Olive entre Deux Langues (a bilingual story)
Olive s’amuse à dire son nom en anglais: AH-Liv. C’est dans Henry James, Maman a dit, et c’est une très belle dame. In French it’s nothing but a little, shiny, round fruit: O-LEEV. Accent on the second syllable, please. She prefers herself in English: the beautiful lady, la belle dame. Besides, when you switch the letters around, they make I Love.
« Olive, » c’est aussi pour la Méditerranée, Maman a dit. Pour la mer et les rameaux de la paix et les temples grecs tout blancs sous le soleil. Daddy’s the one who chose her name, before she was born even.
She clings to the memory now of what it was like, when he held her in his arms. She would ride around on his shoulders and smell the clean, white laundry smell of his office shirt. Son bleu de travail, he used to joke. Daddy’s French was good, but he was English. That’s why Olive speaks English.
« Je parle anglais. Et vous? Do you speak English, Monsieur? »
« A little, » the man said. It sounded like « a LEEtle, » like the end of her name, the French way. He was sitting on a bench in the park, and beside him was a huge canvas backpack, all out of shape and torn and discoloured. He had his arm around it, like a fiancée.
« What’s in your bag, Monsieur? » asked Olive.
« Leetle girl curiosity, eh? » asked the man. His complexion was brown and his cheeks a little hollow. Spiky black bristles stood out on his chin and above his upper lip. He smiled at Olive, and the white of his teeth flashed just like one of those sunlit Greek columns. It made her feel warm. Le soleil de la Méditerranée.
Calais was chilly in November. Maman had made her wear her dove-gray anorak, the one with the fake-fur collar and the pink lining. « Rappelle-toi, je te vois depuis le balcon, » she’d said to Olive. « Tu peux te promener le long du pyracantha, mais ne t’éloigne pas de la grille. C’est promis? »
« I promise, » Olive had said. Pyracantha; that meant firethorn. She’d gathered up a whole hankyful of bright, orange-red berries from the bushes near the black fence, la grille en fer forgé. If she could find a squirrel, she would try and feed them to it. That was when she’d seen the man. He looked tired and discouraged and very poor.
« In my bag, » he said, answering Olive’s question, « are everytheeng I need for Eengland. »
« Vous allez en Angleterre? » Olive was so surprised, she lapsed back into French. He didn’t look like the tourists that climbed on the ferry. « Is that your suitcase? And your guidebook? Do you have one? »
The man smiled again, his warm sun smile, and said no, he didn’t have any need of a guidebook. He knew someone who was going to show him the way. He was going to England to stay, forever. And then to bring his family. His wife, his little girl. A little girl like Olive, but with black hair, not golden.
« Why aren’t they with you now? » Olive asked, suddenly distressed. Another daddy, going to England. Maybe, like hers, he would never call for his little girl.
« Treep too deeficult, » he said. « Later, they come. When I get work and money, lots of money to pay for passage. »
« Please, what’s her name? Elle s’appelle comment, votre fille? »
« Sorayya her name, » he said. « You want see peecture? I show you, Meess. » From the depths of his battered bag, he drew a small plastic square. It was a little greasy-blurry, like Maman’s glasses, when she’d accidentally put a finger on the lenses. Through the smudgy plastic, a little girl stared. She had very big, very serious black eyes. A navy blue scarf covered most of her hair and two ends of it crossed beneath her chin.
« Why does she have a scarf? Is it cold where you’re from? »
« Tradeetion. Sometimes cold, sometimes not. In Eengland, she no more wear scarf. Be like Eenglish girls. Wind in hair. Hair fly like blackbird weeng. Here bracelet from her. I keep to think of her. » From an outer pocket of the backpack, he pulled a tarnished, copper-coloured circlet.
« Don’t you miss her? »
« Very much, I meess. »
« Why didn’t you stay with her? » In spite of herself, Olive felt something tight in her throat when she asked this.
« No good for leetle girls in my country. Bad men break everytheeng. In Eengland, everytheeng good. Lots work for poor men. Nice people, don’ ask for papers all day long. Cheeldren go to school. Good food to eat. »
« Olive! Dépêche-toi! » Maman was calling. She heard her name, son nom français. She had to go back.
« Is your boat tonight? » she asked the man.
« I don’ theenk so. »
« Then where will you go? Will you get your supper? »
The man shook his head. « I sleep here. Nice park, nice bench. But cold in France. Sangatte center shut, the don’ let me een. So I wait here. Wait for friend who show me the way. »
« O-LEEV! »
« Au revoir, Monsieur. Bye-bye! »
Olive looked both ways and ran to the apartment building across the street.
She had a crusty baguette for the backpack man, the kind she liked best, with the inside all soft-white and chewy. She’d saved her chocolate from her goûter, and Maman would never notice the missing apples. Olive had had an idea last night, before she’d fallen asleep. Let him still be here, she’d thought, as she drifted off. Please let him still be here. Qu’il ne soit pas encore parti, pas encore, pas encore...
He was there, the deep tan of his face slightly ruddy in the cold afternoon light, the black bristles of his chin a little longer. He smiled his marble-white sun smile at Olive and took the bread with a «Thank you, leetle mademoiselle. »
« Monsieur, Sir, please, pretty please, s’il vous plaît, » she said, « Will you do something for me? »
« What can I do for you? » he asked, his black eyebrows puzzling together.
« When you are in England... »
« Yes...? »
« When you are in England, will you look for my daddy for me and give him a message? »
« Your daddy in Eengland? »
« Yes. »
« Eengland very beeg place. Where I look? London? »
« Yes, London. To begin. Mr. Donald Davenport. And my name is Olive. » She said AH-liv. « Tell him I want him to have me come. Like Sorayya, for you. Please, will you? »
« I don’ understand. Your daddy in Eengland; he don’ call for you? You don’ veezit? »
Olive’s eyes filled, and the man stopped his questions.
« You don’ cry, » he said, touching her hand. « I look for daddy for you. Write name on piece paper, OK? »
On Wednesday, there was no school in the afternoon, and Olive went earlier to the park, but on the bench were two teenagers from the lycée down the street. As the girl leaned toward the boy to offer her mouth for kissing, her tight, short pullover rode up and showed the pale skin of her back. The boy had sticky-pointy hair and a wide leather belt. A backpack sat beside him, but it wasn’t like the man’s. Olive moved toward it, though, her heart beating, as if staring at this new, khaki bag would transform it into the man’s old, gray one.
The boy looked at her over his girlfriend’s shoulder. « Alors, la gamine, tu veux quoi? » he asked.
« Tu n’as pas...vous n’avez pas vu un monsieur par ici? Un monsieur tout brun avec un vieux sac à dos très gros? »
« Tu lui veux quoi, à ce monsieur avec le sac à dos? »
« Rien... » Olive didn’t know what to say. They were squatting his place. Maybe he wasn’t far, but she wasn’t supposed to go beyond the firethorn. Then she spotted it: a newspaper-wrapped lump under the bench.
« Excusez-moi, » she said to the two lycéens, kneeling down abruptly in front of the bench and stretching out her arm to grab the package. Her name was scrawled on it, spelled right, the way she’d written it for the man: OLIVE DAVENPORT. She snatched the newspaper and held it to her chest.
« C’est quelqu’un...un monsieur étranger...il voulait partir en Angleterre. » She was still on her knees beside the boy and girl, clutching the small packet.
They were both looking at her now.
« Un clandestin? » the girl asked.
« C’est quoi, un clandestin? »
« Un réfugié, arrivé en cachette, » the girl told her. « La police a fait du nettoyage hier soir. On les a tous embarqués en autocar pour je ne sais où. Il y en a, ils vont demander l’asile en France. D’autres vont rentrer chez eux. »
« Chez eux? » Olive’s voice caught.
« Pourquoi? Qu’est-ce que ça te fait à toi? »
« Alors, ils ne vont pas en Angleterre? » asked Olive. Already she could feel the rush of tears behind her eyes, pressing against them like a curtain of oncoming rain.
The girl shrugged and looked at the boy. « Sans doute pas. L’Angleterre n’en veut pas. » They watched her take off like an arrow, dash past the ardent hedge of prickly bush, look both ways.
In the refuge of her bedroom, Olive unfolded the sheets of newspaper with care. Over and over she rubbed Sorayya’s slender bracelet between her palms, pressing her nose to the warm metal smell. Then she put it away, ever so carefully, between two leaves of the album where she kept the photographs of Daddy and AH-liv, bouncing on his knee, riding on his shoulders.
Copyright Louise Thunin, tous droits réservés