Alex is in seventh heaven. She has been trying on wigs and hair extensions for more than an hour now, hesitating, leaving, coming back, trying them on again. She could spend all afternoon here.
She stumbled on this little shop on the boulevard de Strasbourg by pure chance three or four years ago. She wasn’t really looking, but out of curiosity she went inside and was so astonished seeing herself as a redhead, seeing herself completely transformed, that she bought the wig on the spot.
Alex can wear pretty much anything because she is truly stunning. It wasn’t always that way; it happened in her teens. Before that she had been a scrawny, rather ugly little girl. But when she finally blossomed it was like a tidal wave, like a computer morphing programme on fast forward; in a few short months Alex became a devastating young woman. Perhaps because by then everyone – particularly Alex – had given up hope that she would ever be beautiful, she has never really thought of herself as beautiful. Even now.
For example, it had never occurred to her that she could wear a red wig. It had been a revelation. She couldn’t believe how different she looked. Wigs seemed so superficial and yet the moment she first put one on, she felt her whole life had changed.
In the end she hardly ever wore it, that first wig. As soon as she got it home she realised that it looked tawdry, cheap. She tossed it. Not into the bin, but into the bottom drawer of her dresser. Every now and again she would take it out, try it on, gaze at herself in the mirror. Though it was indeed hideous, the sort of thing that screamed “tacky nylon fright-wig”, what Alex saw when she looked in the mirror kindled a hope in which she wanted to believe. And so she went back to the shop on the boulevard de Strasbourg and lingered over elegant, high-quality wigs that were a little beyond the means of an agency nurse. But they looked astonishingly real. And she took the plunge.
At first it wasn’t easy; it still isn’t, it takes nerve. For a shy, insecure girl like Alex, just getting up the nerve could take half a day. Putting on the right make-up, finding the perfect outfit, the matching shoes and handbag (well, rummaging through the wardrobe to find something that might match, since she can’t afford to buy a new outfit every time . . . ) But then comes the moment when you step out into the street and you’re someone else. Not entirely, but almost. And though it’s hardly earth-shattering, it passes the time, especially when you’re not expecting much from life.
Alex prefers wigs that make a statement, wigs that say, I know what you’re thinking, or I’m not just a pretty face, I’m a maths genius too. The wig she’s wearing today says, You won’t find me on Facebook.
As she picks up a wig called “Urban Shock” she glances out through the shop window and she sees the man. He is standing on the far side of the street pretending to be waiting for someone or something. This is the third time in two hours she has seen him. He is following her. She now realises that he must be. Her first thought is “Why me?”, as though she could understand why a man might follow any other girl, but not her. As though she didn’t forever have men looking at her, on the bus, in the street. In shops. Alex attracts attention from men of all ages. It’s one of the benefits of being thirty. And yet every time it happens, she feels surprised. “There are much prettier girls out there than me.” Alex is chronically insecure, crippled by self-doubt. She has been since she was a child. Until her teens she had a terrible stammer. Even now she stammers when she’s nervous.
She doesn’t recognise the man; she has never seen him before – with a body like that, she would remember. What’s more, it seems strange, a guy of fifty following a girl of thirty . . . It’s not that she’s ageist – far from it – she’s just surprised.
Alex looks down at the wigs, pretends to hesitate, then wanders over to the other side of the shop from where she has a good view of the street. From the cut of his clothes you can tell he was once an athlete of some sort, a heavyweight. Stroking a platinum blonde wig, she tries to work out when she first noticed him. She remembers seeing him in the métro; their eyes met for a moment – though long enough for her to notice the smile intended for her, a smile clearly meant to be warm and winning. What troubles her about him is the obsessiveness in his eyes. And his lips, so thin as to be almost non-existent. She felt instinctively suspicious, as though somehow all thin-lipped people are hiding something, some unspeakable secret, some terrible vice. And his high, domed forehead. Unfortunately, she didn’t really have time to study his eyes. The eyes never lie, Alex believes, and it is by their eyes that she judges people. Obviously, in the métro, with a guy like that, she hadn’t wanted to linger.
Discreetly, almost imperceptibly, she turned so that her back was to him, rummaging in her bag for her iPod. She put on “Nobody’s Child”, and as she did she wondered if she hadn’t seen him hanging around outside her building the day before, maybe two days ago. It’s vague, she can’t be sure; the memory might be clearer if she turned to look again, but she doesn’t want to lead him on. What she does know is that two hours after seeing him in the métro, she spotted him as she turned again onto the boulevard de Strasbourg. On a whim she had decided to go back to the shop and try on the mid-length auburn wig with the fringe and as she turned round, she spotted him a little way away, saw him stop dead and pretend to look at something in the window . . . of a women’s dress shop. It was pointless for him to pretend . . .
Alex sets down the wig. For no reason her hands are trembling. She’s being ridiculous. The guy fancies her; he’s following her, thinks he’s in with a chance – he’s hardly going to attack her in the street. Alex shakes her head as though trying to make up her mind and when she looks out at the street again, the man has disappeared. She leans first one way then the other, but there’s no-one; he has gone. The relief she feels seems somehow disproportionate.“I’m just being silly,” she thinks again, as her breathing begins to return to normal. In the doorway of the shop, she can’t help but stop and check the street again. It almost feels as though it’s his absence now that worries her.
Alex checks her watch, looks up at the sky. The weather is mild and there’s at least an hour of daylight still. She doesn’t feel like heading home. She needs to stop off and buy food. She tries to remember what she’s got in the fridge. She’s always been a bit lax about grocery shopping. She tends to focus all her energy on her work, her comfort (Alex is a little obsessive-compulsive), and – though she’s reluctant to admit it – on clothes and shoes. Plus handbags. And wigs. She wishes her love life had worked out differently; it’s something of a touchy subject. Her love life is a disaster area. She hoped, she waited, and eventually she gave up. These days, she thinks about it as little as possible. But she is careful not to allow regret to turn into ready-meals and nights in front of the television, careful not to put on weight, not to let herself go. Though she’s single, she rarely feels alone. She has lots of projects that are important to her and they keep her busy. Her love life might be a train wreck, but that’s life. And it’s easier now that she’s resigned herself to being alone. In spite of her loneliness, Alex tries to live a normal life, to enjoy her little pleasures. It consoles her to think that she can indulge herself, that like everyone else she has the right to indulge herself. Tonight, for example, she’s decided to treat herself to dinner at Mont-Tonnerre on the rue de Vaugirard.
She arrives a little early. It’s her second time. The first was a week ago and the staff obviously remember the attractive redhead who was dining alone. Tonight they greet her like a regular, the waiters jostling to serve her, flirting awkwardly with the pretty customer. She smiles at them, effortlessly charms them. She asks for the same table, her back to the terrace, facing into the room; she orders the same half-bottle of Alsatian ice wine. She sighs. Alex loves food, so much so that she has to be careful. Her weight keeps fluctuating, but she has learned to control it. Sometimes she will put on ten or fifteen kilos, become virtually unrecognisable, but two months later she’s back to her original weight. It’s something she won’t be able to get away with a few years from now.
She takes out her book and asks for an extra fork to prop it open with while she’s eating. Sitting facing her is the guy with light brown hair she saw here last week. He’s having dinner with friends. For the moment there are only two of them, but it’s clear from their talk that they are expecting others to turn up soon. He spotted her the moment she stepped into the restaurant. She pretends not to notice him staring at her intently. He will stare at her all night, even when the rest of his friends show up and they launch into their endless banter about work, about girls, about women, taking turns telling stories that make them sound good. All the while, he will be glancing at her. He’s not bad looking – forty, forty-five maybe – and he was clearly handsome as a young man; he drinks a little too much, which explains his tragic face. A face that stirs something in Alex.
She drinks her coffee and – her one concession – as she leaves, she gives him a look; she does it expertly. A fleeting glance, the sort of look Alex does perfectly. Seeing the longing in his eyes, for a split-second she feels a twinge of pain in the pit of her stomach, an intimation of sadness. At moments like this Alex never articulates what she is feeling, certainly not to herself. Her life is a series of frozen images, a spool of film that has snapped in the projector – it is impossible for her to rewind, to refashion her story, to find new words. The next time she has dinner here, she might stay a little later, and he might be waiting for her outside when she leaves – who knows? Alex knows. Alex knows all too well how these things go. It’s always the same story. Her fleeting encounters with men never become love stories; this is a part of the film she’s seen many times, a part she remembers. That’s just the way it is.
It is completely dark now and the night is warm. A bus has just pulled up. She quickens her step, the driver sees her in the rear-view mirror and waits, she runs for the bus but just as she’s about to get on, changes her mind, decides to walk a little way. She signals to the driver who gives a regretful shrug, as if to say Oh well, such is life. He opens the bus door anyway.
“There won’t be another bus after me. I’m the last one tonight …”
Alex smiles, thanks him with a wave. It doesn’t matter. She’ll walk the rest of the way. She’ll take the rue Falguière and then the rue Labrouste.
She’s been living near the Porte de Vanves for three months now. She moves around a lot. Before this, she lived near Porte de Clignancourt and before that on the rue du Commerce. Most people hate moving, but for Alex it’s a need. She loves it. Maybe because, as with the wigs, it feels like she’s changing her life. It’s a recurring theme. One day she’ll change her life.
A little way in front of her, a white van pulls onto the pavement to park. To get past, Alex has to squeeze between the van and the building. She senses a presence, a man; she has no time to turn. A fist slams between her shoulder blades, leaving her breathless. She loses her balance, topples forward, her forehead banging violently against the van with a dull clang; she drops everything she’s carrying, her hands flailing desperately to find something to catch hold of – they find nothing. The man grabs her hair, but the wig comes off in his hand. He curses, a word she can’t quite make out, then viciously yanks her real hair with one hand, and with the other punches her in the stomach hard enough to stun a bull. Alex doesn’t have time to scream; she doubles over and vomits. The man has to be very powerful because he manages to flip her like a piece of paper so that she is facing him. His arm slides round her waist, pulling her against him while he stuffs a wad of tissue paper into her mouth and down her throat. It’s him: the man she saw in the métro, in the street, outside the shop. It’s him. For a fraction of a second they look each other in the eye. She tries to struggle, but he’s got her arms in a tight grip, there’s nothing she can do, he’s too strong, he pushes her down, her knees give way, she falls onto the floor of the van. He lashes out, a vicious kick to the small of the back, sending Alex sprawling into the van, the floor grazing her cheek. He climbs in behind her, forcibly turns her over and punches her in the face. He hits her so hard . . . This guy really wants to hurt her, he wants to kill her – this is what’s going through Alex’s mind as she feels the punch. Her skull slams against the floor of the van and bounces and she feels a shooting pain in the back of her head – the occiput, that’s what it’s called, Alex thinks, the occiput. But apart from this word, the only thing she can think is, I don’t want to die, not like this, not now. Huddled in a foetal position, mouth full of vomit, she feels her arms wrenched hard behind her back and tightly bound, then her ankles. “I don’t want to die now,” Alex thinks. The door of the van slams shut, the engine roars into life, the van pulls away from the pavement with a screech. “I don’t want to die now.”
Alex is dazed but aware of what is happening to her. She is crying, choking on her tears. Why me? Why me?
I don’t want to die. Not now.
Excerpted from Alex by Pierre Lemaitre. Copyright © 2013 by Éditions Albin Michel – Paris, 2011. English translation copyright © 2013 by Frank Wynne.
First published in the French language as Alex by Éditions Albin Michel, Paris, in 2011. First published in Great Britain in 2013 by MacLehose Press, an imprint of Quercus. 55 Baker Street, 7th Floor, South Block, London W1U 8EW.
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