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Authors: Pascal Garnier

How's the Pain?

BOOK: How's the Pain?
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Praise for
The Panda Theory


‘The combination of sudden violence, surreal
touches and bone-dry humour have led to Garnier’s
work being compared with the films of Tarantino
and the Coen Brothers, but perhaps more apposite
would be the thrillers of Claude Chabrol …
Garnier’s take on the frailty of life has a bracing
Sunday Times


‘… Bleak, often funny and never predictable’


‘Grimly humorous and tremendously dark …
Figaro Littéraire


‘Pascal Garnier is not just an accomplished
stylist but also an exceptional storyteller …
Panda Theory
is both dazzlingly humane and
heartbreakingly lucid.’

How’s the Pain?

Pascal Garnier

Translated from the French by Emily Boyce

Even a broken clock is right twice a day.


The sound coming from somewhere in the darkness was barely audible, but it was enough to shatter his sleep. The drone of the moped grew louder until it was directly beneath his window, grating on his nerves like a dentist’s drill boring into a decayed tooth. Then it faded into the distance, leaving nothing behind but a long rip through the fabric of the sleeping city. He hadn’t opened his eyes or moved except to twitch his mouth in annoyance at the buzzing mechanical insect. Lying flat on his back with his hands crossed over his chest, Simon could have been a recumbent tomb effigy. One at a time he opened his heavy eyelids, gummed together like the rusty shutters of an old shop. He groped for his glasses on the bedside table, but could barely see any better once he had put them on. The pale light of dawn behind the floral-patterned lace curtains bathed the room in a uniform grey. Every object and item of furniture seemed devoid of substance, as if they
had been hastily sketched on the walls. The bedspread, blanket and sheets had hardly been disturbed. He had slept peacefully, without waking. If that two-stroke engine had not roared in to break the spell, he would probably still have been asleep now. His travel clock beside the lamp showed 6.11 a.m. The alarm was set for seven. No matter, he was wide awake now. Besides, time did not follow its usual course in hotel rooms; it stagnated like the dead arm of a river.

Simon glanced around at his rudimentary universe: his shoes, sitting quietly at the foot of the bed, a sock rolled up inside each one; his jacket hanging limply over the back of the chair; the little table where he had emptied out the contents of his pockets, with the car keys and documents, his wallet, notebook, a pen, a handful of coins, a few banknotes and a large envelope addressed to Bernard Ferrand. He checked its contents: his Geneva bank account number and a power of attorney for Bernard, along with a short note saying, ‘Thank you and good luck’. He gazed at it for a few moments, then screwed it up with a shrug and lobbed it into the wastepaper basket. Next to the envelope sat an apple and a skipping rope, still in its colourful plastic wrapping. A poor copy of Van Gogh’s
hung on the olive-green wall. The bathroom light was still on. A notice on the back of the door informed guests of the fire drill, room rates, mealtimes and so on.

Was it him that creaked or the bed, as he extricated himself from the sheets? He rubbed his neck. Wretched trapped nerves. His knees were like banister knobs. His calves were dry and hairy like crab claws, his toenails hard
as ancient ivory, like the claws of an aged dog. He yawned, got up and raised a corner of the curtain. The same pallid light outside as in. The clouds were low, clinging like tufts of cotton wool to the mountains encircling Vals-
, Ucel and Saint-Julien-du-Serre. It was impossible to tell what lay beyond. Between the streaks of rain running down the window, he could just about make out the muddy waters of the Volane flowing past the

‘It was too good to last. The forecast says it’s going to carry on raining all week.’

‘You’re the one who wanted to take the waters. We’ll just have to go to the pictures.’

This was a conversation Simon had overheard the previous evening, from the neighbouring table in the hotel restaurant. A retired couple: the wife shaking her head over the menu, the husband hiding behind
Le Dauphiné.
The front page was taken up with the news of the death of a well-known film producer, pictured sporting a dazzling display of dentures and a glitzy starlet on each arm.

Simon tucked into his Vichyssoise and fillets of sole and saved the apple for later, which is to say, now. He bit into it. A little floury. Disappointed, he put it down and went into the bathroom.

He had still not worked out the shower. It was a
between freezing-cold or boiling-hot water. Perhaps because his body sensed that it had already been deserted, it refused to respond to his brain’s orders. The glass tumbler slipped from his hands and smashed on the tiled floor. He knocked his elbow, banged his knee and cut himself
shaving. All he saw in the mirror now was the outline of a blurred face seeking anonymity. A dab of aftershave and that was it, done. He changed his underwear out of respect for the people who would soon be dealing with his corpse.

Once dressed, he paced the few steps from the window to the bed, from the bed back to the window. Then he took the skipping rope out of its packaging. The brightly coloured box showed a little girl in a pink dress playing in a daisy-strewn meadow. He had bought it the day before in the souvenir shop next to the hotel, just before it closed. The shop assistant had smiled at her last, curious sale of the day. The rope was white, with red handles. He tested its strength by tugging on it sharply. ‘Made in China’, he read with suspicion. Then he placed the chair underneath the frosted-glass ceiling light with its stylised tulips, and clambered onto it. He carefully tied one end of the rope around the hook on the ceiling and looped the other around his neck. He was perfectly calm. He was not quite sure what to do with his hands. He clasped them behind his back and waited, wearily watching the raindrops streaking down the windowpane.


Maybe it was sleeping too long beside his mother’s cold body, or else it was the permanently damp atmosphere that had made Bernard feel so out of sorts – stiff, sniffling, fuzzy-headed. What was it with these old folk, loading their dirty work onto him as if he were some mule? It was a good thing Fiona and Violette had stayed put. Still, hey ho, better get on with the job.

The lift took Bernard up to the fourth floor. The doors opened and a bell pinged. The corridor was empty. His footsteps were muffled by the brown, leaf-patterned carpet which seemed to go on for ever. 401, 402, 403 … He sneezed and then blew his nose as quietly as he could. 404, 405, 406. He was a couple of minutes early. Monsieur Marechall was a stickler for punctuality. He waited. Water dripped off his cagoule onto his shoes. Eight o’clock on the dot. Very gently, he turned the handle of the door which opened without the slightest creak. Just as planned,
Monsieur Marechall was standing on the chair, facing the window, hands behind his back like a naughty schoolboy made to stand in the corner. He hadn’t flinched, though he knew Bernard had come in. Took guts.

Apart from a ripple along the curtain folds, nothing moved. It was like looking at a photograph. Snatches of conversation from the road outside, a shrill laugh, a car door slamming, an engine starting up. The last sound jolted Bernard into action. Two steps forward. He closed his eyes and kicked the chair from under Monsieur Marechall’s feet. A cracking sound but no cry, just the crash of the chair on the floor and a whoosh of displaced air. Bernard remembered a wooden puppet he had had when he was little; you pulled a string and its arms and legs jigged about. He waited until all he could hear was a rhythmic creaking that grew softer and softer before he opened one eye. One of Simon’s shoes had fallen off, an expensive loafer deformed by a bunion. Bernard did not dare look up. He collected the cash, keys and car documents from the table, along with the envelope, as agreed. He was hungry and bit into the half-eaten apple. Tasteless. It was hard to find a decent apple these days. He sneezed again. They were saying it would rain all week. He left the room and shut the door behind him. No point saying goodbye to a dead man. At the end of the corridor, Bernard found the lift in use. He took the stairs.


They had met a few days earlier on a park bench beside the Volane, opposite the casino. It was a Saturday, some time around 11 a.m. A bravely struggling sun made the landscape look like a naïve painting. The trees were green, the flowers pink, yellow and red, the sky blue and the shadows grey. The pathways were teeming with people, as wedding parties gathered at the foot of the grand stone steps – the perfect spot to line up the families in front of the camera. It was a little bit like paradise, with everyone dressed up, perfumed and polished like the best china, all kissing each other or crying with happiness.

‘Could you all move in a bit please? And a bit more? The lady with the blue hat, could you take a step back? Thanks, that’s great! Now just the bride and groom please, among the roses.’

The photographer was a true professional; he had no qualms about destroying the flowerbeds or tyrannising his models to ensure that this would truly be the most beautiful day of their lives. 

‘Get down on bended knee please, sir – that’s it, like Prince Charming. Smile, smile! Take his hand … Perfect!’

The fixed grimaces on the newlyweds’ faces suggested either they desperately needed to pee or their new shoes were rubbing. The groom’s suit looked stiff as a board, while his bride stood surrounded by masses of netting that could have been spun from a candyfloss machine. Clinging to the train like limpets, the bridesmaids twisted their ankles tottering in their first pair of heels. Mothers dabbed their eyes, fathers puffed out their chests with pride, kids played catch, sending up eddies of dust. Groups of spa visitors, recognisable from the cups in wicker holders dangling from straps slung over their shoulders, mingled with the families and took pictures, condescending to share in the simple rituals of the indigenous population.

‘Isn’t this lovely?’

‘You think so?’

‘Well, yes. Seeing all these people so happy, it’s nice, isn’t it?’

‘How do you know they’re happy?’

‘You can tell.’

‘You can’t trust appearances. It’s usually all for show. What about you, are you happy?’

‘Depends … yes, I think so.’

‘Are you married?’


‘What happened to your hand?’

‘An accident at work. One of the machines. Lost two fingers.’


‘It hurts a bit, but it’s only my little finger and fourth
finger. I never used them. Plus it’s my left hand and I’m right-handed.’

‘Well, that’s all right then. You just lost a bit of weight.’

‘It was my fault. I’d had a bit to drink. I didn’t use the safety guard. But my boss is a good guy and he’s taking me back, in a different job … The pay’s not so good, but at least it’s work. I’ve been lucky!’

‘A real stroke of luck, I’m sure! Let me introduce myself. I’m Simon Marechall.’

‘Bernard Ferrand. Are you here for the spa?’

‘Are you joking? Do I look like one of those decrepit old crocks?’ Simon asked, horrified. ‘Just look at them with those ridiculous sunhats, the silly cups round their necks, their baggy shorts and knock-knees. Their bandy legs are like battered Louis XV chairs: it’s an antiques market! They should have dust covers put over them. No, no,’ he concluded, ‘I’m just passing through. What about you?’

‘Um, just passing through too, while my hand heals. My mother lives in Vals. We don’t see each other very often so I thought I’d make the most of my time off.’

‘So there are people who really live here. I thought they must be film extras. You know the area then?’

‘Not very well. I live in Bron, near Lyon. I’m not from here; I just come now and then to see my mother.’

‘Is there much to do?’

‘There’s the casino. You can go for walks, visit the Château de Cros, see the volcanic rocks. Then there’s Jean Ferrat, of course.’

‘Jean Ferrat, the singer?’

‘Yes, he’s from Antraigues. Sometimes you see him at the market on Sunday mornings.’

‘That’s terrific!’

‘You like Jean Ferrat then?’

‘Very much. Do you?’

‘Not specially.’

‘Bit before your time, I expect.’

‘It’s more that I’ve heard my mother singing his songs so often, it’s almost like he’s a friend of the family.’

Laughing, Simon took a tissue out of his pocket to wipe his sunglasses. He had grey eyes, the colour of steel: cold and hard.

‘I like you very much, young man. How old are you?’

‘I’ll be twenty-two next month.’

‘How would you like to have lunch with me?’

‘I can’t, I have to go back to my mother’s. I’m already late and I need to pick up some bread.’

‘What a shame. How about this evening?’

‘Um, OK.’

‘Do you know of any good restaurants?’

‘Chez Mireille is supposed to be good. I think it’s a bit pricey but …’

‘Don’t worry about that, it’ll be my treat. Tonight at seven thirty then. Come and meet me at the Grand Hôtel de Lyon. Simon Marechall, room 406.’

‘OK then, thanks.’

Simon’s hand was cold, dry and tense. With his black shades back on, Simon seemed to Bernard like the night glaring down, though in fact the older man was slightly shorter than him. One set off towards the hotel district, the other in the direction of the old town.

BOOK: How's the Pain?
3.86Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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