Absence

Summer's reaching its end.

Noise becomes intermittent; you no longer hear the throb of car engines, or children having fun. The village shrinks back inside its shell: the time for hibernation is looming.

The last vacationers are piling into their cars. They're tanned, revitalized. They're going back to the fold, to the alarm going off at 6 a.m., the rush to the bus stop, the doorman's indifferent expression, the stacks of files on the desk, the long lines outside shops, the everyday preoccupations blown up out of all proportion.

Summer's dying.

Bare chests will be covered up, pretentious laughter gasps its last; late nights, idleness, sleeping late-gone! Confiscated . . . How faraway now, the delectable girls with their gorgeous buttocks, who let themselves be snared like deer by spellbinding sweet talk; how faraway the ice cream cones and tall glasses of lemonade sipped on terraces as if it were nectar of the gods; faraway, too, the courting couples on the esplanade, biceps pumped up, showing off more than in the ads, convinced that the world has eyes only for them . . .

The beaches are deserted. On the suddenly dull sand, a few remnants of a temporary camp, broken glass, a forgotten scarf, a women's magazine, a limp sandal and, when the waves retreat, an abandoned deck chair . . .

Nasser's staring out the window. The neighbors are packing up. The kids are already on the back seat. Only the mother hangs back on the villa steps, her glance lingering on the white-painted bench on the veranda.

"Are you coming?" the father calls to her.

"Coming."

The car sets off down the dusty track. Nasser pulls aside the curtain and sees the beautiful Noria turn round to look for him. Their eyes meet. She gives him a little wave. He does nothing. Only his lips form something like a good-bye.

The car disappears.

The party's over.

Tomorrow, Nasser won't see Noria invade the beach, her brightly colored parasol under her arm. He won't go to the rock to display his admittedly puny chest; he won't feel like a god on his cloud. The party's well and truly over. Just yesterday, at the same time, he was performing superb dives from the top of the rock. Noria would smile at him. She'd been smiling at him for twenty-seven days, and not once had he spoken to her. Her parents were keeping a close eye. Nasser was content to swim a few strokes away from her, listen to her virginal laughter surf the waves, dream of her every night and watch her from the break of day.

Nasser goes out into the street. The cars, which were parked on the pavements all day long, have vanished into thin air. Only oil stains still indicate the places where the more neglected secreted their bile. A damaged tire decomposes in the sun next to a pile of cigarette butts dumped there by a driver emptying his ashtray onto the road. Left to themselves, the pavements seem undecided; their perspectives lead nowhere. A vandalized phone booth offers derisory shelter, already occupied by two whiny, rheumy-eyed kittens. The grocery is closed too. It's as if a curse has struck the street during the night, depopulating it in a flash.

Nasser crouches down to feel the imprint of the wheels that have just taken Noria away, steps over the hedge, goes to sit on the bench where his nymph used to relax. He forgets himself for a few minutes, then, shakily, races down the steps that lead to the beach. His seaweed-strewn rock tilts, looking overwhelmed; waves slap against it without rousing it.

On the other side of the bay, a tramp, up to his knees in water, harangues an imaginary crowd.

Nasser passes a clump of reeds where the exquisite Noria liked to sun herself, drops down onto a sand hump, and, watching a trawler on the open sea, hears himself say:

"Beautiful day, isn't it?"

He pulls out a pack of American cigarettes, proffering it to the empty space on his left:

"Have one . . . "

" . . . "

"Oh sorry! I thought you smoked."

His gaze follows the trawler for a moment, turns back to the reeds . . .

"Your name's Noria, isn't it? I heard your little sister call you that. It's a pretty name . . . I'm Nasser. I live just opposite you. You have a lovely house. I live with my mother. I don't have any other family."

He gazes at Noria:

"I hope I'm not bothering you."

" . . . "

"I'm a student. Of botany . . . At least, I was. Studying isn't much use these days. I know brilliant graduates who can't get jobs as porters. Houari, the kebab-seller, can't even hold a comic the right way up; that doesn't stop him living like a king. It's not that I have anything against him, I just don't think it's fair . . . That's why I threw in the towel. Studying doesn't excite me any more. We're thinking of investing in a bookshop, my mother and me. Next summer I'll have a pile of books for you. You won't have to pay for them. Yes, yes, I insist . . . "

"Your head not right?"

Nasser jumps; the tramp of a moment ago is standing in front of him.

"Who are you talking to there? It's the sun, for sure. I paid the price for that, once. I was looking for my puppy. The sun was blazing down. It was like I had a crackling inside my head. I nearly croaked. Because I didn't stop jabbering in my sleep, Lefty said that was it. I was stopping him sleeping. It wasn't my fault. I was sick as a dog. Lefty wouldn't listen. He threw me straight out. No more heart than a scorpion, Lefty. That's for sure. I've met a lot of hypocrites, but never like Lefty ..."

Nasser stares at the ragged man. For all the world a dethroned Neptune, thrown up by the waves. His hair's disheveled, his mournful face disfigured by daily trials and tribulations, his hands covered in sores, prolonged by blackish, ugly nails. His moldering overcoat opens to reveal a puny chest covered in different colored trails of dirt and bruises.

Rolling two eyes as wide as saucers, the vagrant raises his arms to the sky and utters a horrible howl of rage.

"You won't take it to paradise, Lefty. You're a dirty bastard, and one day you won't have anyone to hold your hand."

Nasser realizes he won't be able to smoke his cigarette in peace. Reluctantly he stands up again and goes back toward the village. He strolls through dismal streets. A few houses are still alive, their hearts elsewhere. Now the neighbors have left, life feels unnatural, superfluous.

"Hi, Nasro."

"Hi, Moh . . . "

"It's going to be bleak around here."

"You're telling me!"

Moh jumps into his van, waves good-bye, and drives off . . .

The restaurant in the square is empty, the chairs stacked on the tables. Boalem is bored behind his bar. Music softly nibbles the corners of the room without beckoning anyone. Below, perched on the rails of the wharf, seagulls confer: they're dreaming of new horizons. A police officer distractedly contemplates his shoes. The wind chases after scraps of newspaper. How sad it is, a coastal village, when summer gives it the slip.

Without noticing, Nasser has walked round the square and is surprised to find himself opposite the neighbors' villa. He sees Noria again, watering the flowers.

"Hello!"

Noria turns round.

"Your roses are very beautiful."

"They're not roses."

"To me, all the flowers you touch are roses . . . Can I come in?"

"Of course."

Nasser pushes the gate.

"Hey!" a voice rings out behind him. Nasser's mother is on the balcony.

"Where on earth are you going?"

"To pick a flower."

"They're not ours . . . Have they left?"

"About an hour ago."

"What a shame, they were so considerate. In fact, they lent me some scissors. Did you give them back?"

"No, I didn't know."

His mother shrugs her shoulders and goes back inside.

Nasser hurriedly turns back to the veranda; Noria does not reappear.

* * *

Standing behind the curtains, Nasser keeps his eye on the villa. He remembers the neighbor reading his paper with a knowledgeable air, the children fascinated by the TV, their mother clearing the table, moths besieging the paper lanterns, the older kids in the street showing off a colossal ghetto blaster hoisted on their shoulders, the old men bickering over a game of dominoes . . . And Noria, over there on the wicker chair, looking around for him . . .

Nasser leaves the house on tiptoe so as not to wake his mother. Outside, the smell of seaweed keeps curling through the night. Like a robot, he pushes the gate opposite and goes to sit on the white bench. He imagines he's giving the children a botany lesson. One of them puts up his hand like a schoolkid:

"If you crossed a daisy with a poppy, what would you get?"

"A pansy . . . Pansies are for thoughts," Nasser answers.

"And a pansy with a lily of the valley?"

"Poetry."

"Very witty," the father congratulates him, finally deigning to look up from his paper.

Noria's face is aflame. Her big eyes are shining like jewels.

The child puts up his hand again, but finds he has nothing to add.

Nasser slips underneath the weeping willow, behind the house. Noria joins him.

"They'll see us," he whispers to her fearfully.

"They know we love each other."

"What about your father?"

"He's been there. He'll understand. After all, we're not doing any harm. Is it bad to be in love? Anyhow, my father likes you a lot. He thinks you're a well-brought up boy. And my mother's very friendly with yours."

She snuggles up to him. He feels her breath flutter around his face, seeks her lips, kisses her . . . Sublime!

"Come," she says. "I'll show you my photos."

They enter the house, climb the stairs, emerge into a cozy living room, then:

"My room's that way . . . "

It's a pretty little room with walls painted pink. The bed is covered with an embroidered sheet. Noria looks in the bedside table drawers and frowns; her movements suddenly grow panicky . . .

"Can I help you?"

"I can't find my photos."

Nasser looks on his side, under the mattress, in the books, on the floor . . . nothing. Distraught, Noria sinks onto the bed and clasps her head in her hands:

"My photos have been stolen," she groans.

"That doesn't make sense. Come on, they must be somewhere. We'll find them."

"I'm telling you they've been stolen. They were here. I know I put them right here."

"Don't get upset. I promise you I'll find them."

Nasser combs the room, looks everywhere, under the eiderdown, behind the knickknacks, under the table, under the armchairs, frantic, more and more panic-stricken. Noria follows him, sobbing. Nasser heads for the parents' bedroom. It's locked. He picks up an iron bar and forces the lock. He keeps looking and looking, everywhere, overturning the mattress, ripping open pillowcases, cursing the empty drawers, the bare shelves, the blank walls . . .

Suddenly, Noria's no longer there.

Nasser hears noises in the hallway, rushes out, stops short.

"Police!" a voice thunders. "You're cornered."

Nasser spins round and takes off blindly, pursued by the police officers' warnings. He charges at a window, jumps into the void. His foot catches on something, tipping him head first. His back makes an awful crack as it hits the ground.

Nasser regains consciousness, little by little. First he recognizes the stars flecking the sky, then a bluish light spinning on the roof of a Black Maria. A uniformed man bends over him:

"He looks seriously messed up. We need an ambulance, quick."

Another policeman shines a flashlight in his face:

"Never noticed him round here."

"Must be a burglar. He came to see what the vacationers left behind."

"What's going on?" inquires a fat guy behind the two policemen.

They straighten up and salute him.

"Good evening, Sergeant. We were on our rounds in the area when we saw a light on at Dr. Walid's. Knowing the doctor had left this morning, that alerted us. The front door had been kicked in. We caught this boy inside, throwing everything on the floor. We ordered him to give himself up. He refused to obey and jumped from the first floor window. He fell badly on the steps. Reckon his spine's injured."

Nasser tries to protest. He finds he can neither move nor talk.

Copyright 2007 by Yasmina Khadra. By arrangement with the author. Translation copyright 2007 by Lulu Norman. All rights reserved.