defined faces now with watery eyes; all were pink around the gills with a pronounced gut. Who cared? Nobody, he realised, and heaved a sigh.
There were no railings round the park; it just began, stretched back from the roadside behind the parked cars and an alley of plane trees. Dusty. The grass needed cutting. He crossed the brown lawn, dry as a hay field, to look at the flowerbeds planted by members of the residents’ association, at the handmade signs and straggly flowers that he couldn’t distinguish from weeds. He was a butcher, not a gardener. Kept somebody amused, he supposed.
He was looking about to see if anybody had chucked away a chair he could sit on, when he saw the little dog. François had a cat; butchers always had cats. Cost nothing to keep if you were a butcher, ate the leavings. And they left you alone, got on with their own lives, just a bit of company to make the flat seem not quite so empty. He watched the dog idly; it kept running in and out of his line of vision while he was searching for a rickety chair. He forgot about it as soon as he spotted what he was looking for, by the hedge over by the public fountain. He took the chair out of the sun, and set it down beneath a tree. The chair listed a bit to starboard, then settled. He let it take his weight with a sigh of pleasure, took off his cap and fanned himself with it for a minute or two, his eyes vacant.
The park made him think of children. Not his own particularly, he had never had much time to bring them here to play. Butchery didn’t leave you much spare time. He didn’t even get much pleasure out of watching children, noisy little buggers mostly. But the sight of the swings always filled him with a vague melancholy as if there was something he had missed, that had receded just out of his grasp.
The little dog cocked its leg against a litterbin then set off again, trotting back and forth, nose to the ground, searching. Suddenly it bounded away. Not lost after all, François thought. The dog raced up to a man holding a child by the hand, barking joyfully. The man pulled the child to one side and shouted, lashing out with his foot. François frowned. He couldn’t see, his eyes full of the sun and never brilliant at the best of times, but he supposed the man was an Arab on his way to the mosque. It was Friday after all. On Fridays Arab men were in and out of the mosque all day, praying and looking holy, with the ends of their trouser legs tucked into their socks. They didn’t like dogs, thought they were unclean. If the dog touched his clothes he’d have to go home and change. Didn’t matter about the shoes. They took them off anyway. No need to kick it though, was there?
The dog trotted away again, ears and tail drooping. It eyed François, weighing him up, and approached, more circumspectly. What a mutt! François thought. Short legs, orange hair, wild and matted. Like a poodle that’s put its paw in a plug socket. The dog sat down in front of him, ears cocked, panting.
“You thirsty?” François asked, and heaved himself off the chair to press the button on the fountain. The little dog stood under the jet to drink, taking a shower at the same time. When its coat was wet it looked even smaller, skinny. Just a puppy, he thought, and went back to his chair. The dog sat down in the shade next to him. Together they watched nothing in particular: sparrows taking a dust bath, the shadows lengthening. They listened to the leaves rustling in the plane trees, and the murmuring voices of the mothers passing on their way home after letting the children play after school. The little dog lay in the shade next to François’ rickety chair, and looked up occasionally and smiled. François found himself wondering what it would have felt like if any of his children had been content to sit and keep him company in the shade.
When it got to six o’clock, Les Bons Copains beckoned. The moment had arrived, the tipping point, when life trotted off in a wholly unexpected direction, when the future started to exist as a place full of infinite possibilities. François raised himself to his feet and licked his lips.
“I could do with a drink. You coming, Friday?”
The dog leapt to his feet, ears pricked, tongue lolling expectantly.
“Friday,” François repeated to himself with a chuckle. He put the rickety chair behind the hedge out of sight. He’d be needing it tomorrow when he brought Friday to watch the spring turning into summer.