The Accident

excerptStanding in front of the Corso building on Calea Victoriei one day, he felt someone's familiar gaze follow him from across the street, as if to catch his eye. He crossed over, as though answering a call, and discovered a picture of Ann among several other portraits of beautiful women, displayed in a photographer's shop window. "She probably had it taken before leaving," he thought. He gave the picture a long contemplative look, as if she was standing before him again after their long separation. The picture showed her wearing a long sleeve black sweater, done up like a tunic. On the left side, instead of a pocket, a white letter, not stitched to, but sown into the texture of the sweater, a triangular A, like the emblem of a sports club. Contrasting with the black sweater and its coarse texture, her hair seemed to take on an even blonder hue, like a bright morning light. From all the pictures he had seen, that was the first one in which Ann was not laughing. An feeble smile barely opened her lips. Her head was slightly tilted, with a probing and questioning gesture.He slowly walked away, strolling aimlessly uptown towards Nestor. He paused from force of habit to look at the display windows of the bookstores, not being able to discern anything. He could not distinguish any book titles or periodicals, but kept seeing the same tilted blond head, the same A imprinted upon the left breast, like a word addressed to him, like a whisper which he alone could make out. He did not entirely rule out the possibility that she had this picture taken especially for him the day before her departure and had left it there for display, perhaps secretly hoping that he would eventually walk by and discover it. There was so much in that picture which reminded him of Ann as she used to be, and made him believe her disheartened smile was meant for him. But he refused to give in to that thought which was taking hold of him, and he abruptly ended his reverie. "I'm a hopeless fool. To think that I would even be attracted to shop window photos now."And yet, he still returned to look at the picture in the following days. Something had changed with the discovery of that photo in the window. He felt less alone in that town, which had seemed so empty before. Going to work in the mornings, he would carry with him a vague sensation of impatience, just like on the days of an appointment, a departure or a long-expected concert. He would pass by that window several times a day, sometimes only daring to steal a hasty glance to her picture. He feared his persistence would be noticed, especially in the evenings, when the café across would be packed with people, and so many acquaintances, actors, painters and writers would sit at the tables on the street. On other occasions he would stop, as if just having discovered it by chance, and continue to gaze upon it for a long time. He would resort to various tricks to conceal his anxiety and to act as if those times he stopped in front of the same window were accidental, or even casual. Still, he felt none of those tricks was too inspired: neither pretending to have lost a coin and pausing to look for it, nor taking out his notepad to scribble down something he had just remembered, or looking distractedly around while waiting for an empty carriage at a street corner.Each time he came back fearing that the photograph had been removed from the window and replaced with another in the meantime. He had experienced that same fear, that same excitement, as he remembered, while Ann was staying in Bucharest, when he used to go up to her apartment, wondering whether he would find her at home or not.Yet, that smile in the window seemed like a distant unwavering, reassuring call. It was a faint, sad smile, which seemed too shy to open up. Ann was looking at him in that picture, shaking her head wearily, shrugging her shoulders helplessly, as if saying, "It's no use explaining this to you: you still wouldn't believe, still wouldn't understand…"One morning, Paul remained frozen with panic on the sidewalk: the picture had disappeared from the window. The evening before it had still been there – he had seen it with his own eyes – but everything had changed overnight. A new series of pictures had been placed behind the glass, a few photos of a bride, a young officer in gala military uniform, some chubby children, various other unfamiliar faces, exchanging glances, smiles, greetings. Embarrassed, Paul examined them questioningly, with that self-conscious, inquisitive look of someone who opens a train compartment door and interrupts with his unexpected entrance the feel of intimacy that a few hours of traveling together has created."There's no free seat," that is what the icy silence, which suddenly surrounds the intruder, seems to imply – and the pictures in the shop window, caught by his persistent gaze, seemed to suggest the very same. He almost apologized (sorry, it's a mistake, I was looking for someone) and was ready to tear himself away from there, despite the fact that it felt so hard to give it all up. Yet suddenly, there was Ann, in the right corner of the window, as though she had been hiding from him all that time. She seemed to barely contain her laughter, as if just about to wrap her arms around his neck in an outburst of joy and tenderness. That new face of Ann was so very different from the one he had seen the night before, that it was hardly surprising he had not recognized her right away.There had been times before when he would go by her house and ring her bell, and the door would seem to open by itself, as if pulled by an invisible hand. He would walk in, call her name and look for her in every room. And yet, only later would she jump forth from the corner she had been hiding in for so long, particularly when she had new dress on and wanted to surprise him by letting him be the first to see it.She was wearing a new dress in that picture too, a silk dress with a delicate flower print, and a light, almost white straw hat on her head, nearly blending in with the blond hue of her hair. It was a wide-brimmed hat fit for a sunny day in the fields. Everything suggested freshness and dawning light, still there was something sensual in her white arms and her bare neck. They seemed even more exposed by the movement of her head, which was slightly bent back as if to allow her to laugh without restraint. For she was laughing in that new picture, a free, unbridled laugh.This time, Ann looked completely different from the day before, when her black sweater had made her look like a young boy, lost in his thoughts. Paul would often feel troubled by the ease with which she would turn into a new person each time.She only had to change her hairstyle or wear a new color, and something seemed profoundly different about her, even the expression of her eyes. There were an endless number of potential Anns, and each of them intimidated Paul for an instant, for he could not associate that stranger right away with the beloved woman he had just seen the night before.He found it hard to get used to the new picture in the window. He did not like Ann's laughter, and above all, he did not like the backward movement of her head, expressing that gesture of amusement she had recently adopted, which seemed to say, "How amusing, how very amusing."Nevertheless, he would pass by that place several times a day, gradually getting used to Ann's new face, her dress, her new straw hat and finally, even to that laughter, which did not seem unfamiliar any longer. Quite on the contrary, he felt it had emerged from their earliest love-memories. That was the way Ann used to laugh in the happy days they had spent in Sibiu.The photographer's shop window would change every week, and Paul was now twice as anxious about the weekends, when he had to part with an Ann whom he had befriended, and at the same time, wait for a new, mysterious Ann, who was not even sure to come.On Saturday nights he would stay out late so he could look at her again. People were scarce at that hour, since Corso closed after 2 o'clock, so he could stay as long as he pleased in front of the window, to part from that Ann, who would no longer be there the next morning. The lights were out and in the dimness of the shop window she seemed to be answering and waiting for him.Sunday morning, a new smile, a new dress, a scarf, a hat, a gesture greeted him in a recently displayed photograph. How many pictures had she sat for? And why so many? Paul had not been aware before of her passion for having pictures taken of her, and apart from a few amateur shots, made mostly during their trips, and a couple of small passport photos, he did not have any other pictures of her.It certainly was a new passion, a recent whim, and possibly more than that, a scheme, a precautionary measure taken on the eve of her departure. Ann had lately become a "celebrity" in Bucharest, a "hit". She could be seen everywhere around, at the theatre, at the races, at the soccer games; her dresses were noticed, people would talk about her and she enjoyed that.But by leaving Bucharest for a longer period of time, she risked falling from the public attention and losing the little social fame she had earned not without effort. The pictures she had left behind possibly had no other purpose than keeping that fame up and preventing people from forgetting her. The more inconspicuous a picture, the more likely its display in that window. There were never any photos of news bulletins or political events, the kind that attracted crowds of curious onlookers. There were only art photos, portraits which seemed to have been displayed there not for the sake of the names, but rather for the quality of the shots and the fine curves of the outline. However, that did not prevent them from displaying the most glamorous celebrities in Bucharest, princesses, great women artists, wives of famous industrial tycoons.Among this diversity of "expressive faces", Ann fitted in naturally, somehow casually. Still, there were so many photos of her and her presence in every new display was so regular, that Paul would sadly wonder whether she was not looking for cheap effects with her insistence on showing herself and inviting the others to look at her. Sometimes he would feel that her gestures, so vividly and expressively captured in the pictures, were fit for a starlet. In those moments he would eye her with resentment, with hostility – a certain bitterness which soon faded away, as he was getting used to a new picture and felt a warm bond of intimacy growing between them day by day.He would not have missed any week-end without leaving Bucharest in the previous summers, either to go out to the mountains or to the beach, but now he kept turning down invitations, for he felt he had an appointment on Sunday mornings he could not fail to keep. Indeed, his first destination downtown was that window, where he had to find – in spite of his fear and anxiety – a new Ann for the coming week. Sometimes he would arrive too early, before the display window had been arranged, and a cloth curtain would be pulled all the way down, like a theatre curtain behind which the new pictures would be set in order. Paul would then walk up and down the sidewalk, feeling both anxious and confident. He remembered walking like this in front of Ann's house, while up in her room she would be getting dressed, after sending him outside to wait for her in the street. He felt confident because he was certain she would come and in that sense there was nothing to feel threatened about, but still, at the same time he felt anxious, because he had to wonder how she would come down, what dress she would wear, how beautiful she would be.One morning, the cloth curtain rose in vain: Ann was missing from the display window. Patiently, Paul started to look for her, at first calm and collected, searching every single portrait, then alarmed, terrified at the thought that she might have actually disappeared, and that he would not be able to find her again. He wished to believe it was a mistake or a joke, to imagine she was hiding and that she would suddenly turn up before him. He wished he could have told her as before: "Come now, Ann, enough of that; stop joking…"He stood there, glued to the spot, feeling his heart sink; he had the impression he was losing her once again, and watching her leave for good, perhaps."I need to see her," he said out loud. "I really need to see her."Three days later he arrived in Liège.Within a few hours he left in a feverish haste, with the little money he could scrape together at short notice and a passport issued at the last moment. He took the longest and cheapest route, third class, via Poland and Germany, changing trains more than a few times, waiting in several railway stations for complicated connections to Berlin, Cologne, Hergenrath and finally arriving late at night in Liège, feeling faint from lack of sleep and strain.He kept telling himself he was acting foolishly, and was being utterly ridiculous. He had undoubtedly lost the woman he was seeking and in any case, he would only lose her for good, by pursuing her the way he did. Yet nothing could have stopped him from that absurd race, which he had blindly undertaken.He only hesitated for one brief moment, on the morning of the departure. He was in the building of the Ministry of Internal Affairs, in the office of an Undersecretary of State, with whom he was acquainted and whom he had come to ask for help with his passport. On the wall, above the desk, he discovered a painting made by Ann: the sandy coast of Balcic, with scarce coarse, dusty, almost ashen plants, and a sole corner of deep blue sea.Paul's eyes seemed riveted to the painting. How did it end up in that office? How had that man come to buy it and what for? Still in his prime, the undersecretary was famed for his affairs in the theatrical world, which were rather openly discussed and which he himself had not made great efforts to cover up."You seem absorbed in thought. What happened?" he asked Paul, and took the petition from his hand. Paul gave no answer. Still, he could not take his eyes off Ann's signature, her tiny slanting signature at the bottom of the painting, partly obscured by the frame. He got back the signed document and wondered what to do with it after all that: everything seemed pointless and absurd."Take this to the commissioner of police. I'll make a call in the meantime. By the time you get there, in half an hour, they will have the passport waiting for you."As Paul still kept his silence and continued to stare at that unexpected view of Balcic hanging on the wall, the minister also turned his head towards the painting, examined it somehow surprised, as if he had never paid close attention to it before. Then, turning to face Paul once again, he smiled and said: "Charming, isn't she?"The whole trip left him in a state of confusion: he passed through unknown countries and waited for train connections in small border towns. At night he gazed through the open window of the carriage out into the vast, empty Polish plains, which seemed bleak and barren in spite of the summer. He watched German railway stations pass along, reading their names as if they had been written on the tuning dial of a radio: Beuthen, Gleiwitz, Breslau. Everything flashed by, in a dreamlike, hazy, strange and yet distant succession: Ann was somewhere ahead, at the end of that journey.At daybreak he stopped in a dormant, desolate Berlin, with large, deserted streets, with quiet buildings and gaudy statues, which looked surreal in the morning light, almost like a discarded theatre scenery. That was a plaster town, looking like its own life-sized scale model, and Paul was walking through its streets, the sound of his steps echoing on the pavement, slowly, one by one. He spent that evening in Cologne, waiting for the last train to finally take him to Liège. He looked tired and unshaven, with messy clothes and sunken eyes from lack of sleep. "This is the face of a fugitive," he thought, looking into a mirror in the station. What was more, he felt he was being followed everywhere he turned, and the platforms seemed crowded with police agents and patrols.It was July 1934, shortly after the serious conflicts that had taken place in Germany not long before, and, because of his pitiful appearance, Paul might have been easily taken for a political refugee. The tense silence of a besieged town reigned all around. The storm troops had been forced to take a few days off, and uniforms had been forbidden. With no guns, boots, caps, or banners around, Cologne looked like a city on the verge of surrender.All the way to the border he had felt haunted by the same feeling of numb panic. He could hear muffled voices down the corridors; the door to his compartment opened again and again to let countless control- and check-squads in, while sentinels were guarding the exits. Before it reached Aachen, the last German station, the train was stopped, and the passengers were brought down and surrounded by two rows of agents and customs officers. Light signals, whistles, brief, harsh orders were crossing in the night. Someone had taken his passport and was examining it carefully, turning every page. "Why are you going to Liège?"The question took him by surprise.He could not exactly tell why he was going there. For the first time since his departure, he was confronted with that puzzling question. He shrugged his shoulders in perplexity, although his gesture did not answer the question asked by the police officer, but his own confusion. Yet his silence was probably becoming suspicious, for the agent suddenly turned on his pocket light and pointed it up towards Paul's head, like a gun muzzle. In the glaring light, Paul met a cold, sharp, piercing look. "I'm lost," he thought. He imagined himself being stopped there, in that station on the border, placed under guard, possibly sent back to Cologne for investigations. He had heard that each day people were arrested by the hundred at every border checkpoint, from where former storm-troop soldiers, having escaped the massacre in Munich, tried to run away using borrowed civilian clothes and forged passports.The man continued to hold the blinding light over Paul's face."I should talk, I should answer, this silence will cost me dear," Paul thought, but nevertheless he felt unable to utter even a word, or find an explanation."I'm going to Liège to see a woman I love," he thought, but the words were left unspoken, just as in those terrible nightmares, when you feel like calling or crying out for help, but your lips are sealed. He had come so close to Ann (Liège was just 58 km away, as he remembered with a thrill) and yet she was farther away than ever."Es geht schon," the officer grumbled, and quite unexpectedly turned off the light, gave him back the passport and passed on.Only later, upon finally catching a first glimpse of a Belgian customs officer wearing a uniform cap and hearing the first French words, did Paul recover from the tension of that terrible moment.There were friendly voices outside, and calm, rather sluggish footsteps on the platform. "I am in Belgium," he thought, as if just waking up from a nightmare. He took a long look at the rectangular red stamp, which a clerk had printed in his passport: "Hergenrath, 23 Juillet 1934. Contrôle des Passagers."Ann was not in Liège. She had left a few days before, but nobody knew her exact destination. No one at the Romanian Pavilion could give him a definite answer."We opened the pavilion on the fifteenth, and she left on the sixteenth," one of Ann's colleagues told Paul. He had stayed in Liège to supervise the late arrival of a few paintings."Who knows where she went? Maybe to Brussels, or somewhere to the seaside. She was exhausted. She has been up day and night lately. Anyway, check with the hotel."The hotel staff knew nothing further. Ann had left without leaving her address."She will definitely return," the doorkeeper reassured Paul. "She asked me to collect her mail. Besides, she left a suitcase and a whole box of tubes and colors behind."He was running too low on money to afford going on to Brussels, looking for her in that big unknown city, where, after all, he was most unlikely to find her. The only wise thing to do was to wait for her in Liège, where at least she was sure to return, and where he could enjoy so many sights while waiting for her. Ann had lived there for a couple of weeks and the town probably preserved her memory in countless little details. There were streets she had walked on, and shop windows she had stopped to look at, charming provincial Belgian shop windows, slightly affecting elegance. After all, Paris was not that far away! Still, there was something blunt, stodgy, and rather clumsy about their lack of imagination.On rainy evenings, she had undoubtedly walked all along the banks of the tranquil course of the river Meuse, which ran straight through the heart of the town. She had been alone, just as in Bucharest, bareheaded, wearing a trench coat, and holding her hands in her pockets.One day, after the rain had stopped, Paul discovered an older, faded, torn poster on a wall, under the first layer of playbills, which had come unstuck because of the water: "Salle Communale, 26 Juin 1934, Clothilde et Alexandre Sacharoff, grand récital de danse." Unquestionably, Ann had attended that performance. Although she did not care much for music, her appeal for dancing was more than the mere fascination of a spectator. It was rather a kind of secret nostalgia, which made her regret that, instead of painting, she had lacked the courage to take up dancing at the right time. Something in her had always drawn her towards the open stage, the lights and the applause… Ann had definitely attended that performance. For a long time Paul contemplated that poster which suddenly evoked the image of a certain evening. It was not an abstract, hypothetical evening, one among thousand others. Rather, it was a specific one, to which he could assign a name and a date – Wednesday, 26th June 1934, 8.30 p.m. sharp – one which he could set apart from those days Ann had spent without him and which he could call up again, now, after all that time.Most of the newsreels shown at the cinemas in Liège during that week concerned the exhibition and its opening ceremonies in particular. Paul greedily watched each of them several times, because of a few fleeting moments when the camera of the reporter had captured Ann's face in passing. Yet, those instants were brief. As soon as he caught a glimpse of her, she disappeared in a flash, as if vanishing in the crowd. Since Fox, Paramount and Pathé presented their own version of the opening ceremony, one of newsreels showed Ann's face lingering for a few seconds quite visibly in the foreground. However, her head was turned sideways, so Paul felt tempted to call her and wave, as if she were able to hear and turn to see him. Surrounded by a group wearing tailcoat uniforms, King Leopold and Queen Astrid were approaching from behind. Meanwhile, Ann was standing on tiptoes turning her head even further to the right, probably in order to get a closer look.The Eclair newsreel, which came out with a delay of several days, happened to show more of the king and queen's visit to the Romanian Pavilion. Ann could be seen quite distinctly, leaning against her panel, ready to offer explanations, as it seemed. Queen Astrid paused shortly before passing on and appeared to greet Ann with a smile: their white dresses, standing next to each other, lit up the whole screen. The shot lasted for merely a few seconds, but the images were clear and filmed in close-up, so that Paul had time to look her straight in the eyes.The panel Ann had painted almost filled the entire rear wall of the pavilion. She had applied it directly onto the wall, on the wet plaster, something that, to Paul's knowledge, she had never tried before. There were two landscapes, featuring oil wells and, fields, respectively, separated by a water stream running like a border in-between. "She was lucky," said the painter whom Paul had met at the pavilion and who was leading him now through the exhibition. "She was quite lucky. To paint a fresco of a stream of water is pure madness. But she made it. Look at this depth, this clarity!"Indeed, everything about Ann's composition expressed more confidence, more determination than her usual style. A few details in that landscape, some flowers in the field, a tiny group of cattle in the background, still reminded him of her minute brushwork, suggesting the playful movements of the pen. However, the broad lines of that panel, the heavy black oil wells, the peasant women in the foreground had a firmness about them, which suggested a restrained tranquillity. The colors she used acquired a violent metallic shade in her paintings but seemed to sink into that wall and to express serenity without fading away.Paul came by the pavilion every day, hoping they might have any news for him. There was a reception desk, a sort of reading room over there, where they received the mail and some newspapers from home. One day, he recognized Ann's handwriting on a postcard, sent to all the "chaps" at the pavilion, with greetings from Ostenda. "We are just passing through, the weather is gorgeous, what's going on over there?" Next to Ann's signature there was another indecipherable one, which definitely belonged to a man."Who is that?" Paul asked."Danulescu, the architect, don't you know him? I thought I had told you. She left with him. They took his car."He did not dare ask anything further. 'She left with him'? What did that mean? Those words sounded terrible, as if he had said, "she lives with him", or "she sleeps with him".He did not dare ask, and there was nothing more to ask, after all. Everything had finally come to light. Now he understood why she had suddenly left Bucharest without notice, moreover, how she had come to take part in the Liège exhibition, where she would not have been invited and entrusted with such a demanding task, unless she had been the "protégé" of Danulescu, the architect who had managed and supervised the interior decoration of the pavilion.He looked again at Ann's panel with a new understanding, and found the source of that fundamental change from her regular style.That panel had definitely not been painted by the impetuous woman he knew. The brushstrokes were firm and the colors were composed. The reason for all that was the support of a man, who had held her swift hand into his strong arm, guiding it carefully over the entire span of the landscape, just like guiding the hand of a child over the pages of a notebook; a child holding the pencil tight between his fingers despite being still unable to write.And as if he needed a last piece of evidence, to confirm his suspicions, Paul discovered Danulescu's article on the Mural Paintings of the Romanian Monasteries in that very reading room, in a special issue of a Belgian art magazine, which had come out on the occasion of the exhibition. It included a few sketches and reproductions. Most of them dwelt on the frescoes of Snagov, particularly the "Descent from the Cross", which Ann had pointed out to him years before in the small monastery on the shore of the lake. In a close-up of a detail, the reproduction showed an old man anxiously stroking his beard in the background, in a manner which Ann had defined as "lay", and which Danulescu also referred to in his article.It could not have been a mere coincidence. It was even harder to believe that Ann had indicated that detail to the architect, since he was considered a famous authority in mural painting. It seemed much more likely that he had showed it to her first, but if that was the case, then she had known Danulescu for a long time, and their relationship probably went a far way back, farther than the romance he thought he and Ann had shared.He felt betrayed. Even their earliest memories seemed nothing else but a lie. He left Liège on that very day and went back home. Autumn had arrived and the last holiday-makers returned from their voyages. Bucharest was seized by the opening rush of the new artistic season. The theatre performances, concerts and painting exhibitions opened one by one, but Ann was nowhere to be seen. She was definitely in Bucharest, now that the Liège exhibition was over, but Paul had not met her once. As a matter of fact, he hardly ever went out. Particularly in the evenings, when he was weary after spending all day in court, he stayed indoors and read, or listened to music. He was not excited about any of that, but he felt glad to have an excuse for not going out and meeting anyone. He sometimes nostalgically imagined living like a provincial high-school teacher, somewhere in a small secluded place, with no trains or newspapers around, where the highlight of his day would be, at the most, playing chess with the Physics and Chemistry teacher, a lonely and embittered bachelor. One evening, he happened to pass by Ann's house and look up to her windows out of habit rather than out of curiosity: there was light inside. "She's home," he calmly thought, feeling neither excited, nor eager to see her, as if he had merely said: "It's raining," or "it's late."He would spend whole days without thinking of her, without remembering anything. It all seemed distant, gone, forever fallen into oblivion. The phone operator at the office would sometimes tell him: "There was a call for you; a woman; she wouldn't leave her name." He did not even make the effort to figure it out. "Ann, maybe? Yes, maybe. So what?"Still, he would sometimes wake up at night with her name on his lips. Those were the times when the need to see her felt like a shooting pain. He felt no desire to talk to her, for he had nothing more to say and any return to the past seemed a wasted effort, but he only wished to take a look at her, even without her knowledge, like watching a passer-by through a window.A film studio manager came by his office one day. They were discussing a financial sentence that called for an appeal, but Paul suddenly interrupted him, a thought flashing across his mind."What do you do with the old newsreels?"Unable to understand how that question was related to the lawsuit, the manager replied in puzzlement:"We send some back to the film center. But we keep most of them in our storage rooms and destroy them after a year or two.""Could you possibly find an Eclair newsreel which came out last summer, in July? If you do, could you screen it for me, somewhere in a projection room?""Easily. We have our own projection room. I only hope we can find that film in storage. If it came out in July, it might be somewhere out of town. There are a few places where we send the newsreels made a couple of months or even a year ago, charging a very low price for them of course…"Paul reflected: if the film was in Bucharest, he could see Ann on that same day; however, if it was out of town, his plans fell through. He had come so close to succeed, that now, when everything seemed uncertain, he felt as if he was missing out on a date which he had planned a long time ago."I'd like to ask you a favor," he told his client. "Please, call the storage right away to find out about that film. If they have it, I'd like to watch it today. If they sent it out of town, let them find out where they show it, in which town and what movie theatre exactly. Forgive me, it's a matter I can't explain, but I must definitely watch that movie, wherever it may be."In fact, he was determined to leave town, to any destination. For a second he considered departure preparations: postponing a lawsuit to the next day, rapidly dictating two letters to the typist… However, he received a call after fifteen minutes informing him that the newsreel he was interested in was in storage and he could watch it that same afternoon at four. The projection room was located at Saint George Square. It was a small room on the fifth floor, with covered windows and a low ceiling, shaped like a box. The motion-picture projector inside was just as noisy as a plane engine or an industrial plant. Paul had to watch the end of a movie they were screening for a few cinema owners from out of town, who had come to Bucharest to sign up for the 1934-1935 "winter season" movies. They were watching "Bolero", an adventure comedy featuring Carole Lombard and George Raft. He could not get anything out of it. When the lights went on again, the few viewers eyed him apprehensively, as if he were a new competitor. Their suspicion grew even stronger when they were invited in the director's office to discuss the terms of the contract, and they had to leave him in there. They feared he might watch a special feature presentation, "a season hit", which was only shown to the exclusive buyers in utmost confidentiality.Paul was alone with the cameraman; the lights went off again. Flickering at first, the image finally got steady, and the old newsreel he had watched in Liège in July was back on screen. It seemed less impressive than before, because the film was in a bad condition, the image was out of focus and the screen was considerably smaller, almost half the size of the usual cinema screens. The long-forgotten scenes of the newsreel came on, one by one: Sir John Simon, Great Britain's Minister of Foreign Affairs, welcoming the French Minister of Foreign Affairs in the London railway station… The strikes in San Francisco spreading out; most factories and plants being closed down; the total number of strikers reaching 150000… Ambassador Dogalewski's funeral ceremony in Paris; the mortal remains of the Russian diplomat cremated at Père Lachaise… Chancellor Dolfuss forming a new largely reshuffled government… The opening of the Liège exhibition… A general view of the pavilions, the main entrance, the arrival of the royal retinue, walking up the main alley, then suddenly Ann, leaning onto her panel, greeted by Queen Astrid with a smile, their white dresses, side by side.Sitting alone in the projection room, so close to a screen that was just about the size of a window, Paul was looking into Ann's eyes, feeling nothing but indifference. If he could have talked to her, if she could have heard him, he would have calmly declared: "I will forget you, Ann, I will. I want to."In November, the Dalles Hall hosted Ann's painting exhibition. Solemnly printed white ads were posted everywhere, announcing the opening ceremony days in advance. All the walls, all the advertising boards displayed Ann's name: "November 10-December 10. Painting exhibition. Oils, water colors, gouaches."Paul would pass by, determined to ignore them. He felt each one of them was drawing his attention. In the old days, he remembered feeling a childish pride whenever he discovered that beloved name in magazines, in shop windows, or posted on walls. Now it seemed a sign of indiscretion and abuse – and indeed, no painting exhibition had ever attracted so much publicity before.A few days before the event, he had received a mailed invitation for the opening ceremony at his home address. The typed text announced the event for eleven o'clock, but Ann had added a handwritten line: "early arrivals will be accepted." After all those months of utter silence, those were the first words she had sent him. He had decided not to see the exhibition and definitely not to attend the opening ceremony. For a moment he even considered leaving town, but then he changed his mind: he did not want to convince himself he was running away.On the morning of the opening, he stayed home to look over a file he had deliberately brought over from the office. It was a rainy, dark November day, ideal for lazing about. The minutes slowly dragged on, one by one. He opened the window and let the cold morning air, the rain, the smell of fallen leaves invade his room…The phone rang, and Paul did not pick it up for some time. It was too much of an effort to answer: he did not expect any calls. He finally picked up the receiver and froze with surprise: Ann's voice was on the other line."Aren't you coming? Won't you come? Please do. I cannot leave, there are so many people here, but I will be waiting for you, Paul, I will, don't you understand? I feel lucky when you're around…"Paul shrugged his shoulders, feeling utterly helpless. Ann was playing on their old superstitions, on is innermost weakness, his incapacity to resist her: "I feel lucky when you're around."He reached the building, and stopped before going into the first room, to look around for Ann. He had been walking through the rain and was standing there in his trench coat, hat in hand, too embarrassed to walk in: the sound of people talking, laughing, shouting, and the rustle of dresses and fur-coats held him there, as if glued to the entrance. He felt rather faint and uncomfortable, wondering whether he still had a chance to leave.Yet, Ann had spotted him from the other end of the room and had gestured to him to wait. She was coming towards him, elbowing her way with difficulty through the crowds, without apologizing whenever she bumped into someone in passing. She kept looking straight ahead, in Paul's direction, her eyes shining intensely, as if she were just about to greet him."Why are your hands so wet? Have you been walking through the rain? Did you come here on foot? That's why you're late, isn't it? I thought you wouldn't make it. I kept l