In the hospital parking lot, I quickly unload Monsieur Pozzo's folding wheelchair, open the passenger side door, carry the favorite for the Oscar for Best Actor and bluntly cut off one of the motorcycle cops who offered help.
“Absolutely not, my friend. This man is as fragile as an egg!”
“Ahhhh,” said the dying man.
I pushed him toward the ER entrance at a jog while yelling back to the cops: “It's okay now, you can go! If he doesn't die, I won't file a complaint against you!”
We waited for them to leave before walking back out: we weren't in the right place for the conference. The boss was laughing harder than he'd laughed in weeks.
“So, who's the best?”
“You, Abdel, it's still you!”
“Hey, hey . . . you, on the other hand, you didn't look like you were having an attack at all! What was that face?”
“Abdel, have you ever seen
“Haven't seen it, no. But thanks to you, I know the story, thank you very much.”
“I was doing Violetta, at the end . . .”
And he sings.
“Gran Dio! Morir si giovine . . . ”
You count time for tetraplegics like you do for dogs: one year
of life is actually equal to seven. Philippe Pozzo di Borgo had his accident three years earlier at the age of forty-two. Three times seven equals twenty-one added on: so in 1996, you could say that he was sixty-three years old. Still, he didn't look like AgÃ©canonix, the really old guy in the AstÃ©rix comic, all small, all shriveled, his heart as dry as his hair . . . The count had the look of a lord and the spirit of a twenty-year-old.
“Monsieur Pozzo, you need a woman.”
“A woman, Abdel? Mine is dead, remember?”
“We're going to find another. Okay, it won't be the same, but it'll be better than nothing.”
“But what would I do to the poor thing?”
“You'll talk to her sweetly, like Cyrano de Bergerac to Roxanne.”
“Bravo Abdel! I see my literature lessons are bearing fruit!”
“You'll teach me to read, I'll teach you to live.”
I invite friends to come over. AÃ¯cha, a small brunette with a large bust, both beautiful and a nurse at the same time, understood the situation. During her first visit, we all had a drink together. The next day, I left early. The day after that, she lay down on the bed. For a while, Monsieur Pozzo and she slept in the bed together. AÃ¯cha didn't want money or presents. She was interested in this man who could speak so well, but she wasn't a gold digger . . . He had no illusions: he wasn't going to fall in love with her, nor she with him, but they had some nice times together. AÃ¯cha breathed calmly, he felt her breath, the warmth of her body, she calmed him. There were a few others afterward, professional companions, happy to work and have a rest at the same time.
I warned them: “You have to be gentle with my boss, and talk politely. Spit out your chewing gum before you come here and watch your languageâno talking like a truck driver!”
Monsieur Pozzo slowly got over the death of his wife. Very slowly . . . Sometimes I caught him staring into space, a disembodied soul, the spectator entirely disconnected from the joys of life, and hopeless to someday share in them. Despite AÃ¯cha and the heady scents of his temporary companions, he wasn't really any better. BÃ©atrice had been gone for several months, Laurence was on vacation, the kids were withering in Paris. I suggested a little trip.
“Monsieur Pozzo, don't you have a little place in the South?”
“A little place . . . no, I don't know what you . . . Oh, yes, there's La Punta in Corsica. Our family sold it to the departmental
council a few years ago but the tower is still ours to use, next to the family vault.”
“In a cemetery, that sounds like fun . . . Is that all you've got to offer?”
“That's all, yes.”
“Well, let's do it! I'll pack the bags.”
There are eight of us packed into the cattle wagon (it had to be done: we couldn't all fit into the Jaguar). CÃ©line and the kids are coming along, of course, but there's also Victor, Monsieur Pozzo's nephew; his sister Sandra; and her son, ThÃ©o. It's hot, but not hot enough yet. We only turn on the AC from time to time and nobody complains. A tetraplegic is always cold. We cover him with blankets, hats, wool, it's never enough. I saw a lot of them in Kerpape, at Morbihan, the physical rehabilitation center where Monsieur Pozzo normally goes for his annual checkup. At first light, the wheelchairs line up in front of the south-facing window and stay there. In the wagon, Philippe Pozzo di Borgo puts on a brave face for his kids. I know he's still mourning his wife, that he hates all of us all a little for being there when she isn't. We sweat, our odors mix, but at least he isn't cold.
We cover the miles without speeding. Each of us takes a turn sighing, except for me. CÃ©line just opens an eye and stretches.
“Look, we're at MontÃ©limar . . . can we stop and get some nougat?”
I grumble that if we start pulling over every time a culinary specialty becomes available, we'll never get there . . .
She doesn't say anything, I think she's pouting a little. And then:
“Abdel, is that smoke normal?”
I look on either side of the highway, I don't see anything.
“Did you see a forest fire or something?”
“No, I'm talking about the smoke pouring out of the hood. That's strange, right?”
It's bad even. The engine's dead. I had wanted to get rid of the cattle wagon once and for allâwell, now it's done. It sits immobilized in the emergency lane. I'm alone with four children, two women and a tetraplegic in August. It's now 104 degrees in the shade, and there are still 120 miles to Marseille, where we're supposed to set sail for Corsica in less than four hours, everything's fine . . . They're all laughing at me, lighthearted, grinning. I forgot to check the oil. Or the water. Or bothâwhat do I know? I keep cool.
“There's got to be car insurance papers somewhere in the doors, right? Yes, here it is! Ha, you're going to love this: it's only valid for another week. Lucky we didn't break down on the way back, huh?”
The boss is cracking up.
I take out my mobile phone, an accessory already available to the greater population at that time, and start by calling a tow truck. Then I try rental car companies. In vain. The summer's in full swing, there are tourists in MontÃ©limar like there are everywhere else, we're not going to find anything. I contact the carmaker's customer service. I scream into the telephone saying it's inadmissible to leave a tetraplegic on the side of the
road. I use my famous line, still the same, regarding my very special passenger:
“He's a tetraplegic, you know what that means? Te-tra-ple-gic!”
Everyone's laughing back in the car, which is still exhaling a stream of black smoke.
“Abdel, why are you getting angry? Aren't we lucky to be here on the road in the land of nougat?”
Customer service offers us a refund for the cost of the trip from MontÃ©limar to Marseille by taxi. But we're on our own for getting to MontÃ©limar. Just then, the tow truck arrives. Everybody on board! The mechanic, a guy in his sixties who seems to have had way too much of the local specialty given the size of his waist, expresses his displeasure with a chipper tone.
“Oh no, I can only take two or three people in the truck. And anyway, you just can't do that.”
“We're going to stay in the cattle wagon.”
“Oh, no, that's against the rules, sir. You can't do that.”
I drag him by the collar all the way to the sliding door on the wagon and show him the wheelchair.
“You want me to push him for fifteen miles in the emergency lane?”
“Oh, no, you're right sir. You can't do that, either.”
“Okay, I can't do that . . . so let's load up!”
Alexandra, Victor, and ThÃ©o climb into the driver's side of the tow truck while he takes care of getting the cattle wagon onto the platform. We haven't gotten Monsieur Pozzo out. Laetitia, Robert-Jean, CÃ©line, and I try to hold his chair upright during the maneuver. We pitch hard . . . the kids are splitting their sides. They imitate the mechanic's accent: “You can't do
that, you can't do that!” That will be the theme for this vacation. I think I catch Philippe Pozzo di Borgo laughing, too, and genuinely.
We get to the port of Marseille. Just in time: the boat's leaving in twenty minutes. Theoretically . . . I've paid for the two cabs and, just when they leave, CÃ©line starts to worry.
“For a huge vacation departure day, there don't seem to be many people, right? Did everyone board already? The boat looks empty . . .”
It's trueâthe white and yellow cruise ship looks completely abandoned. There's no one on the dock besides us and the vehicle ramp is raised . . . I run to go ask the port authority. I get back to our little group that's found a shady spot in the also deserted port.
“You're gonna laughâthe port authority's closed.”
“Really? There's nothing written anywhere?”
“Oh yes, there is . . . it says the shipping company's on strike, indefinitely.”
Nobody says a word for several seconds. Until Victor's little voice justly pipes up: “You can't do that!”