this short fiction by le clézio shows us that the gallic ‘great life’ is not really very good…

J. M. G. Le Clézio, "The Great Life"

In this ironically titled short story a pair of girls jointly launch themselves into a binge of petty crime to escape their dead-end jobs and the monotonous life of the housing projects.

Cover Image

Everyone calls them Pouce and Poussy, at least that’s what their nicknames have been since childhood, and not many people know that their real names are Christele and Christelle. People call them Pouce and Poussy because they’re just like twin sisters, and because they’re not very tall. To be honest, they’re actually short, quite short, and both very dark, with a strange childlike face and a button nose and nice shiny black eyes. They’re not pretty, not really, because they’re too small, and a bit too thin as well, with tiny arms and long legs and square shoulders. But there’s something charming about them, and everyone likes them, especially when they start laughing, a funny, high-pitched laughter that rings out like tinkling bells. They laugh quite often, almost anyplace, in the bus, in the street, in cafes, whenever they’re together. And as a matter of fact, they’re almost always together. When one of them is alone (which happens sometimes on account of different classes or when one of them is sick), they don’t have fun. They get sad, and you don’t hear their laughter.

Some people say that Pouce is taller than Poussy, or that Poussy has finer features than Pouce does. That might be so. But the truth is, it’s very difficult to tell them apart and surely no one ever could, especially since they dress alike, since they walk and talk alike, since they both have that same kind of laugh, a bit like sleigh bells being shaken.

That’s probably how they got the idea of starting out on their great adventure. At the time they were both working in a garment shop where they sewed button holes and put pockets on pants with the label Ohio, USA on the right-hand back pocket. That’s what they did for eight hours a day and five days a week from nine to five with a twenty minute break to eat lunch standing by their machine. "This is like prison" Olga, a coworker, would say. But she wouldn’t talk very loudly, because it was against the rules to talk during working hours. Women who talked, who came to work late, or left their post without permission, had to pay a fine to the boss, twenty, sometimes thirty or even fifty francs. There was to be no down time. The workers finished at five sharp in the afternoon, but then they had to put the tools away, and clean the machines, and carry all the fabric scraps and bits of thread to the back of the workshop and throw them in the waste bin. So in fact, they didn’t really finish work till half past five. "No one stays on for long" Olga would say "I’ve been here for two years, because I live nearby. But I won’t stay another year." The boss was a short man of around forty, with grey hair, a thick waist, and an open shirt displaying a hairy chest. He thought he was handsome. "You’ll see, he’s bound to make a pass at you," Olga had said to the young girls, and another girl had sneered, "The man’s a womanizer, a real pig." Pouce couldn’t have cared less. The first time he came walking up to them during working hours, with his hands in his pockets and his chest puffed out in his beige acrylic sports jacket, the two friends hadn’t even looked at him. And when he had spoken to them, instead of answering, they’d laughed at him with their tinkling bell-laughter, both of them, at the same time, so loud that all the girls had stopped working to see what was going on. His face had turned a deep red out of anger, or spite, and he’d left so quickly that the two sisters were still laughing even after he closed the door of the workshop. "Now he’ll really be looking for trouble. He’s going to hassle the shit out of you," Olga had announced. But nothing more ever came of it. The foreman, a man named Philippi, had simply supervised the rows where the two sisters worked more closely. As for the boss, he avoided coming anywhere near them again. That laugh of theirs sure was devastating.

At the time, Pouce and Poussy lived in a small two-room apartment, with the woman they called Mama Janine, but who was really their adoptive mother. Janine had taken Pouce into her home after the child’s mother had died, and not long after that, she had taken Poussy in too, who was a ward of the state. She took care of the two little girls because they were all alone in the world, because she wasn’t married and didn’t have any children. She worked in a Cali Superette and wasn’t dissatisfied with her life. Her only real problem was those girls who were as inseparable as two sisters–those girls, known to everyone in the building, and even everyone in the neighborhood, as "the two terrors." During the five or six years of their childhood, not a day went by when they weren’t together, and most of the time it was in order to make some kind of mischief, play some prank or other. They’d ring all the doorbells, change the name tags around on the mailboxes, draw pictures on the walls with chalk, fashion false cockroaches out of paper and slide them under the doors, or deflate all the bicycle tires. When they turned sixteen, they had both been expelled from school, because they’d thrown an egg down on the principal’s head from up in the gallery, and because right in the middle of the class assembly they’d gone into one of those infamous bell-like fits of giggling, which was even more irrepressible on that particular day than usual. So Mama Janine had put them into a vocational school to learn sewing, and they both obtained–one wondered how–their Certificate of Professional Aptitude (C.A.P.) as machine operators. Since then, they’d found work regularly in the garment factories, but it was only to quit a month or two later, inevitably leaving everything in an uproar and nearly devastating the entire outfit.

So, that’s why, on their nineteenth birthday, they were still working in the Ohio, Made in USA factory and on the payroll of the boss, Jacques Rossi. When they’d started working there, Pouce had promised Mama Janine to be reasonable, and to behave like an honest working-girl and Poussy had made the same promise. But a few days later, the prison-like atmosphere of the workshop had gotten the better of their resolutions. War had been declared between Rossi and them. The other girls didn’t talk much and went straight home as soon as they finished work, because they had a fiance who came to pick them up in a car to take them out dancing. Pouce and Poussy didn’t have a fiance. They didn’t much like being separated, and when they went out with boys, they arranged things so that they could meet up and spend the evening together. No boy could hold up under that. Pouce and Poussy didn’t care. They would go down to the cafe-bar-tobacco shop on the corner near the factory, and they would drink beer together, smoking cigarettes rolled with coarse, black tobacco, telling each other a bunch of stories punctuated with their cascading laughter.

They would always tell the same story, a neverending story, that would take them far away from the factory with its neon bars of light, its corrugated iron roof, its wire-grated windows, the deafening sound of all those machines endlessly sewing on those same pockets, those same buttonholes, those same Ohio, Made in USA labels. They would be off already, off on the great adventure that took them around the world to all the countries that you see in the movies: India, Bali, California, the Fiji Islands, the Amazon, Casablanca. Or else to the big cities where there are magical monuments, fabulous hotels with gardens on the roofs, fountains and even swimming pools with waves, like in the sea: New York, Rome, Munich, Mexico, Marrakech, Rio de Janeiro. Pouce was the one who could tell the never-ending story best, because she had read about it all in books and in magazines. She knew everything about those cities, those countries: the temperature in winter and in summer, the rainy season, the special foods, the interesting sites, the people. Whatever she didn’t know, she would make up, and that was even more fantastic.

Listening to her, Poussy would add details, or else she’d raise objections as if she were correcting flawed memories, rectifying some inaccuracy, or else bringing some exaggerated fact back into perspective. They would launch into the neverending story almost anywhere, and at any time of day, during the noon break, or even early in the morning while waiting for the bus that took them to the workshop. Sometimes people would listen, looking a bit surprised, and then they’d shrug their shoulders. Francois, Pouce’s boyfriend, would try to slip in a joke here and there, but after a while he’d go stalking off in exasperation. But Poussy liked for Marc to come over and sit with them at the cafe-bar-tobacco shop, because he could play the game so well. He told incredible stories about sneaking onto the Trans-European express one night, without a ticket. Or else about his living for several days at the Maison de la Radio, eating with the staff, and calling his friends on the telephones in the empty offices. With him, you could tell by the way his eyes shone that the stories he told might have been true, and Poussy just loved listening to him talk. Marc wasn’t her boyfriend–he was engaged to a very pretty but somewhat vapid girl named Nicole, whom everyone had nicknamed Minnie, for no real reason.

That’s how they began talking about the great life. At first they talked about it without even realizing it, just as they used to talk of other trips they would go on, to Ecuador, or down the Nile. It was just a game, something to dream about, and so forget the prison of the factory and all the problems with the other girls and with the boss, Rossi. And then, gradually, it began to take shape and they started talking about it seriously, as if it were a sure thing. They just had to get away, they couldn’t stand it anymore. Pouce and Poussy couldn’t think of anything else. If they waited, they’d end up like all the others, old and embittered, and at any rate, they never would have any money. And even supposing the boss, Rossi, didn’t fire them, they knew they couldn’t last much longer now.

So one day they left. It was near the end of March and it was raining, the city was all grey and grimy. A very fine cold drizzle was coming down, getting everything damp–your hair, your feet inside of your boots, even the bed sheets.

Instead of going to the shop, the two girls met in front of the train station, huddling under the awning, with a single one-way ticket to Monte Carlo. They would really have liked to go to Rome or Venice for starters, but they didn’t have enough money. The first-class ticket to Monte Carlo had already eaten up most of their savings.

They’d prepared a postcard for Mama Janine, and they’d written: "We’re going on vacation, don’t worry. Hugs and kisses." And together, laughing, they put the post card in the mailbox.

When they found themselves inside the plush train, sitting on the brand new seats covered with grey felt, with the navy-blue carpeting under their feet, their hearts were beating very fast, faster than ever before. Then the train set out. First it lumbered through the ugly outskirts, then dipped along at top speed between the embankments. Pouce and Poussy settled in, leaning right up against the window, and they drank in as much of the countryside as they possibly could, to the point of even forgetting to talk or laugh. It was great to be off, at last, just like that, without knowing what the future held, without even knowing whether you’d be coming back at all. They hadn’t brought any luggage so as not to alert Mama Janine, just a small travel bag with a few things, and nothing to eat or drink. It was a long trip all the way to Monte Carlo, and they didn’t have much money left. But if one of them felt a slight pang of worry from time to time, it was hardly noticeable. Anyway, that was part of the fun. Every once in a while, Pouce stole a glance at Poussy and felt immediately reassured. Poussy never took her eyes off the green scenery rolling backwards past the wind-flattened raindrops streaking the window.

It was very warm in the compartment, and the sound of the cables clattering monotonously filled their head, so Pouce had dropped off to sleep, while her sister kept watch. After Dijon, they had to be on the look-out for conductors, and Poussy shook Pouce awake. Their plan was simple. They would each go into a different car. The first girl the conductor encountered was to keep the ticket, then she’d bring it back to her friend, and they would pass for one another. The conductor was a young man with a small mustache and he looked more closely at Pouce’s chest than he did at her ticket. When he saw her again, a little further up, he just said: "Are you more comfortable up here?" After that, Pouce and Poussy knew they wouldn’t have any problems on their trip.

The train clattered on all day. Then, just as night was falling, Pouce and Poussy caught sight of the Mediterranean, for the first time, the great, metallic-colored pools between the clefts in the dark mountains.

"It’s beautiful!" Pouce said. Poussy inhaled the cold air blowing in from the open window.

"Look, factories."

The tall chimneys were spitting out flames into the dim twilight. It seemed as if the sea were feeding the fires.

"It’s beautiful? Pouce said. "I’d love to go out there." She was thinking she could walk along the edge of the steely lake, between the tanks and the chimneys. It was lonely out on the seashore. The sky was perfectly pure, the color of water and of fire.

After Marseilles, the train shot through the night, all lit up, with reflections blinding the windows. Pouce and Poussy were hungry, and thirsty, and sleepy. They drew the curtains of the compartment and stretched out on the seat. They had a good fright when the conductor opened the door. But it wasn’t the same man and he merely asked:

"Have you already shown your tickets?"

And he was gone again without waiting for an answer.

Later that night, the train stopped at the station in Nice, and the two young girls pulled down the window to look out at the immense dome of wrought-iron under which chilly travelers bustled. A cold wind blew through the station and Pouce and Poussy were pale with fatigue; they were shivering.

Then the train was off again, going more slowly now. At each station they thought that they’d arrived and would lean out to read the names: Beaulieu, Cap d’Ail.

Finally the train stopped in Monte Carlo, and they stepped down onto the platform. It was late, past ten o’clock in the evening. People were looking at them strangely, especially the men, all hunched up in their overcoats. Pouce looked at Poussy as if to say: "Well what do you think of this, huh?" But they were so tired, they didn’t even have the strength to laugh.

In the taxi that drove them to the hotel ("The best hotel with a nice view of the sea, and a good restaurant") they had whispered suggestions to each other about what they would eat. Fish, lobster, shrimp and champagne; this was no beer-drinking occasion.

After paying for the taxi, there wasn’t much left in Poussy’s drawstring purse, enough to go to the casino the next day, and hand out some good tips. In front of the hotel, Poussy got out first and went over to hide behind some bushes, while Pouce went in to get the room. ("A double bed with a view of the sea.") A few seconds later, key in hand, it was Poussy who was on her way to see room 410. When she came back down, she announced that she was satisfied, except for the sea view, because you had to go out on the balcony, and the bathroom too, which was a bit small. But Pouce gave her a thump on the back and they both laughed real hard. They had forgotten about being tired. They were in a hurry to get something to eat. Pouce said that she was just ravenous. They separated to go up to the room, Pouce three minutes ahead of Poussy, who had taken the stairs at the end of the hall. The hotel was full of very chic people, gentlemen in suits and jackets, in light-colored overcoats, scarves, and women in lame dresses, or in white satin pants. The navy-blue pants and sweaters of the two girls went unnoticed. When they met up again in the large, white room, they got suddenly very elated. They cheered, even sang whatever popped into their heads, and didn’t stop until they lost their voices. Then Pouce went and sat on the balcony, in spite of the cold wind, while Poussy ordered dinner over the telephone. It was too late to order fish or lobster, but she was able to get some hot sandwiches and a bottle of champagne that the bell boy brought up on a small table with wheels. He didn’t even look at Pouce’s silhouette standing outside the window and when Poussy gave him a good tip, his face lit up. "Good night, Mademoiselle" he said as he closed the door.

The two friends ate and drank and the champagne made their heads spin, then all of a sudden gave them a migraine. So then, they turned out the light and lay down fully dressed on the large, cool bed. They fell asleep immediately.

The next day, and those that followed, were like a party. First of all, there was the sunrise. At the first stroke of dawn, Pouce would get out of bed. She’d go into the bathroom and take a long, very hot shower, enjoying the slightly peppery scent of the brand new bar of yellow soap. After bathing, there was also the large white terry cloth bath towel she would wrap up in, watching herself in the mirror that hung on the door. Then Pouce would emerge quivering all over with steam, and she would open the beige curtains to watch the day break. A few seconds later, she would hear water running in the bathroom and Poussy would come to join her half smothered in the pink terry cloth bathrobe. Together they would watch the grey, pearl-colored sea growing gradually lighter, as the lovely pure sky lit up in the east, over by the dark headlands. There wasn’t a sound, and the unbroken horizon seemed immense, like the edge of a cliff. Just as the sun was about to appear, flights of gulls would glide out over the sea. They would go swooping by on the wind, level with the floor on which the girls stood, or even higher up, and that gave you a strange heady feeling, something like being happy.

"It’s beautiful…" Pouce said again, and she would cuddle up closer to Poussy’s bathrobe without taking her eyes off the shining sea.

Later on, each taking a turn, they would call up the hotel restaurant, to have something to eat brought up on the little table with wheels. They would order all sorts of things, randomly, from the menu, pretending to be surprised when they were told that it was too early for lobster a l’Americaine, and they would always order a bottle of champagne. They loved dipping their upper lip into the slender glass and feeling the fizzle of the bubbles stinging their nostrils and the inside of their mouth. The young man came back often now. He was the one who brought up the food and the champagne and the morning papers, folded ceremoniously on top of the little table with wheels. Maybe he enjoyed the generous tips that the young gifts gave him, or maybe he liked to come and see them because they weren’t like the other clients in the hotel, they would laugh, and always seemed to be having such a good time.

He had also shown them how to adjust the shower head and how to work the electric blinds, pushing the button to make the plastic slats pivot. He had brown curly hair and green eyes and his name was Eric. But even so, they hadn’t told him their name because they didn’t completely trust him.

The first few days they hadn’t done much of anything. During the daytime they’d gone out to walk around in the streets, to window shop, then down by the shore, to the harbor, to see the boats.

"It would be so great to go away" said Pouce.

"You mean sail away on a boat?" Poussy asked.

"Yes, sail off, and go far, far, away… To Greece or to Turkey, or even to Egypt."

And so they walked down the wharves past the long booms to pick out the boat they would have liked to sail away on. But it was still winter; the rigging snapped in the cold wind and the moorings groaned. No one was on the boats.

Finally, they found one that they liked pretty well. It was a big blue boat with a wooden mast and a cabin hardly bigger than a dog house. It was named "Cat" and that seemed like a really fine name to them, too. They even climbed aboard–Pouce went up front and stretched out along the slender stern, looking down into the dark water, and Poussy stood next to the cabin, making sure no one was coming.

Then it started raining and they dashed for shelter under the porticos of the closed restaurants. They watched the drops falling into the water of the harbor, talking and laughing. There really wasn’t a soul anywhere, or hardly. From time to time, a car would go rolling slowly along on the avenue, heading back up into the city above.

Afterward, the two young girls went back to the hotel, first one, then the other, as usual, one taking the elevator, the other the stairs, and they ordered a bunch of things to eat over the telephone: fish, shellfish, fruit, cakes. But they didn’t drink champagne any more because it really gave them a terrible headache. They ordered lemon soda, or fruit juices, or Coca-Cola.

Those were the first couple of days. After that, Pouce grew tired of eating in the hotel room and hiding in the bathroom every time someone knocked at the door for fear it wouldn’t be the same bell boy. For that matter, they were both tired of the hotel, and people were starting to look at them strangely, maybe because they were always wearing the same clothes, and there were also people who had seen them together, and Poussy said that they’d end up getting caught.

One beautiful sunny morning, they left, first one, then the other. Poussy went out first, as if she were going for a walk in the garden after breakfast, over by the pool. Pouce threw the travel bag containing their belongings down from the window, and a few minutes later, she went downstairs in turn, and stepped out on to the avenue; at the end of the block she met Poussy with the bag. They walked along talking and laughing and, since they hardly had any money left, decided to hitch a ride.

Pouce wanted to head for Nice, and Poussy for Italy; so they flipped a coin, and Poussy won. Before leaving, Pouce wanted to at least call home to say that everything was fine. She put a coin in the telephone and when Mama Janine picked up the phone on the other end, she said very quickly just before the line cut off:

"It’s Christele. Everything’s fine, don’t worry. Love you."

Poussy said that it surely wasn’t worthwhile to make such a short telephone call, and that moreover, Mama Janine might think that they’d been kidnapped and that they’d been forced to talk very quickly.

"You really think so?" said Pouce. It seemed to bother her for a minute, and then she didn’t think about it anymore. Later on, Poussy said: "We’ll send her a postcard from Monte-Carlo. By the time it gets there, we’ll already be in Italy and out of danger."

In a tobacco shop, they picked out a card with a picture of the Rock, or the Prince’s Palace, or something along those lines, and borrowing a ball point pen, they both wrote "See you soon, love and kisses," and they signed it: Christele, Christelle. They put Mama Janine’s address on it and slipped it into a mailbox.

They stood at a traffic light on the seafront avenue to hitch-hike. It was a beautiful day, and they didn’t wait long. A Mercedes stopped, driven by a man of about fifty, dressed like a playboy and smelling of soap. Pouce climbed in to the back of the car and Poussy took the seat beside the driver.

"Where are you going?"

"To Italy," said Pouce.

The man touched the bridge of his sunglasses.

"I’m only going as far as Menton. But Italy isn’t far from there."

He was driving fast, and it was making Poussy a little nauseous.

Or maybe it was the smell of the soap. He would glance sideways at the young girl from time to time.

"Are you twins?"

"Yes," said Pousssy.

"It’s easy to see," said the man. "You look exactly alike, like two peas in a pod."

He was getting irritated because the two girls weren’t in the mood for talking. So he lit up a cigarette. He was passing other cars recklessly, in the curves, and would honk the horn furiously when someone wouldn’t let him pass.

Then he said, all of a sudden:

"Do you know its dangerous for two pretty girls like you to be hitch-hiking?"

"Oh really?" Poussy said.

The man gave a little throaty laugh.

"Yes, because if I took you on a little ride to some deserted place, what would you be able to do about it?"

"We know how to look after ourselves pretty well you know."

The man slowed down.

"What would you do?"

After having thought it over, Poussy said calmly:

"Well, I’d smash you in the Adam’s apple with my forearm–it’s really quite painful–in the meantime, my friend here would be dapping you over both ears to burst your eardrums. And if that wasn’t enough, I’d give you a good jab right in the private parts with a pin I have just for such occasions."

For a little while, the man kept on driving without saying anything. Poussy could see he was having difficulty swallowing. Then the car entered the city of Menton, and the man slammed on the brakes, without warning. He leaned over Poussy, opened the door, and said in a strangely mean voice:

"All right, here you are now. Get out of my sight."

The two girls stepped out on the sidewalk. The man slammed the car door and the Mercedes sped down to the end of the street and disappeared.

"What got into him?" asked Poussy.

"I believe you scared him," said Pouce. And they laughed for quite some time over that one.

They decided to just walk for a little while. They crossed the small town, whose streets were bright with sunshine. In a grocery store, while Poussy asked the shopkeeper something, Pouce grabbed two apples and an orange, and pushed them into the travel bag. Farther along, they sat down on the shore to rest, while they ate the two apples and the orange. The sea was beautiful with the cold wind blowing over it, a deep blue, skirted with foam. It was great just sitting there looking at it, not saying anything, biting into the green apples. You forgot about everyone, and became very distant, like an island lost out at sea. That was what Poussy was thinking about, about that: how easy it was to go off and forget about people, places, to be new again. It was because of the sun, the wind, and the sea.

The white birds were hovering over the waves, giving out plaintive cries. When Pouce threw a piece of orange peel on tothe shingle beach, they came flapping down, screeching, then separated, and started floating on the wind once again.

"It’s nice here," said Pouce.

She turned to look at Poussy. Her handsome, angular face was already tanned from these days of sunshine, and her black hair sparkled with salt and sunlight. Pouce was more on the reddish side, especially her nose, which was starting to peel.

"What if we stayed here for a few days?" Poussy said:

"Till tomorrow, all right."

They found a hotel on the seafront avenue, an old hotel that was all white with a garden in the back. It wasn’t as luxurious as the one in Monte Carlo, but they decided to get a room for two this time. As she was registering, Poussy asked: "Would you like us to pay right away?" And, of course, the receptionist said: "Whenever you like. At checkout is more convenient." It built up people’s confidence in you. The room was nice and well lighted, and off in the distance, between the palm trees, you could glimpse the thin line of the sea mingling with the sky.

The evening was especially beautiful when the wind stopped, like a bated breath, and the warm yellow light set the pink, white, and ochre houses aglow, and the sharp silhouette of the old town stood out against the pale sky. It was like being at the very end of the world, "like in Venice," Poussy said.

"We’ll go, won’t we? We’ll go to Venice later?" Pouce asked, with an almost childlike inflection, and Poussy smiled and hugged her tightly.

[The second half of Le Clézio’s "The Great Life" continues in the post immediately below].


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