Please, Mr Einstein
By Jean-Claude Carriere
Copyright © 2007
All right reserved.
Let's follow that that girl who's walking down the street. She waits for some cars to go by, then crosses without bothering about the lights.
We're in a Central European city -- Prague or Vienna, perhaps, or Munich or Zurich. There's no well-known monument in sight that would enable us to identify the city in question. The weather is quite fine, the time of year indeterminate. It's late afternoon and the shadows are beginning to lengthen. The girl is wearing jeans, flat-heeled black shoes and a blouse. Aged between twenty and twenty-five, she's on the slim side, with an animated face and brisk movements. She's carrying a shoulder bag. We might take her for a student, but a student in her final year.
This, then, is the moment at which we first catch sight of her. We shall never know where she comes from, or what her name is, or what her parents do, or how her life will turn out. We're following her simply because our gaze has lighted on her in the street.
She hears the bell of an approaching tram and skips onto the opposite pavement. The yellow and black tram, which she has failed to see or hear until now, narrowly misses her. It bears the number 17.
She watches it recede, then looks up. Above her she sees a building dating from 1910 or 1920, with a ponderous, rather dreary façade. She takes a crumpled piece of paper from one of the pockets in her jeans and checks the address on it.
Yes, this is the place all right. She goes in.
There's nothing remarkable about the entrance hall. She makes her way along it and up a shadowy flight of stairs whose varnished treads, partly covered by a narrow strip of beige carpet, creak in places. Running her hand up the rather chunky wooden banister rail, she quickly climbs the stairs to the first floor. There, after peering into the gloom for a moment or two, she rings a doorbell.
We don't know exactly what time it is, but in any case, the girl seems quite unconcerned whether it's morning or evening, Monday or Wednesday.
She settles down to wait on the landing, but the door opens almost at once. It's held ajar by a dark, elderly woman in a longish skirt and an old-fashioned blouse trimmed with lace. We can't tell if the lace is handmade (though it's possible).
The woman has a strong, calm face with a prominent nose and pale skin displaying only faint traces of makeup -- a kindly enough face for someone who's answering a door. She asks the visitor if she's expected. Does she have an appointment?
'Not really,' the girl replies. 'I had some time to spare, so I came just like that - on the off chance, so to speak. I can come back if necessary. Or wait for as long as I have to.'
'You're sure you've come to the right address?'
'I think so.'
She holds out the piece of paper. The pale-faced woman glances at it. She hesitates briefly, very briefly, then opens the door a little wider and steps aside.
'Come in,' she says grudgingly.
The girl squeezes into the apartment. We follow her.
After making her way through a kind of recess she finds herself in a windowless waiting room where a dozen people, men for the most part, are patiently seated on some nondescript chairs, not all of the same design.
They glance up at the new arrival. As for her, she surveys the room with interest but little surprise before sitting down on the only unoccupied chair. Some of the men are wearing clothes and shoes that look as if they date from the first half of the twentieth century, or the 1950s at latest. They've all taken the trouble to put on ties, though one or two of their rather grubby shirt collars are curling up rebelliously. Their jackets are buttoned. Nearly all of them are holding leather briefcases or bulky folders under their arms or on their laps. Reposing on some of these folders, most of them firmly secured with straps, are felt hats.
Out of the corner of her eye, the girl notes that the majority of the people waiting here are clutching their briefcases and folders tightly, even to the extent of digging their nails into them as if they contain fortunes in paper.
One of them gives a start whenever he hears the muffled hiccups of the central-heating system buried somewhere in the old building's pipework.
Also audible, and emanating from the street, is the sound of trams passing in both directions with bells clanging. But that startles no one. It's like a punctuation mark, an urban cadenza.
One of the waiting men, who had deposited his black briefcase on the floor, propped against the legs of his chair, bent down and retrieved it when the girl came in. As if suddenly afraid of something, some indiscretion or attempt to steal it, he's now clasping it to his chest with both hands.
Another man, seated in the waiting room's only armchair, is a stern-looking individual in a grey wig, quite a long, curly one, which he doesn't attempt to disguise. He's wearing a kind of voluminous, old-fashioned cloak over his street clothes, which appear to be dark, and shoes with silver buckles.
The girl notices these unwonted details without seeming too surprised to find herself with such people in such surroundings. Was she expecting it? We can't tell, not being privy to her thoughts. At all events, she isn't intimidated. She glances at her watch, glances at it again, then peers more closely and shakes her wrist as if it has stopped. She looks round enquiringly, but there's no clock on the wall or the mantelpiece.
Excerpted from Please, Mr Einstein
by Jean-Claude Carriere
Copyright © 2007 by Jean-Claude Carriere.
Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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