The past is a country that not only drifts gradually away from us but also one that becomes more and more mysterious. I remember when I was about twenty-two and I was living in Paris. I did some English language tutoring to make some money and I went to a flat somewhere – can’t remember where it was – and there was a single mother and a little boy called Fabrice aged eleven and I had to give him an English lesson. I did this for a few weeks. There was no dad. We got on well and the mum liked it that we got on well. And then it was the summer and it all stopped. Anyway, I must have left my address because many months later I received a letter from Fabrice in English telling some terrible story. The mum had got another boyfriend and the boyfriend used to beat Fabrice and the mum and her new man had Fabrice taken away to a home, some kind of institution. The English was so bad that it wasn’t really clear what went on. I sent a letter to the home address but got no answer. I don’t know what happened. I think Fabrice had invested in me and I, oblivious, hadn’t particularly invested in him. This disparity in investment crops up a lot in life. I find myself thinking about my life in Paris a lot more these days and the more I think about it the more mysterious it all becomes. Who was I then? How come I didn’t see things? Maybe I just saw other things. Is it that I was younger and blinder? Or do things just reveal their mystery from distance? Close up things all seem so obvious. I wonder what Fabrice is up to now.
There was Frau Maximovic too. In the early years I spent in Paris I met all kinds of strange people. We used to exchange English and German conversation. She lived in a large but totally empty flat near the Eiffel Tower. I remember whenever I came she let me in, then went off to the bathroom to put her make-up on, which I could see through a mirror on the back of the open bathroom door. She would have been about forty, I suppose. She needed to improve her English for some hoped-for bi-lingual or tri-lingual secretarial job that never seemed to materialise. One day, after many weeks of translating her Spiegel articles into English and Newsweek articles into German, she told me I had to come quite late one day for a special session before an important interview she had for an important company. Companies were always important to her. I said I would. This special session was built up and up. We would do this and that for her important interview in the special session. I arrived and she wasn’t there. I phoned back a few times but there was no answer. She had disappeared. I never saw her again. What happened to Frau Maximovic? It was mysterious. I suppose she was just part of the flotsam and jetsam of metropolitain life. Fragments of lives that just bob up to the surface for a moment and then drift out of our ambit. I never imagine it ending well for Frau Maksimovic.