Back in those days, Midstreet was still blocked up and the foot-traffic for most part diverted down Gateway or Cornerstone. The mornings were long, the afternoons quiet, broken only by the short, warm press of people that came by the café around lunch hour, and then disappeared almost as soon as they had come. Otherwise, throughout the day, the unladen tables shone beneath their striped parasols, the chairs sat still in front of Le Pain de Molière (depuis 1817), and I stood outside with my hands in my pockets, biting an unlit pipe, watching the sun as it rose, watching the sun as it fell.
The folk upstairs were mostly old couples who owned their apartments, but a young visitor did come by one winter. I did not see her arrive—I wiled all cold and wet weather away indoors, pestering the cooks with my senseless chatter—I did not notice her until the spring began, when, with teeth gritted over a pipe that would not stay lit in the brisk morning wind, I dragged the chairs and tables outside once more, and opened the pink-and-white-striped parasols to shield off a sun that did not yet shine.
A young girl on the street waved to me, and called a shrill, “Hallu!”
“Grüezi,” I called back, absently.
I saw her again after what felt like a few weeks (but was more likely a few days, for the weather had not changed a bit). If I remember rightly it was in the late afternoon, as I folded away the soggy parasols that no one had wanted to sit underneath—her shrill voice echoed through the empty street, to me:
“Guten Tag,” I called back.
I saw her quite often after that. Whenever she saw me, her face lit up, and she waved her arms wildly until I met her eye; and then, her irrepressible—
For some reason, I recall one particular afternoon when she came home skipping over an imaginary rope, the last syllable of her greeting stretched out and broken every time her feet hit the ground:
I burst out laughing. I could not help it, it sounded so comical.
It was funny, also, how she always greeted me as though genuinely happy to see me. Not the way strangers nod and smile curtly, whenever their eyes accidentally meet. It was as though she rejoiced at the mere sight of me. I could not understand it.
But then, I had never tried to understand it in earnest. Sometimes things are more beautiful when they remain as mysteries.
There were times I found myself laughing, completely out of the blue, only realizing afterwards that it was the memory of her smile that had brought the sudden cheer into my spirit.
Sometimes I spotted her on the street, before she did me (her eyes were often turned up to the sky, watching trees, or birds, or clouds, or God—I know not what); but I never called to her myself. Unless she greeted me first.
I still do not know why I was this way.
Perhaps I only saw her with the same passive eyes that had watched a thousand guests of the Pain appear and disappear within the space of a single midday hour; heard her with the same passive ears that had listed to the people's thousand voices, at the twelfth stroke, bringing the sweet air about the café to life, then leaving behind a silence like death, at the first. Perhaps it was only in the same passive spirit, in which I could wile away whole mornings and afternoons, hands in pockets, pipe in mouth, counting chimes from a distant clocktower, not moving except to shift my weight from one foot to the other, or to bend over the ground and spit.
The spirit that I had assumed through those unnumbered and unvarying years on a lonely street, to which happiness only came during the sunniest hour, no matter how early you yearned for it, and which happiness forsook once the short hour had passed, no matter how desperately you clung to it.
And so I let her call to me if she wished, and let her go as she would.
Around midsummer, one always has a little more time to waste. The guests lounge in their chairs, the sour cooks come out to smoke and to joke in the long sunshine, and I chatter as much as I wait on them all, and share those family stories that are forever stale except between a glass of lemonade and a summer evening, and show off my French to every clueless German who cannot tell from my accent that I am actually Swiss.
Then summer wanes, and autumn comes chilly, and the winter bitter after it.
After miserable, stubborn weather, there is spring. You drag out the chairs and tables once more; but your eyes are otherwhere, glancing up and down the street. Your ears prick at every sound.
A cold gust tumbles haphazardly down the street, like a panicking passerby who meant to go down Cornerstone or Gateway, but has found himself at the blocked-up end of Midstreet. Its howl has not quite lost its wintry edge:
Like the voice of a forgotten friend.
The morning waxes. The wind wanders off. You open up the parasols, and wait for the sun.