Theo, an aging Parisian cartographer, is desperately searching for the woman he once loved before Alzheimer’s takes his memories of her.
Elise, his estranged daughter, moves in to take care of him. She still blames him for the tragic loss of her mother and is struggling with this new forced intimacy.
Nebay, an Eritrean refugee, becomes Theo’s carer and friend. Unbeknownst to Elise, Nebay does not have a visa for France and is working illegally in order to support his sister.
Each is living a life of secrets, questions and uncertainty in a world where Nebay’s very presence in France would be invisible on Theo’s maps.
Such short shelves. Stubby. The books running along in little lines, cut off, contained in these inadequate boxes. It
had never made sense. The ceilings were so tall, the room so big, where were all the other books? There could be so
Theo turned back to the computer. The Google search screen blurred and refocused. He moved his face closer then
further away. Where were his glasses? His hands hovered over the keyboard, they were still large for his height, but
now ink-stained like old parchment, weather-beaten as an eighteenth-century sea chart. Would he find her? It seemed
impossible. Yet just the other day an ex-colleague had told him about a cousin whom he had not seen in nearly sixty
years. An old man, who had emigrated to Canada as a young one, running away from the war he had been forced to serve in, trying to reclaim his youth. His cousin had got in touch with him after ‘googling’ his name. ‘Googling’. It was not even a real word, yet it connected a cabin on the edge of a frozen lake in the Rocky Mountains to an apartment on
Lafayette Street in seconds, straighter than the crow flies. A voice came over the Sorbonne library loudspeaker to inform him that they would be closing in fifteen minutes. He was running out of time.
Marianne Anouar. He typed it, spelling in approximation.
He closed his eyes and saw a hand groping in a locked box, scratching away, searching for knowledge. The face was
covered, the eyes blind. The map only extended as far as the hand could feel.
She could be dead. This heap of wire and plastic could tell him that she was dead. He tried to recall her date of birth, but it escaped him. She was younger than him by a year or two or three, he knew that, or thought he did, but that was all. She had a beautiful smile.
How long had it been since he had seen her? When had Algeria gained independence? When had all those bodies
slipped below the dark waters of the Seine? Forty, fifty years ago, more? Such big numbers. So much had happened; life had marched forward, filling all the moments between then and now, a marriage, a birth, more funerals than he wished to count. Had she married? Had a family? Been happy?
Been happier than him?
He had messed up a lot of things with these big clumsy hands, hands that now shook at the memory of it all, like
frightened children. He had made bad choices. Acted in ways he was ashamed to recall. He tried to forget. Forgetting
was easy for him now, he should be pleased. Yet, while yesterday was a mystery to him, he could clearly recall the
look on his mother’s face the day that de Gaulle walked into Paris, the heat of the Algiers sun, the backstreets of Cairo.
And Marianne, small and angry and perfect, a jagged rock in the river of his life, became sharper every day. Was it too
late to apologise, decades too late? Now that all of the heat had gone out of all of the moments that had led up to here, to this particular moment, their actions seemed preposterous, as the passion of youth does when seen through an old man’s eyes.
He had been looking for something else, a tie he was sure he had bought, when he had found the letters, yellow and dry as dust. It was a long time since he had seen her handwriting, but to see it now brought tears to his eyes. He had forgotten, almost, how much he had missed her. He had become used to this hole inside himself.
I cannot be both – French and Algerian – You and Me – I can only be one thing now, a force of resistance. It is time
for me to give my whole self and I am ready to do so. I will return for you. With love, M, 19th November 1961.
The note had contained her new address. This was the night she had left him. He had refolded the letter carefully, had
been tempted to tuck it away, hide it again, as if this act could change history, but instead he had gone back to the beginning, two years earlier, and read all her letters and notes in one sitting. It was their story, or at least a part of it. He had been capable of so much emotion, so much love. Where had it all gone? In one of the letters there was a photo of her. She stared right out of it, challenging him all over again. There was nobody else in the world that looked at him that way. It brought him right back to the day he had first seen her. The dress that moved around her, full of flowers as if she were a sapling and the dress was made of honeysuckle. He could see her cool stare, the way she leant forward, brushing her hair behind her ear when she had something of importance to say, the feel of her breath on his cheek.
The library loudspeaker came to life once more. There were only five minutes left. He would have to open his eyes.
He thought of his late wife; her perfect face and distant eyes, and his daughter, her expression containing a life’s worth of unspoken accusations. There were so many things he needed to explain, but they hardly ever saw each other, and how were you supposed to begin anyway? How were you supposed to find the words that made a life make sense, even to yourself, let alone to your child?
The seconds were passing into minutes. He had his hands over his eyes. He felt foolish. He was seventy-nine years old.
He had been to war and survived. And yet, he was terrified.
Even if he found her she may not want to see him, or worse, may not remember him. A blank where a man used to be. But he had to try. The empty rooms of his apartment had become unbearable to him. The silence.
And if he did by some miracle find her, how would he approach her? Email? It seemed so crass. A letter? He had
once written her so many, but he would need her postal address, something which, in the modern age, had become
a strange intimacy. The world had changed so much yet he had stopped, stuck in some past time, in some place that no longer existed. She would help him make sense of it all. She had always been ahead of him, always running further and at a faster pace.
He peered through a crack in his fingers at the clock on the wall, careful to avoid the computer screen. One minute to
six. He had to do it. The receptionist was staring at him oddly.
He had to do it now.
He opened his eyes slowly and a few more seconds passed as they focused, rheumily, on the screen.
A list of incomprehensible others, strangers, but nothing with her name.
A shiver passed through his body at the hopelessness of it all and in the undertow of history he fell into unconsciousness.
Thank you, Emma Musty and Legend Press
About the author
Emma is an editor and writer with Are You Syrious?, a daily news digest about the refugee situation in Europe and a long term member of Khora Community Centre which works with marginalised groups in Athens. She is also a freelance consultant for Refugee Rights Europe.