At Your Service
On 15 September Madame Desjardins finally decided to open the room. It was a difficult decision.
Their marriage was based on non-interference in each other's affairs. They had lived under the same roof for
twenty years but their lives had been separate. She had had her circle of friends who shared her passion for
music. In the winter she spent most evenings at the Opera or in the Salle Pleyel with one of her many artistic
friends. Afterwards they would have dinner in one of the fashionable restaurants off the Charnps-Elysees.
When she returned home in the early hours of the morning, Edouard would be asleep in his bedroom.
He had a fixed routine. He would get up at six and do some yoga exercises. After that, he had his breakfast.
This usually consisted of fresh fruit, croissants and coffee. Madeleine, their maid, would serve it on the dot
of seven. In the summer months he would eat on the terrace; in winter in the small dining-room overlooking the
garden. He would then bathe, dress in one of his dark, formal suits and walk round the corner to the Parc
Monceau. After a brisk walk in the park, he would retum home, stopping at the small 'cafe tabac' on the corner
to buy Le Monde. By then it would be eight-thirty. He would spend the next hour and a half reading the newspaper.
At ten, he would leave the house and make his way to the Bibliotheque Nationale. For many years he had been doing
research into the Bushmen tribes of the Kalahari desert. The staff in the library knew him well. They were used
to the odd clicking sounds he sometimes made while he was reading. (The Bushmen languages use a lot of clicking
sounds.) He was a regular visitor. The library staff made sure that no one else ever sat in his seat near the
window. He was a respected scholar, even if he was a bit odd.
Madame Desjardin's first name was Eloise. She usually got up as soon as her husband left the house. This was
not done consciously. She did not dislike her husband. It was just that, when he was in, the air felt heavy.
Once he had gone out, she felt as if a weight had been lifted from the house. She would then rise. She would
never hurry. Madeleine would serve her coffee and croissants in her bedroom. She would then spend an hour or two
bathing, deciding on which of her many dresses she would wear, nibbling her croissants and telephoning her friends.
They would exchange the latest gessip. This was far more amusing than reading a newspaper, and much less tiring.
Her day really began with lunch. Usually she would eat with one of her female friends. They would go to the Tour
d'Argent, or another fashionable restaurant. Apart from the food which, of course, had to be first class, the
place had to be 'amusing', 'charming' or 'original'. She and her network of 'friends' were dedicated to amusement.
They thought that the world existed in order to provide them with amusement. They called each other by 'fun'
names - Mimi, Mado, Aggie, Popol and so on. Her own name had been shortened to Elo.
After lunch she might visit a new exhibition - or call on her beautician, or her coiffeuse to make sure that
her hair would be in perfect condition for the evening's entertainments.
In the evenings, Edouard would return to eat his supper alone. He would then go up to his 'den' on the top
floor of the house. No one was allowed inside the roorn, which he kept locked. Eloise did not know what he
did there. She assumed that it must be connected with his clicking Bushmen. Anyway she was too busy, amusing
herself, to care.
Their year also followed a regular routine. From September to April they stayed in Paris - he in the library,
she at her concerts and restaurants. They would give a supper party at Christmas for the few surviving family
members. This was the only social event they shared; their one concession to conventional family life. In the
spring, Eloise would spend a month staying with friends who had a villa on a Greek island. She would then move
from friend to friend around the continent of Europe, from one 'amusing' location to another, returning to Paris
at the end of July.
She would spend the month of August in Paris. This was an odd thing to do, since most Parisians leave on
holiday during August to escape from the heat. Eloise, however, thought that it was 'original' to stay in Paris
when everyone else had left. It was as if the city was empty. For a whole month it belonged to her alone. It
was also the only time when she had the house entirely to herself.
For the past fifteen years Edouard had left Paris on 31 July and retumed on 1 September. He would return each
year in an exceptionally good mood. Then he would go back to his old routine as if he had never been away. He
never offered to explain where he had been, nor what he had been doing. Eloise never asked. She occasionally
wondered if he had a mistress somewhere. It seemed unlikely. It would have made no difference anyway.
But this year, he had not returned on 1 September.
Two weeks had passed, and still he had not come back. Eloise finally decided she should open the room on the top
floor. Perhaps she would find a clue to her husband's disappearance. She waited until Madeleine's evening off.
Then she made her way up the narrow wooden stairs leading to the top floor. She had found a large screwdriver,
a hammer and a pair of pincers, though she had never in her life had to use tools. It was dark in the corridor,
and it took her almost half an hour to prise open the door.
The roorn was small and airless. It contained a desk, a wardrobe, a bookcase and narrow camp-bed. The floor
boards were bare. On the desk there was an address book and a photograph album. In the wardrobe hung a black
suit with a swallowtail jacket. Below it was a pair of shiny black patent-leather shoes. There was an odd
assortment of books in the bookcase; glossy coffee-table books on some of the great houses and palaces of Europe,
guidebooks, a number of dictionaries and phrase books in French, English, Italian, Spanish and German, books on
wine and food, and a few volumes on etiquette and manners.
She opened the address book. It contained names of well-known rich, well-connected people from all over the world.
There was a well-known Italian businessman with a fabulous villa on Lake Maggiore, a Gulf sheikh famous for his
stable of race-horses, a lord with a castle in Scotland, a film actor with a ranch in Texas ... It was incredible.
Her own group of friends were nothing by comparison. Did Edouard really know all these people? And if so, how?
She began to look through the photo album. It too contained some surprises. On every page there were pictures of
famous faces, taken at receptions and dinner parties. She took one out. On the back there was a dedication.
'From SzaSza to Henri with gratitude for everything you have done.' She took another, 'Dear Gustave - we'll
always remember you. Come again next year. Yours Sophia.' Every one she looked at contained similar messages
addressed to Michel, Bertrand, Thomas, Claude - as well as to Henri and Gustave. She felt confused and angry.
Why had he never told her? But was this all true, or was it a sort of fantasy world he had invented during all
those lonely evenings while she had been out? And who were Henri, Gustave and all the others? And where was he
now? She decided to sleep on it, took two sleeping pills and went to bed.
The letter arrived the next morning. Madeleine brought it in on the breakfast tray. It had been posted in
Australia. She recognized his spidery writing and tore open the envelope impatiently.
I am sorry if I have caused you any concern, though I think that is unlikely. As you can see, I am in Australia,
but I shall be moving elsewhere soon.
I have decided to leave you. I am sure it will not matter very much to you. Our 'marriage' has never been more
than a matter of convenience. I have made very generous financial arrangements and transferred the house to you,
so you will be able to continue your usual life-style.
If anyone asks where I am, just tell them that I have gone to southern Africa to continue my research on the
Bushmen. Do not try to trace me. Over the past few years I have found that I have a gift for service. I now
intend to make service my fulltime occupation.
With my best wishes for your future life. I hope you will find it 'amusing'.
Five years later Eloise visited California with some of her more amusing friends. One evening they were invited
to a dinner party at the mansion of a farnous film magnate, up in the hills behind Los Angeles. They had gathered
on the terrace for drinks. An elegantly dressed butler in a black swallowtail coat carried in a tray. He passed
from guest to guest discreetly offering them drinks from the tray. 'Charles was a real discovery,' confided the
magnate to the guests around hirn, 'He really understands what service is.' At this point Charles the butler
came to a halt in front of Eloise and held out the tray. 'At your service Madame,' he said, 'I think you will
find the Californian Chardonnay to your taste - an "amusing" little wine.' And he winked. She fainted. It was
Wörterzahl: ca. 1600
From: Campbell's Crossing and other Very Short Stories, pp.1-6
Penguin Books 1995
1. Why do you think Eloise and Edouard got Married?
2. What do you think Eloise looked like? Describe her in detail.
3. What satisfactions do you think Edouard gets from his life? Make a list of points for and against his old life, and his new life.