TIME TRAVELLER, PART I
Of course I recognized the house, eventually. I was born there, after all, in the Year of Our Lord 1669. But it took me some time to understand what I was seeing. If what they told me is true, I saw the world that my great-I-don't-know-how-many-times grandchildren will live in. It was the strangest few hours of my life. If it was not a divine vision – and I do not think it was – then at least I am sure that it was not a diabolic one. The curé thinks it was nothing but a dream occasioned by a blow to the head, but even though neither of us will ever know the truth, he helped me gather my thoughts and write this for posterity. We argued about grammar and the nature of modern, standard French, but I think most people should be able to read this.
When the Sieur de Retournay read the curé's fair copy – everyone for miles around had heard the story, after all – he was intrigued, and paid for it to be set in type and printed as a pamphlet in Loudun; because, as the world knows, M. Renaudot was the first man in all France to publish what many now call a News Paper, under the patronage of the late Cardinal Richelieu. But this is beside the point. The press told me they printed 200 copies, which may even have been the truth. One copy is enclosed with this letter. There should be others – at the very least – at Retournay and among the Church records in both Moncontour and St. Croix in Loudun.
What I write is not exactly news, and not exactly not-news. Today it is a story; tomorrow it may be prediction; in thirty decades' time; it can be verified; four hundred years hence, it may be history, or once again merely a story. It was written in the days and weeks after I recovered; that is to say, in 1715; so I am 45.
My son Marie-Paul was was always better known for brawn than for brain, even as a small boy. He had not improved by the age of 17, which was when all this took place. That's why he didn't look when he heaved the hay-bale down from the hay-loft into the courtyard; that's why it hit me, his father; and that's why it knocked me to the ground. I did not appear to be injured, other than being unconscious, and I was breathing well, so he and my second son and my only darling daughter and my even more darling wife carried me indoors and laid me on the best bed while one of the younger children – they argue about which one it was – was sent to fetch the curé. I cannot verify any of this, because I was not there. I can remember looking up and seeing the hay-bale, and Marie-Paul framed in the doorway, and the blasphemy on his lips – “Oh, Calice”, for which I beat him later – but that was it. The story I tell here took place three hundred years later, in 2015.
Or at least, they say it did. I'm not sure who “they” were (or will be). They were an elderly couple, whose French was hard to understand: time and again, we had to ask one another to repeat things. Or perhaps no-one speaks (spoke, will speak) very good French in 2015. At least not our dialect. I think they were a bit deaf, too. This much for an introduction: now read the the pamphlet.
* * * * *
I awoke fully dressed, lying on a bed. A very luxurious bed, soft, but without sheets or blankets, though there were double pillows firmer than I know, apparently not of normal down, though very soft. Its owner was clearly a rich man, and I wondered if I had been taken next door to the house of my master; though I thought it unlikely, as he had never previously showed me any such mark of favour. Also, I did not recognize the room. It was similar in size and shape to my own living room, with the single massive beam, but the ceiling was plastered as were the walls, which were richly hung with pictures of extraordinary detail: again, the mark of a rich man, and one with with considerable if unusual taste. One wall was covered entirely with books, and my heart was torn between joy and envy. Not since I had left Paris, over a third of a century before, had I seen so many books in one place. Normally I do not regret leaving the novitiate, because I love my wife and children so much, but if there is one thing that can bring tears of regret to my eyes, it is the sight of large numbers of books.
The fireplace was curious too. It was in the same place as in my own room, but much more ornate and filled with what appeared to be an iron stove with a huge glass window in the front. In it a fire burned, though the room was hardly cold. A single tall window illuminated the room, again as in the same place as in my own room, but exquisitely glazed with the clearest of glass and beautifully fitted: there were no other windows. I did not recognize the view out of the window: it did not appear to be the Moncontour in which I had spent all but five years of my life upon this earth.
Of course, I was dazed. A bale of hay, thrown from the hay-loft by a son who is not very bright, will do that. Sometimes I think I would be happier if he did not look quite so exactly like me. Or maybe not. As soon as my head began to clear, I called as loudly as I could for my wife or my daughter: "Marie-France, Marie-France!" My words came out only as a croak, but within seconds my hosts were there.
As I have already said, they were elderly: well over sixty, I should say. They were very brightly dressed, he in blue trousers and what appeared to be a red undershirt, though without buttons. More surprisingly, she was in similar blue trousers, and what appeared to be a man's shirt, though of unusual cut (very tight under the arms). She wore no bonnet, and her hair was cut short, as if she was accustomed to wearing a wig; though I saw no wigs in the house.
I managed to swing myself upright, though I was still dizzy. The floor had wonderfully patterned black and white tiles, as good as anything I ever saw in Paris, but they were clearly old, crazed with age but not broken. The bed on which I found myself turned out to be a sort of padded, armless bench, upholstered in bright red, long enough for a man to lie full length. I felt ashamed of my shabby clothes in such surroundings, and rather nervous. To tell the truth, I was also confused and in a way annoyed that I was not in my own house, or the house of one of my neighbours. If I was too ill or badly injured to be at home, why had I not been taken to the curé's quarters just across the road?
The first thing they said was, “What happened?” I explained about Marie-Paul. They just nodded. “And do you think you are all right?” This time it was my turn to nod. Already I was feeling less dizzy. The gentleman said, “Will you take a glass of wine?” I remember the word: glass, not cup or beaker or stoup. When I nodded once more, the lady reached over and passed me a stemless pewter beaker, elegantly cast with hunting scenes. She said, “We thought you might need it when you woke up.” Then she and her husband raised similar beakers and said, “Santé”.
To cover my confusion, and to gain time, I smiled and sipped at the wine. It was excellent: not as good as the best I have ever had, but much better than what we drink every day in Moncontour. It seemed, however, to be at full strength, not the way we normally drink it with water. It was just as well I was only sipping, or I should have coughed.
We sat in an awkward silence. Somehow I felt it was my turn to break it. “My lord, my lady, I am sorry. I am very confused. Where am I? How did I get here” They smiled. “You are in our salon. We... we found you in our courtyard. You appeared to have been knocked out. We were just about able to carry you in here.”
I looked at them anew. He looked a bit like my own father, though fatter, more ruddy of face, and bearded. When I thought of my own father's strength, and even my grandfather's, despite the famines they had lived through, it seemed possible, no matter how unlikely. But I could not see how it would be in their courtyard. I asked: “In your courtyard? Can I see?”
“Of course.” I was a lot less dizzy now, but still not sure of myself. I set my wine down on a small table, old and worn, but still elegantly surfaced with tooled red leather. The gentleman helped me to my feet; the lady passed me a walking stick. We went out of the door and into a hall, very cold, with more books – more in that book-case alone than the curé had in his study across the street – and more pictures. There were four doors entering into that hall: the one we had just used, one straight ahead, one on the left, impressively glazed, and another on the right, set in a wall that appeared to be all glass, though I soon realized that there was a half-wall below the windows. Most remarkably, the glass in the glass wall was in huge sheets, and water-clear, the biggest being three feet on a side. The view through the windows was at once familiar and unfamiliar: I could not place it.
We walked through the glazed door into the courtyard. The lady gestured down, to a surface mostly of old, cracked cement, but also with cobbles: “This is where we found you.” But I scarcely heard the end of her sentence, because I had looked up. There, albeit with the door closed, was the entrance to the hay-loft: the doorway that had in my most recent memory, before I woke up, been blocked by Marie-Paul mouthing “Oh, Calice”.
I should perhaps explain. That doorway is very distinctive. The arch above it was made with stone scavenged from some ancient building. I don't know where from – this sort of thing is quite common in Moncontour – but there was a stone missing, so that on the right at the bottom of the arch there is one stone that is not elegantly faceted like the others: just cut by a local mason. When I recognized that arch, I was hard put not to blaspheme for myself. Suddenly, in a rush, so much that had been half-familiar had become a great deal more familiar. The stables, yes, but they had been built over so that there was a sort of sheltered area in front of them. The steps that led up to the garden: they were familiar too, though now they had a hand-rail. But the oven was gone, and there was a much newer extension in its place. I say “newer” but nothing was truly new: everything appeared to be at least a few decades old, or even many, and worn or even shabby. That room in which I had woken up, which had seemed so much like my own room: I suddenly realized that it was my own room. But the door had not opened onto the passageway between my house and that of Jean-Joseph: it had opened into that strange four-doored hallway.
The gentleman caught me as I staggered. Yes, this was the courtyard of my master; so how could it be someone else's? Well, this was clearly many decades after my own time, perhaps centuries. It was not just the elegant stone-built houses I had seen through the window, nor the changes I could see in front of me with my own eyes: it was also the clothes that the lady and the gentleman wore, the incredible glass in the windows, the bench on which I had woken up, the glazed fireplace. I don't know how I managed to understand all this so quickly. Perhaps it was sheer fear. But as far as I could see, we were in the future. Unsteadily I asked, “What year is this?”
The lady shook her head. “What year is it for you?”
I shook my head as if to clear it: “The Year of our Lord 1715. When is this?”
The answer came unadorned. I staggered again. Three centuries after the accident. I thought of all the advances that have – had? – been made in my own lifetime, not even half a century, and of how much faster change had been in that time than in the previous century. In another three centuries, change would surely be incomprehensible. And yet, I appeared to be comprehending it. Even so, I desperately needed more proof. I gestured towards the kitchen door. “Can I see in there, please?”
Again: “Of course.” But the window was blocked, and it was clearly no longer a kitchen. It was dark, dark, dark: the only light that came in was through the open door. All provision for cooking was gone; there were two big white cupboards and a huge white storage chest; and there were many other shelves and cupboards laden with all manner of things. The door through to my salon was blocked with shelves, but the doorway was still there: how had I not noticed it when I was lying on that bed? The ceiling was plastered – badly, cracked and water-stained – but my attention was fixed upon the floor. Yes, there were the stone flags, three centuries more worn, three centuries more polished by feet, but still utterly recognizable. If you had asked me, I should have sworn that I could not have recognized that floor from any other; but when something has been familiar for half your life, it somehow becomes a part of that life. If it had been another floor, I should have spotted the discrepancies immediately. There was nothing more to see or say. I could have asked to see the well behind the stables, but there was no point: it would be there, just as the stone flags were there. I knew where I was, and I was thirty decades out of time. How was I to survive?
The gentleman asked if I would like to sit down, but the lady put her hand on his arm. “Perhaps,” she said, “he might be happier if he could go to the church. At least it will be somewhere familiar.”
For the first time, I could not fully hold back my tears. Almost sobbing, I said, “Thank you, my lady, thank you,” and dropped on one knee to take her hand and kiss it. Then I said, “Perhaps I could see the curé? He would be a... fixed point? I am sorry but... you can imagine...?”
She shook her head sadly and pulled me gently to my feet. “I am sorry. He died five or six years ago”
“What about the new curé?” I don't know if I was still imagining that the last curé was my friend Father Julio: I was half-crazed with confusion.
“We share one priest now between three parishes. There is only one mass, every third Sunday. Otherwise it is in one of the other villages. He doesn't live here.”
“Is... are... have the Protestants taken over?” The Edict of Fontainebleu was only thirty years ago, and sometimes it seemed that anything was possible. Then it occurred to me. A lot of Huguenots had gone to other countries. Were my hosts perhaps from England or the Low Countries? It would explain their bad French. Perhaps they were Catholics who had fled persecution in their own country. This was confirmed, I thought, when she went on, “No. I just thought it might give you comfort to recite your rosary in front of the altar.”
Panic gripped my heart. I had not been carrying my rosary at the time of the accident. Yes, it would have been a great comfort, but I didn't have it with me. As if divining my thoughts she said, “If you don't have your rosary with you, I can lend you mine. Well, my mother's. Now came my tears in full flow. How could she know? How could I have been so lucky as to fall among such good Christian folk?
By now we were back in that strange entry-way. I longed to see my own familiar living-room once again, now that I knew where it was, but the oeil-de-boeuf window that should have been on my left was gone and who knew what I might see in JJ's house? I longed still more to see old familiar church. The good lady gave me the rosary, light and delicate, an old lady's rosary, along with a small, soft kerchief to wipe my eyes. My vision was still blurred with tears when her husband opened the door; and I gasped.
Of course I looked automatically to the right, and there was the Church of St Nicholas. The windows were not familiar, and the roofs had clearly been recovered – slate on the tower, tiles on the main body of the church – but it was still unforgettable. My vision blurred still further as we stepped out of the door. This was probably as well, as there was so much that was unfamiliar. The elegant modern building that I had seen through the window was only one of several superbly built stone aedifices. It bore a sign saying, LA POSTE. There were more beautiful stone buildings to the left, between the street leading to Martaizé and the road leading up to the Donjon, and there yet more on the right. My master's house had clearly been rebuilt, and was now one side of a little three-sided square with one side open to the Grand'Rue. Opposite was the old brasserie, now re-named Le Donjon, and between the two, facing on the Grand'Rue, was a magnificent building with a façade engraved HOTEL DE VILLE. My heart swelled with pride that my native Moncontour had achieved such distinction.
The other side of the Grand'Rue was however utterly confusing. There was only one crude, square building between LA POSTE and the church. I say crude, but it was well finished, though devoid of the architectural elegance of the other buildings. Between it and LA POSTE there was a narrow lane that must lead down to the river. The yew grove next to the ugly square building was familiar, but much diminished, and in front of it was some sort of statue or memorial. Between that and the church was another sort of square, that I might have taken as a continuation of the square in front of the Hôtel de Ville, except that it was full of what I took to be carriages. At least, that is what I later learned, though initially, I have to say that I took them for sheds on wheels. There were no wagon trees for horses, though I was shortly to be very surprised indeed. They were of brightly painted metal, and their wheels were very small.
The road itself also surprised me. It was beautifully surfaced with some sort of compacted black stone, perhaps tarred, and each side there were raised sidewalks in a slightly crumbling yellow stone; again, some sort of composite. It took only a minute or two to walk to the church, though the steps up to the door were lower than I remembered.
When we entered, I could hardly believe my eyes. It was so bleak. To be sure, we had not been a rich parish in my lifetime, but this was empty beyond belief. The interior was full of pews – I remembered arguing with the curé about this idea – but the altar was little more than a table and there was no rood screen or reredos. My hosts bent their knees as we entered the church, but they motioned me forward to the front pew and sat behind me. I told my rosary for three decades, but I could not concentrate. May the good God forgive me, but I thought that I owed it to Him to learn more about the world in which I found myself; for did not St. Matthew himself say, he that seeketh, findeth? My immortal soul is of course in eternal danger, but equally, a little later he said, Thy faith hath made thee whole. I had confessed the previous day, and although none of us can be sure that we are in a state of grace, I was reasonably confident that I had not fallen into sin since then, so after the fourth decade I stood; bowed my knee to the altar; and turned around.
My hosts were seated two or three rows behind me but did not appear to be in a state of prayer, so I had no hesitation in walking over to them. They stood up and smiled. I said, “Thank you.” They smiled some more. We walked out of the church: I noticed that before they left, they turned to the altar and bent their knees. Neither of them made a full genuflection but I put this down to their age: even at 45 I do not find it as easy as I used to.
Hesitantly I asked, “Can I go to St. Jouin de Marnes? Because that was where I studied when I was young. It was where I learned to read; it was where I formed the intention...” I broke off: I hesitated to admit that I had been a postulant and even, for a few months, a novice. But that was a time of famine. One of them, anyway. My hosts told me that there were thirteen famines in the reign of our King, Le Roi Soleil, but I am not sure how many of them were in my lifetime, or where they were. I think we were luckier in Moncontour than in much of France, though I still have more acquaintance with famine than I would like. The walk to Paris had been hard enough: the walk back was far, far, harder. As a novice in Paris I had had short commons, and by report, things were worse in Moncontour, but even so I determined to walk home.
Part of it was because in dreams or perhaps nightmares I saw the pale, beautiful face of Marie-France before me. She was hungry. Part of me knew that if I went back I would just be another mouth to feed, but another part of me knew that I could bring a strong back and willing hands to the house. At that point I was only seventeen, and I never thought of marrying her. Well, I did, but only in dreams waking and sleeping for which I afterwards did penance.
On the road, people were kind: too kind. They saw my clerical dress and gave me food they should have kept for themselves. This was perhaps why I found it easier to give up my vocation. It is not clear that St. Benedict ever said that to work is to pray. More accurately, I think he said “Work and pray”; and so I have attempted to do for the last thirty years and more. Whether he said it or not, I try to live by the rule: laborare est orare. Labo plus quam oro, sed tento.
By the time I was home, the worst of the famine was over, at least in Moncontour. And I was a a strong back and a willing pair of hands. My parents scolded me at first, but I could see that they were glad to have me back – I was always the strongest of their sons – and even the curé did not chastise me too much. He was – is – disappointed, to be sure, because I had been his protégé before I went to St. Jouin, but I think he was (is) also grateful to have someone with whom to dispute theology.
It would be easy to say that Marie-France tempted me, but it would not be true. Nor can I say that I tempted her. Rather, we were in love. We still are. But I speak too much of the past, or for that matter of the present. I must go back to the future.
We were outside the church by now. The lady said, “Of course we can go to St. Jouin. But you must be hungry. Would you like something to eat before we go there?”
I was torn. I was hoping I might make my confession there, and I do not like to eat before confession. But it was gone noon, and I was certainly hungry. More than the confession, though, I hesitated to impose upon them. From their girth it seemed unlikely that it was a time of famine, but even so it was February, often the hungriest time of the year. Or at least it was February in 1715, and it felt like February here. As she had done before, the lady appeared to read my mind and said, “Really, we have plenty of food. And we would very much like to share it with you.” This immediately recalled to me Hebrews 13:2, Be not forgetful to entertain strangers for thereby some have entertained angels unawares, except that it seemed to be reversed: I was apparently being entertained by angels. Even though Moncontour sometimes seems to me to be heaven on earth, this struck me as excessive. Hesitantly I said, “Thank you. You are very kind.” Then the gentleman said something I will never forget. He said, “Many years ago, a friend said, 'Don't thank me. Just do the same for someone else, one day'.” Strangers? Angels? I don't know.
Back in the entrance-hall, we went through the door of what had been JJ's house. It was very, very different though. In particular, it was smaller than it should have been: as soon as you walked in, there was a wall on the right. The room appeared to have been partitioned.
Despite this, it was magnificent. The table in the middle of the room was crude, and almost too big for the room. There were however two great cupboards and numerous shelves, and the walls were hung with pots and pans and much, much more. It appeared to be a kitchen, though there was no fire-place, and there was a basin in the far corner. I was slightly puzzled by the latter, as I had seen no drain to the street, but I just thought it must have been one of the many things I had failed to notice. The floor was richly tiled, as were the walls to half-way up. Above, the plaster-work was crude, but you could hardly see it for all that was hanging on it: pans in copper and iron. Immediately to the left of the door was a huge, well-wrought iron bottle-rack, with perhaps two dozen bottles in it. This brought home to me something I had noticed in the old kitchen, which they called “the stone flag room”: numerous bottles, and none of them wicker-wrapped or raffia'd as they were in my master's house. I could only imagine that bottles were much, much cheaper in 2015 than in 1715.
There were two matching chairs at the table, with arms, and one that did not match, without. The gentleman motioned me to sit down in one of the chairs with arms, so I did, but hesitantly. It appeared to be a room for two people, with no children and no servants, and it seemed to me that the chairs were for each of them. We looked at each other. It was awkward, as if none of us could quite think what to say to one another. The gentleman broke the silence. He said, “Look. This is difficult. We don't get many time travellers here. To be more precise, none. Until you. But we... well, we're in our home, that used to be your home, so we have the advantage. We don't know how long you are going to be here, so, um, we'll just have to... well... see how it all works.” Then he went on, “You need to know who we are, then maybe we can talk about you. That will probably be easier.”
I smiled as I bowed my head. “My lord, 'easier' is a very relative term in my situation.”
He laughed. “Au quai. It's not all that easy for us either. Before we start getting into the difficult stuff: another drink?”
Gratefully, I nodded. I was about to say, “But could I have some water with it this time?” when he said, “I'll tell you what. Do you know about sparkling wines?” I didn't have the faintest idea what he meant, unless it was some of those really brilliant clear whites from up north, so I shook my head. He said, “Don't go away!” and disappeared out of what I still regarded as JJ's front door.
His wife smiled sympathetically. “He gets like that. Don't worry. Lots of things are hard to understand, even without time travelling.” Not for the first time, I began to wonder if they had known that I would arrive: they seemed to be taking it all so calmly. But then, superficially, so was I. Before I could fully digest the thought, he was back with a strange looking bottle. He peeled metal foil from around the neck, and disengaged a wire cage around the cork. Then he opened the window; eased the cork slowly out; and then – I can only use this word – fired the cork across the road. I have to admit that I flinched. He poured a tiny libation out of the open window and muttered something under his breath. I had read of such things, but I had never seen them.
Unperturbed, he brought the bottle back to the table. While my attention had been fixed on him, the lady had fetched three glasses out of a cupboard. Not just crystal-clear glass, but tall and exquisitely cut. I was completely unable to understand the way they appeared to live: no children, no servants, many of their magnificent possessions worn and shabby, yet others perfect and exquisite like these glasses, which were at least as good as anything I had ever seen in Paris. They seemed like aristos who had fallen upon hard times; but how could they afford all these luxuries, yet have no servants?
He half-filled the three glasses. Again, as with the wine earlier: “Santé.” I joined in. But the wine, when I tried it, was like nothing else I had ever drunk. I thought: this is like drinking stars. He smiled. “Good, isn't it? This is a Spanish derivation of a French invention.” Then he went on: “Things have changed a lot since 1715. For a start, there are no more French kings, no more aristos. In the late 18th century there was a revolution. They had a great slogan: Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité.”
He watched me for a reaction. I was not sure what it should be. A slogan like that would have the intendant down like a ton of bricks on anyone who voiced it. Was this some sort of test? He continued: “It didn't take at first. There was a Terror” – I could hear the capital letter – and a restoration of the monarchy and a re-restoration of the Republic. And so forth. We're currently on the Fifth Republic.”
Republics, of course, I knew about from my Latin studies: Res Publica, the public thing. But here in France? Surely not. Who would be the ruler? He went on regardless: “And there were wars, and rumours of wars...” St. Matthew again. I remembered where it went from there: see that ye be not troubled: for all these things must come to pass but the end is not yet. He was still talking, though: “A Corsican led France into many wars almost a hundred years after your accident, but he was defeated – will be defeated, from your viewpoint – and then 99 years later again there would be what people called the War to End Wars in 1914. Except that it didn't. Did you notice that memorial in front of our front door?”
I nodded dumbly. He went on: “That was a memorial to the Great War, 1914-1919. Then, when the 1939-1945 war began, they changed its name to World War I, and called the new war World War II.”
There did not seem to be much I could say, but equally, it seemed as if I should say something. As I opened my mouth, though, he held up his hand as if to silence me, and said, “The thing is, I don't think that the wars and rumours of wars ever changed history all that much. What changed things was mostly science. Ah... You'd probably call it natural philosophy.”
My heart leapt. This, even more than the Church, had been what I had loved in Paris. This, even more than the Church, may God forgive me, had been what I had regretted giving up when I left Paris. No, not regretted: it was what I had been heartbroken about. But hearts are reparable, or perhaps we have more than one heart. I should have been more heartbroken to forsake my parents, and then, later, to have forsaken Marie-France. Against my wife and my children, natural philosophy is a feather in the balance. Even so, it is a very heavy feather.
My host laughed and shook his head. “Ah, sorry. More of this sort of thing after we've eaten and been to St. Jouin. We do not even know each other's names yet. I'm Roger. This is Frances. What's your name?”
My first reaction was sheer disbelief. His name was the same as mine; his wife's name, very close to my wife's. It was as if we were in parallel worlds, three hundred years apart, even living in (more or less) the same house. Haltingly, I told him. He laughed. “Well, Roger is a good old Norman name. But the French often have a difficulty with the 's' on the end of Frances's name: they just pronounce it 'France'.”
I had no choice. I had to adopt his matter of fact approach. I told him when I was born: the year of our Lord 1669, the hundredth anniversary of the Battle of Moncontour. “The second Battle of Moncontour,” he said, as if he was correcting me. Seeing my blank look, he went on, “The first was in 769. Charlemagne.” If I had ever known, I had forgotten. It cannot have been as great a battle as the one in the Wars of Religion when fourteen thousand were killed. We still call the battlefield the Red Valley. But it was still a very strange coincidence: the hundredth anniversary of one battle, the nine hundredth of another. Then I went on to tell him about St. Jouin, and Paris, and coming back and marrying Marie-France. The tears started again. Would I never see her, the woman for whom I had gladly given up everything? And my daughter, my darling, my only daughter, named after her mother?
The lady passed me another of those kerchiefs. When I had wiped my eyes, she pressed a button at the bottom of a sort of tall, tubular metallic vase and its lid sprang open. “Throw it in the bin,” she said. I looked at her in disbelief: it was among the softest and most delicate fabrics I have ever encountered. She gestured towards the box from which she had taken it and said, “It's paper.” she said. Sure enough, it came from a box of a hundred. I could not believe it.
Like most people, I had never given much thought to the future. Well, not to the grand future. My own future, yes, and my family and even my village. Even in my own lifetime, I have seen people's lives get slowly better, except in time of famine. For example, my parents' windows never had glass in them, but mine do, though I am far from a rich man. But the glass in the window was one of the first things I had noticed when I woke up. Then there were the glasses from which we were now drinking, and the wine like stars that we were drinking from it. And now, paper handkerchiefs. There was nothing really new; but the things with which I was familiar were not the same either.
In this reverie I asked, “When was the last famine?” As soon as the words were out of my mouth, I realized that it must have sounded as it it came from nowhere. Roger replied, “Here in France? I don't know. A long, long time ago. A hundred and fifty years? Something like that. Maybe more. It's just... it's a thing of the past.”
He reached down something from a shelf. As he uncovered it I realized it was a ham on an ingenious stand for cutting. My mouth began to water. He turned around and picked a huge knife out of a block and went on, “You have to understand. We live in a time of unimaginable plenty.” He brandished the knife with which he was cutting the ham. “Take this, for example. How many knives do you and your wife own between you? Not counting your children's knives?” “Ah... Five, I think.” I ran through the inventory in my mind. Mine, hers and three in the kitchen. Of course I could use my master's knives too, but I knew that wasn't the question.
“There you are. I literally do not know how many knives I own.” He gestured towards the block. “There are... yes, eighteen. And that's just the sharp knives for cooking. There are more hanging up over there. And more again in the drawers. And more in the rest of the house.” He put down the big knife and went over to a drawer. He opened it and pulled out another handful of knives. “These are table knives. Just for eating.”
“But why do you have so many?”
He shrugged. “Because they are worth nothing. No, not nothing. Just very little.” And he began to cut the ham.
TO BE CONTINUED...
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