Rose jumped off the bus and hurried across the street, paying no attention to traffic, although it was dense in both directions. She was wearing a pale cotton skirt that day and a pretty top that showed off her shoulders. A black jacket was slung across her handbag, and her heels were an unmissably bright cherry red. From a distance, it was hard to guess her age, but the firmness of her figure and the fluidity of her movements suggested a certain youthfulness. Her legs, in particular, were still beautiful. Cars braked as she passed, causing a ripple in the smooth rush-hour flow, and a bearded man in a Ford Escort honked his horn for the sake of it. Rose didn’t even notice. She continued on her way, feet moving quickly, indifferent to her surroundings. She took off her sunglasses and slipped them into her purse just as she was opening the door of the Royal. The clattering echo of her heels faded to silence as she entered the familiar darkness of her local bar. She checked her watch. It was still early. Rose felt happy. She was thirsty. “Hi, everyone!”“Hey,” replied Fred, the owner.
While he poured her a beer, Rose opened the newspaper. She came here every day, on her way from work, and always sat at the bar, legs proudly crossed at the knees, to sink her first lager of the night. It was usually about seven o’clock when she got here. Often it was dark outside, except during summer, when Rose would feel a tinge of remorse.
The Royal was a narrow dive with dark walls and a long bar, three draft-beer pumps, and large, dusty bay windows offering a view of a Chinese restaurant, a shoe repair shop, and a convenience store. In the back they had foosball and pool. The furniture was from the seventies, in wood and blue leatherette. The restrooms were on the right as you went in; they were pretty clean, with stickers all over the walls. The atmosphere in the bar was eternally late-afternoon. The clientele could vary, but the music that came through the speakers was always rock. As soon as she swallowed her first mouthful of beer, Rose felt something loosen inside her chest. The beer was cold, the pages of the newspaper were crumpled, and beneath her left shoe she could feel the solidity of the metal footrest. Those three sensations were enough to make her feel at home, in her place. She licked her finger to turn the page and Fred asked her what was happening.
She shrugged. “Same old same old.”
Rose was almost fifty, but she didn’t mind too much. She was aware of her attributes: her figure was still good and her legs were gorgeous. Her face, on the other hand, was showing signs of wear. It wasn’t fat or especially gaunt, but time had left its mark of tears and sleepless nights. Her mouth was complicated by wrinkles. And her hair wasn’t as thick and luxurious as it had been, part of that sensual abundance that had made her so attractive. She dyed it, so at least nobody could tell she was going gray.
She had reached that difficult age where what remains to you of youthful vigor and electricity seems to be vanishing under the rising tide of days. Sometimes, during a meeting or while traveling on public transport, she would find herself hiding her hands, which she no longer recognized. Certain evenings, looking in the mirror, she would tell her reflection, Time to start taking better care of yourself. At the supermarket, she’d spend a small fortune on creams and shampoos. Words like “firming,” “cellulite,” “hematite,” and “collagen” had become part of her vocabulary. She’d enrolled in a water aerobics class and occasionally she would make a resolution to give up alcohol. She would also follow special diets based on vegetables, white meat, and nuts. But each time, she found herself surrendering to feelings of Oh, what’s the point? It was a little late for this kind of stuff, wasn’t it? Besides, it probably wouldn’t make much difference. Rose had married at twenty. She’d had two kids soon after that—Bastien and Grégory—and then a divorce without major complications. She’d had various bosses, adventures, symbolic promotions, health problems, meetings in the principal’s office. These days she was entitled to an annual bonus and a company car—a white Fiat Punto that she hardly ever used. She lived in a rent-controlled apartment and her boys had found jobs and girlfriends. She slept badly and had stopped making plans for vacations. Sometimes it seemed like she was living her life on autopilot. Her happiest moments were always here, sitting at the bar, chatting with Fred, feeling the first glimmers of intoxication. And then there was her best friend, Marie-Jeanne, who came by on Tuesdays and Thursdays.
“Is she coming tonight?”
“Should be, yeah,” said Fred.
“There’s nobody here, though. She won’t be happy.” “I’ve told her before she should make appointments. She never listens.”
Twice a week the Royal was transformed into a hairdressing salon. Marie-Jeanne offered her services for ten euros a pop, and she had a drink between each customer, so it was always best to get your hair cut early in the evening. She and Rose had a lot in common: they were the same age, they were both sick of men, they’d brought up their kids single-handedly, and they felt like they were treading water and wished they weren’t. Anyway they had nothing to be ashamed of. They’d both made it through good times and bad. And they had each other.
Rose finished her first glass and ordered another. A few more customers had turned up and she was in a happy mood. When Fred said something about the latest railway workers’ strike bringing the country to a stand-still yet again, Rose just rolled her eyes—proof that she was in good spirits. Marie-Jeanne finally arrived just after nine, as Rose was finishing her third beer.
“What happened to you?”
“Oh God, what a day! Traffic jams practically nonstop from Pompey to here. All those damn trucks . . .”
The hairdresser looked around for potential customers. It wasn’t a busy night but it wasn’t dead either. As always, Serge Kalt and the Keuss were downing beers at the end of the bar. Apart from them, it was the usual crowd of marginals, drunkards, aging punks, people who hated their jobs, and people who hadn’t had a job in a long time. Nothing to write home about. Marie-Jeanne didn’t hold out much hope for those thirtysomethings sitting at a table talking about architecture and drinking La Chouffe. And then there was that guy in glasses chatting up a woman ten years his junior. Sensing a Tinder date, Marie-Jeanne sighed.
“Nothing but hipsters and hoboes . . . I bet you I don’t make a cent tonight.”
“There’s still time.”
“Yeah . . . I’m not going to be cutting hair at two in the morning, though, am I?”
Marie-Jeanne ordered a pastis to drown her sorrows and grabbed the newspaper from the countertop.
“I don’t believe it. After all this time! God, I’m so sick of reading about this story . . .”
She slapped the newspaper’s front page with the back of her hand, indicating another headline about the Grégory Affair. Thirty years after the murder, Jacqueline and Marcel Jacob were being questioned, while Murielle Bolle was finally going to speak out. Rose still remembered the first photograph appearing in L’Est Républicain one October morning. A gendarme carrying the child’s body, little Grégory’s hat pulled down over his face, his hands and feet tied together. She saw the boy’s tiny shoes again, size 9s at a guess. Five hours before that, the poor kid had still been playing with his toy cars on a pile of sand in his parents’ backyard. And suddenly there he was, skin like ice in the glare of the flash, a little boy turned to meat. When the story began, Bastien must have been about five, the same age as the victim, more or less. Like many people in the area, Rose had followed each episode with growing avidity. Of course the crime horrified her.
But there was something else, something deeper. She recognized those people. She’d grown up in the Meuse, in a family of the same type, relationships pockmarked with silences and grudges, a small town in the back of beyond, with two factories and houses lined up across narrow streets, a town full of prejudices and animosities that went back to the Occupation. She understood the way those people moved, the way they kept quiet about things, the heavy accents, the stubbornly shaking heads. The journalists made fun of them, but those people existed. They were the country’s cannon fodder, the lifeblood of its factories, they were the masses who watched television and didn’t vote, the crowds at funfairs, the reality of society. Rose hated the way they were portrayed in the media. She wouldn’t have said anything either, in their shoes. It wasn’t anyone else’s business. But still . . . that poor kid. She imagined how cold his hands must have been, his waterlogged anorak, his black hair and pale skin, and her throat tightened.
After her second pastis, Marie-Jeanne started to grow impatient. The idea that she had come all this way for nothing drove her crazy. She needed to work, at least enough to pay for her gas, and in the end she fell back on Rose.
“Come on, I’ll trim your ends. Half-price.”
“No, no way.”
“Seriously, look, they’re splitting.”
“Leave my hair alone. I don’t want you wrecking it with your scissors.”
“Just a quick trim. It’ll only take a few seconds.” Rose kept saying no, but soon she found herself sitting in the middle of the room facing a full-length mirror that Marie-Jeanne lugged around with her everywhere she went, a towel over her shoulders, while her friend’s hands fluttered around her head.
“You’re cutting it too short . . .”
“Don’t worry. You won’t even notice the difference.” There was no point arguing. While she waited Rose eyed her reflection and felt the same fast-fading surprise as always. She was not particularly vain and did not suffer from the melancholy that afflicted women for whom aging came as a sort of betrayal. But she did keep an image of herself somewhere deep inside, and the mirror’s contradiction of this came, each time, as an unpleasant reality check. Marie-Jeanne kept working confidently, indifferently, while the drinkers who had briefly shown an interest in the spectacle soon went back to their conversations. Rose was left alone with the mirror’s observations on the passing of time. The idea amused her and she smiled to herself. After all, she was proud of her own unflinching gaze, her ability to stare at her reflection without telling herself lies, without pretending or denying the facts or dreaming up consolations like so many of the women she knew. At least she could be glad about one thing. The trials she’d been through had rewarded her with the unquestionable gift of her own resilience. Rose was a strong woman now. You only had to see the way she handled herself with men.
The last guy she’d gone out with for any length of time was luckier than he realized; he’d had a narrow escape. A balding man in his forties, Thierry worked for an energy services company and divided his spare time between his blended family, his Netflix subscription, and his local cycling club, which had been planning a hypothetical ride up to the Col du Galibier for the past two years. He was a quiet, considerate man. Not particularly good-looking but at least he wouldn’t hurt a fly. Or so she’d thought until one night when he was watching the news and Rose was talking on the phone and he’d told her to shut her mouth because he couldn’t hear what the anchorman was saying. After that they’d got into a muddled dispute, with the TV blaring in the background, and at one point Rose had sensed that Thierry was close to raising his hand to her. She’d recognized that tension in his face, the ugliness of men whose arguments have run dry. It was always the same old story. You touched the nerve of his pride and his fist came down on you. In the end Thierry had just stormed out, slamming the door behind him.
After he’d left, Rose had not been able to do anything for a while. But she hadn’t cried. Then she’d got in the car and driven up to the Plateau de Brabois to take her mind off things. It was a clear night and the cold, bracing air had made her feel better. She’d made her decision. The next day she would buy a small revolver from an American website, a .38 caliber, five rounds, 650 euros. It was a lot of money, and that in itself told a story.
After an eleven-day wait, the gun was delivered to a nearby pickup point. She tore off the bubble-wrap and was stunned by the object’s almost supernatural beauty. It was silver and black, plump and incredibly solid. She watched YouTube videos on how to handle the gun, then took it out to some woods on the edge of town. The first shot made her heart pound like a first date. Even after that, she barely got used to it. Rose had not been an especially good shot and had made no real attempt to improve. She’d just made sure that she could keep her hand still when she fired it. The main thing was that she wouldn’t look ridiculous pointing that thing at a man’s face. Fear had to switch sides.
For weeks she’d waited for Thierry to yell at her again. It was exciting. She imagined his face, his barking, and then the look in his eyes when she aimed the revolver’s black muzzle at him. We’d see where the balance of power was then. She’d known her share of bastards, thugs, and morons. Very few of them had dared to really hit her. But all of them—because they were stronger than her, always angry, and because they felt they had the right—had made her submit to their will. The revolver would enable her to put a stop to this cycle. She was determined. She’d pull the trigger if she had to.With Thierry, however, nothing had happened. One day he’d just stopped coming around, stopped calling her. After two months of being together, he simply vanished from her life. Another bastard, then, but not the kind that deserved to die.