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Of flesh and tears

After a difficult divorce and a stay in a psychiatric hospital, Claire decides to leave Paris to live on the family farm. She hopes that returning to nature will help her regain a lost balance. Armed with a permaculture degree and a desire to do well, she set to work. But, as soon as he arrives, the awkward interactions pile up: a repulsive neighbor, a suspicious brother, aggressive pets and a vegan flirtation that leads him to illegal acts. These almost trivial hassles gradually turn into a nightmare. Will she be able to gather the physical and mental strength necessary for her survival?

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First chapter

Claire brought her vehicle to a halt on the graveled, weed-ridden driveway and opened the door. Peluche’s barks were too deep for such a small animal and her words of calm only added to his excitement. Seized by the cold, with temperatures always seeming lower in the countryside, she leaned over to grab her coat, put it on, and unbuckled the dog's seat belt. She took him in her arms and kissed him. His soft fur, his heady scent, a souvenir of a trip to the grooming salon, and his big, wet eyes forced a smile out of her. He stretched his squished-in Shih Tzu face out towards her, gave her cheek a lick, and then squirmed for her to let him go. As soon as he touched the ground, he began a thorough olfactory inspection, his nose buried in the greenery. He stopped all of a sudden, lifted his leg up high, left an abundant sprinkling of urine on his chosen spot, moved away a little, and scratched at the ground with the air of a conqueror.

Claire turned her gaze to the metallic sky and the house that, half hidden by the trees, seemed to be waiting for her. Don't be mad. Look. I came back. An icy gust of wind made her shiver, and she adjusted her coat collar. She put her phone in her pocket, leaned into the car once more to grab her bag, and opened the trunk. She took hold of the suitcase handle with both hands and, with her back straight and legs wide apart, pulled it with all her might. She managed to tug it out a little. Another breath in, another breath out... and pull... The suitcase suddenly came free and Claire, thrown off balance, nearly fell. She clutched the handle and walked backward all the way to the entrance, dragging the stubborn suitcase after her. She found the key, as her brother had told her, under a terracotta pot with a fern growing inside. This was a sickly plant, uprooted from its natural environment, struggling to survive while all around it, vegetation strove to destroy the constructions of Man. Hoping to use it for vacations, Sébastien had renovated the house eight years earlier. A short while later, Claire had spent a never-ending weekend in the place with him, his wife, and his eldest son. At the time, she had come across as cheerful and offered to take care of the little one, who was three or four years old back then, but had felt her very presence was a nuisance.

She thought of her mother, ever enveloped in the delectable aromas she bore from the kitchen - simmering blanquettes, flaky puff pastries, crisp salads seasoned with fresh garlic, and vibrant fruit tarts. She loved to chatter away and sing, just like her beloved chickens, which she nonetheless killed when they got too old and stopped laying. When her husband died, her mother chose to flee the drudgery and isolation of the countryside for a suburban retirement home. At the end of a long and tedious decline, she had lost her smile, her energy, and her grace, without once ever expressing the desire to see, one last time, the place where she had lived for so many years. Except for a few short intervals, the farmhouse had been left uninhabited like a well-wrapped yet empty parcel. The insolent presence of the ivy clinging to the door proved that nobody had been inside for a long time, contrary to the assurances Sébastien had given her. She put the key into the keyhole and tried to turn it. It barely moved before hitting something. She had mentioned this issue to her brother, but he had brushed off her concerns and claimed that with a little finesse the latch would yield to her. She didn't think she lacked finesse, but the key still wouldn't turn. How had he explained it to her? Push it all the way in, pull it back a tenth of a millimeter before turning, and if it was still stuck, jiggle it around a little...

After a few minutes of fruitless attempts, Claire screamed. A cry that resounded through the trees, off the walls and windows of the house, this house that admonished her for being away for so long and yet spurned her. The cry diminished before turning into uncontrollable sobbing. She sat down on the suitcase and, with her elbows on her knees and her face buried in her hands, let it all out. After a while, her tears ran dry. She had undertaken a project more ambitious than simply opening a door... You can do it; you know you can do it... And if you don't manage it, you'll just call a locksmith who will fix that lock once and for all, but first... She headed towards a grove. She would rather take precautions even if the road was only used by a handful of motorists, neighbors who lived in the properties scattered all around. Her urine flowed in a thick, frothy stream and soaked the earth. Just like her dog, Claire had thus made her mark. With this primordial gesture, she had signaled her control over this land, which she had fled in her youth and found once again in her middle age.

But where had Peluche gone? She hurriedly put her clothes back on and called, called again, ran towards the house, pivoted around ... If something had happened to him... But he hadn't gotten lost. What could he possibly do? So small and defenseless... slaughtered by a wolf or a fox, flattened by a car... She cried out. Panting and overjoyed, he suddenly sprang out of the bushes. She scolded him, promised him long training sessions, embraced him, ignored his squirming, retrieved the leash from the back seat, and hooked it to his collar before setting the dog down. Obstinate, he refused to move. With his paws firmly planted on the ground and his plump body leaning back, he shook his head from side to side to rid himself of the collar. In a firm voice, she reminded him who gave the orders in their relationship. Thanks to these words or her insistence, he finally gave in, with a remorseful air, and agreed to follow her. She tied him to the suitcase and turned towards the door, which seemed to be watching her obstinately.

Claire breathed in and out several times as she had learned in her meditation class, placed one hand on the handle, the other on the key, and closed her eyes. Metal sliding on metal, followed by a stubborn impact; once, then twice, a little forward, a few tenths of a millimeter back... She controlled her breathing and listened to the lock. Suddenly... a click...

“See, Peluche,” Claire exclaimed, “you and your doubting and whining and getting all annoyed! Admit it, you didn't think I could do it. But you’ve got to learn to trust me because I will get there... We will get there together.”

The door gave way under duress and Claire opened it wide. A smell of damp and dust, of a dark and abandoned world, grabbed hold of her throat. She sneezed.




Like a yearning for beauty scoured by the passage of time, the peeling paint revealed an older coat with shades of oxblood brown. Dominique, Gérard’s wife, a petite, vivacious, and cheerful brunette, who had chosen this most original shade of blue, had had the good taste to avoid bay windows and other tawdry modernities and had managed to renovate the farmhouse without disfiguring it. At the time, Claire, still very young, had been jealous of the woman who had conquered the most popular bachelor in the region. Today, she thought he had chosen well: a country girl endowed with both style and ambition.

Carrying a heavy tray, Claire regretted having walked the distance between the two farms. She wouldn't want to go back the other way burdened with the chocolate cake, especially since another one, which was to accompany her that evening to Sébastien’s place, was waiting in the kitchen. If she brought it home, she would finish it all by herself. An easy recipe, a staple for celebrations... She used to decorate it with the children with colorful candy that popped out like a joyful mosaic on the dark frosting. They almost seemed to prefer this act of preparation to the superfluous gifts or the party that was over too quickly. She knocked again. She had seen her neighbor drive by as she was cutting the weeds in front of the house. He had noticed her and slowed down; she had waved, but he hadn't stopped. At least, she thought it was him. In any case, the car was now in the garage, neatly tucked away next to the gleaming tractor. Gérard had always proved a gifted mechanic. She put her ear to the door and heard thumping as if a corpse was being dragged across the floor.

She had expected to be greeted with a smile, to be invited to sit in a warm and inviting kitchen, to be given a cup of tea and compliments on her baking, before sharing memories with this old family friend. She sighed and crouched down to place the cake on the floor. Rather than seeing or hearing it, she felt the door open. Transfixed, she stared at the mud-encrusted boots for a moment, then straightened up. Her gaze drifted over the work clothes that reeked of sweat and alcohol before stopping on the man's face, watching her with a stern expression. His drooping eyelids concealed his reddened eyes. What had happened to those long lashes she had admired so much? His nose seemed to have doubled in size and his chin jutted out in front. Deep wrinkles ran across his stretched-out skin.

“What's this about?”

“I'm your new neighbor...”

“Oh. I don't have time now, I'm busy.”

“Sorry, I should have introduced myself. It’s Claire, remember, Gaston and Paule's daughter? I just moved in next door, so we'll be neighbors again, like before. I decided to leave Paris and move here.”

“Ah, Gaston and Paulette's daughter. You should have said."

He spoke in a gruff tone, as if he wanted to rid himself of a tenacious salesperson. She smiled at him.

“I didn't want to bother you, I made you a cake, for old times' sake and to mark the beginning of many happy years to come. Here, take it. It's a wonderful recipe, I've had no complaints so far... Unless you’ve got diabetes or something like that? If that’s the case, I completely understand... No, you're in good health, of course, you are, at least you look it... It's been a while, hasn't it? Well... I'll leave you to it, I don't want to impose. If you need anything... We neighbors help each other out, don't we? Well, then...”

“Come in.”


“I’m not having you stand here yapping on my doorstep while the cold creeps in. Just get in.”

While her own house exuded a reek of damp, fungi, and a harsh, vindictive nature, Gérard’s gripped her throat with the stench of unwashed bodies, rotting food, and rancid urine. They walked through the living room, a spacious room that she would have found pleasant if not for the clutter that reigned within. From the blankets, pillows, and clothes strewn across the stained fabric of the couches, she saw this space was now being used as a bedroom. Books lined the walls and piled up on every available surface: armchairs, the floor, the coffee table, and the sideboard. Some antique shelves, handed down in the family or bought by Dominique in the flea markets she assiduously frequented, proudly displayed their dark wood and ornate brackets. Gérard had without a doubt built the others, simpler and more functional, in light varnished pine. Claire had never known he liked reading so much. Had he gone through all of them, those pocket editions with faded, torn, or even missing covers? She placed the cake in the kitchen on the only free corner of the large wooden table, while Gérard pulled out one of the caned chairs. He waited for her to take a seat before he slumped down too.

Nauseated by the heat, which made the odor even worse, she took off her coat and avoided looking in the direction of the sink.

“It's lovely here! The boiler at my place doesn't seem to be working right.”

Claire had managed to turn on the electricity and the heating, but the house was still cold, several degrees below her desired temperature and she could feel it deep in her bones.

“I know. Your father didn’t know the first thing about mechanics. Want something to drink?”

Thinking he wanted her to leave as soon as possible, she refused. He insisted and got up to collect two small glasses and a bottle of brandy. Two glasses with a murky transparency, filled with a yellowish liquid. Glass is a hygienic material, alcohol’s a natural disinfectant. She clinked her glass with his and downed a gulp that burned the lining of her throat and made her eyes water. Those of her interlocutor meanwhile, like two tips of a black pen, threatened and judged her from beneath his heavy eyelids, above his mouth drawn out in a mocking expression. She finished the rest of the alcohol in one go and slammed the glass on the table. She held back her coughing and waited a few moments to regain her ability to speak.

“My brother told me he pays you twice a year to maintain the land, I mean, clearing weeds and things like that...”

“Yeah, what of it?”

He drained his glass as well and grabbed the bottle, brandishing it in Claire's direction. She shook her head. He tilted the bottle and poured it almost to the brim. She suppressed the urge to suggest he find a larger vessel.

“Well, I don't feel like... I mean... the grounds look terribly neglected. When did you...”

“I did the job he paid me for, or you wouldn't have even been able to park. Ugh... these city folk and their lecturing... I look after the Parisians’ property and at least they don't complain.”

“They don't come often.”

“They come more often than you do.”

Her brother had told her about the Parisians who had bought the neighboring farm and only came down there for vacations. Many years earlier, her mother had told her how a drunk driver, a visitor passing through from the city, had hit the car Dominique was driving. She often went out looking for interesting pieces of furniture that she found at flea markets, or even on the side of the road - she had been spotted hoisting discarded furniture into her old Citroën 2CV. She had survived all the way to the hospital before passing away on the operating table, unaware her son had died on impact.

“I grew up here, remember?”

She realized she was almost shouting, as if visiting her mother's retirement home or her aunt's psychiatric asylum, as if raising her voice would facilitate their communication.

“I was tired of life in Paris and decided to take over the farm. My brother’s helping me out. I took a permaculture course, have you heard of it? That's what I want to do here. You know... a lot of mulching, retaining water on the land, looking after the soil and the microorganisms that live in it, pruning the trees... Sure, it's a long process, but I'm taking everything into account.”

His sardonic expression seemed to intensify, and she felt herself blushing. She would have found it easier if he had challenged her.

“You’re a big reader... That's great, a fine way of keeping the old neurons in shape. I was a librarian in Paris myself, you know.

“I don't like TV. It makes you stupid and you’ll see there's not much to do around here.”

During the silence that ensued, she studied the books piled up on the table: French classics, foreign literature, mostly from the English-speaking world, but also a Yasunari Kawabata and two Dostoevskys, thrillers and a few volumes of science fiction and fantasy. She could not see any logic in this cluster and suspected these books had landed in the kitchen as they were read without any preconceived purpose.

He emptied his glass and refilled it.

“I remember you... a pretty girl who liked to show off her legs. You don't look bad even now.”

His smile widened into a hideous grimace. Claire stood up.

“Well, I'm going to go home, I have to put my things away and I’ve got a lot of work to do. Thanks for everything.”

She didn't take the time to put on her coat and tucked it under her arm.

“Don't be in such a hurry, the mess won't get any worse while you're gone. Believe me, it’ll wait for you. Why are you rushing off? Men should be interested in you, after all... So don't be such a brat! Come and sleep here if you get cold, I don't go upstairs anymore, you could take the room that... Well, as you wish, you know where to find me...”

Once outside, she bolted away and her running, which began as an escape, gradually turned into an aria of freedom. Her body moved unhindered, with no cake to carry, just her keys and phone rattling around in her parka pocket. She had experienced many misfortunes in her life, made mistakes, and let too many people bully her, but she had learned she didn't have to put up with anyone unpleasant and that she could choose who she saw. Gérard, the prized bachelor, had flaked away like his door and his true colors evoked little but disgust. She would never know if time had revealed his bad character or if his ordeals had ruined a good man. But what did it matter? Gérard’s problems were not her concern.

She arrived out of breath and reached into her pocket for the keys. She had opted for a more authentic life, a monastic life in a way. The analogy was perhaps not entirely apt since monks live in groups and help each other, whereas she had only her brother, who lived nearly twenty-five miles away, and Peluche, who gave her undeniable psychological support but little in the way of conversation. She pushed the key in until it hit the back of the lock. A little backward, forwards, to the right, stuck, forwards, to the right, stuck, backward, left, right... She overcame the urge to sit on the floor and weep, took a deep breath, and resumed her attempts. After a few minutes, the long-awaited click came. One day, that lousy lock would finally yield to her skill and determination - or to the expertise of a locksmith. Peluche rushed over to her, but before bending down to pet the dog greeting her with an enthusiastic dance, she flipped the switch at the entrance and locked the door.

Night would not fall for a few hours, but Claire thought it had already become too dark. She went through all the rooms one by one and turned on all the lights: the cramped living room, the large kitchen and, upstairs, the bedroom, the toilet, the bathroom, the small office. She hesitated on the threshold of her old room, which Sébastien had turned into a storage room. He hadn’t wanted to throw anything away and Cécile couldn't stand the mess, so they had agreed on this compromise without even consulting her. She decided that this room, cluttered with bric-a-brac up to the ceiling, didn't deserve any lighting and she simply closed the door on the chaos. This little farmhouse seemed too big for a single woman, but who knows, maybe she wouldn't be alone forever. Before going back downstairs, she closed all the shutters, then tackled the ones on the ground floor. The glowing lights and the smell of baking that permeated the airtight house made her feel as if she herself had been transformed into a gift, a priceless object wrapped in a cheerful package.

Since she had a little time before leaving the house, she went to the sink and armed herself with pink plastic gloves, an eco-friendly spray, and a compostable bamboo kitchen towel. She had already gotten rid of the cobwebs while giving all due respect to their owners, the natural insecticides prized by experts in organic pest control, who she had carefully taken out into the garden. But she had also discovered mouse droppings in the cupboards. No ecological principle could justify living with rodents of any kind. She was going to start by cleaning up their feces and would, at the first opportunity, buy some traps, those humane models that captured the animal without hurting it. After a moment's hesitation, she put her arsenal back on the kitchen table and climbed the stairs once again, a dark wooden staircase so steep that it burned more calories than a workout in the gym. Once in her room, she opened the closet door, rummaged around, and extracted from the clutches of dormant clothes the faux leather bag she was looking for, a relic from a time when she had trained in iaido. When she was still a complete beginner, her sensei had sold her a real Japanese sword. He had said it was a rare antique, an opportunity she could not pass by and that one year of training with a blunt sword would be enough for her to acquire sufficient dexterity to use it. Five years of constant criticism had not been enough. She had never been able to draw properly or slash correctly. The only reason he had sold her the sword was so he could get another one. She could have resold it but preferred not to part with the object, a symbol of a balance and a perfection that she would never reach.

She wouldn't just leave it to sleep among the useless dresses. She had taken a few woodworking classes and thought she knew enough to build a rack for it. She imagined it displayed on the wall next to the window and found this idea to her liking. In the meantime, she leaned the bag against the bedside table, went back to the closet, and pulled out another, larger vinyl one. She opened it and took out her training weapons, a bokken, a wooden replica of the Japanese sword, and a jo, a long straight staff. She placed the sword next to the garden door and the spear next to the front door. These humble, unassuming staffs looked harmless, but Claire knew they could wound and even kill. Satisfied, she walked back up the stairs. If her knees couldn't handle the ordeal, she could always, like her neighbor, make up her bed on the living room couch. She postponed cleaning until the following day; she had lost enough time and had to get ready to go to her brother's house. As Gérard had noted, the mess and the filth would be waiting for her when she got home.




For the second time that day, Claire hesitated in front of a door, not made of solid wood this time, but of smooth, artificial-looking plywood, one of those modern materials that never rot. She carried her cake on a pretty plate in both hands and regretted having forgotten to buy colored candy to decorate it. Cries could be heard through the door. An infant crying... An argument perhaps? What could be more natural? But was that what she really needed right now? Peluche finished his inspection, sat down on the doormat, scratched behind his ear, and looked at her expectantly. Since her divorce and the ensuing therapy, Claire had been trying to think more about what she truly wanted and found this habit helped her keep her composure. She didn't want to hear children screaming, but she didn't want to spend the evening alone either. Besides, her brother was waiting for her. She sighed - life was, at best, nothing but an immense compromise. She plucked up her courage, rang the doorbell, and greeted Sébastien, whose tight-lipped smile disappeared as soon as she offered the cake.

“I'll put it in the kitchen,” he said, “take it back with you before you leave, I'll explain later.”

Hippolyte, who was jumping on the living room couch with great enthusiasm, began to scream at the top of his lungs, “I want chocolate, I want chocolate...”

“Hippolyte, we've already talked about this.”

“I want some too,” Charlotte whined.

“No one’s having any.”

Sébastien snatched the cake from her hands and rushed to the kitchen. Cécile asked about Peluche's vaccinations and exclaimed in horror when he began to enthusiastically lick Charlotte's delighted face.

“I read on the Internet that dog saliva’s much more hygienic than ours,” Claire reassured her. “It even gives us probiotics.”

“You shouldn't be believing everything you’re told at your age. I’ve got allergies anyway. So, next time, please don't bring Peluche. Charlotte! Stop that this instant! You'll catch something.”

“Allergies are caused by too much cleaning during infancy. Exposure to certain bacteria, like those in mud, actually strengthens the digestive and immune systems.”

“So, according to you, babies should now be eating mud? Did you hear that, Daphné? Next time, your aunt’s going to bring you a nice little pot of mud for dessert.”

“Anyway, congratulations on your store. Now olive oil, you’ve chosen a product that’s healthy and delicious there. These days that seems a rather difficult combination. In fact, you’re selling something that’s both local and environmental. Bravo!”

Claire, who felt rather satisfied with the speech she had rehearsed on the way over, did not understand why Cécile still seemed so surly. She wondered if her sister-in-law was actually happy to see her. But then she collected herself; she shouldn't think she’s the center of the world and the only cause of other people's bad moods. That's what her shrink would have told her.

After difficult negotiations, Hippolyte finally agreed to stop playing around. He mustered up his strength and made one last leap over the coffee table. Alas, he landed badly and slipped on the floor. He got up without complaint, rubbing his sore side, and walked to his assigned seat, but not without snatching a doll out of Charlotte's hands on the way. She burst into tears. Meanwhile, Daphné whined and shook her head in her high chair as her mother tried to get her to eat some green purée.

Sébastien had bought a chicken and potatoes from the local rotisserie and Cécile had prepared steamed broccoli.

“Your broccoli is absolutely delicious, darling!”

“Quite right, it's cooked to perfection. How do you cook it?” asked Claire.

She always felt the need to reassure and encourage Cécile, as if, instead of a grown-up, she was facing an angry goddess whom she had to calm down with offerings. This time, the offering seemed to have worked and Cécile appeared to relax.

“The secret is to cook them quickly. Otherwise, they go all floppy and sad.”

Cécile had never much liked her mother-in-law's thoroughly simmered stews. She insisted that the children finish their vegetables before having more potatoes. The meal went on somewhat smoothly until Hippolyte raised the issue of dessert and defended his position with undue passion. Cécile glanced at a weakening Sébastien, got up, and ordered the two older children to go to bed.

“I'm sorry,” intervened Claire, “I thought I was doing something nice for you. I thought that with both your jobs and the children, you didn't have much time to cook. So, a chocolate cake, a classic... I thought...”

Lips pursed and body tense, Cécile wiped her daughter's face before pulling her out of the high chair.

“Don't worry about that. The children weren't waiting for you to arrive to be well fed. I’ve always chosen a healthy, balanced diet, and your brother and I have decided to make it even better to help Hippolyte. If you’d just brought a bottle of wine or flowers like everyone else, you’d have saved us the unnecessary trouble.”

Daphné, who up until then had shown her displeasure through irritated whining, burst into tears. Cécile took her away and headed towards the bedrooms. An uncertain calm settled in the room, interrupted here and there by ominous cries like the cannon fire of an approaching army. Sébastien opened the sideboard drawer and took out a packet of cigarettes and a lighter. He went to the balcony, Claire followed him.

“Just this once wouldn't have hurt him.”

“You don't get it at all. You've seen how he behaves. He’s got ADHD and we’ve put him on a diet to keep him off the meds. Three weeks of frustration, telling him off, and tears! He was just getting used to it and then you come along with your cake.”

“Is the diet working? Have you noticed any improvement?"

Sébastien took a cigarette out of the pack and lit it, then put the lighter and the pack in his pocket. Men's clothes always seem much more practical and comfortable than women's. Sébastien took a second drag before answering.

“No,” he said. “The naturopath says we have to stick with it for six months before we’ll see any results. There aren’t any scientific studies to support this diet, but Cécile’s determined to try everything before medication. We may not have a choice. Otherwise, there’s school failure, loss of self-esteem, social difficulties, depression... no parent wants that for their children. You don’t realize it, but you’ve been very lucky with yours. Are they okay?”

“I’ve always known I’ve been very lucky with my sons, who are doing very well, thank you. Since they chose to live in London with their father, I don't talk to them very often. I mean, they don't really live with him, they share an apartment with their friends. They’re busy... You know young people... Besides, when I think about it, maybe it's only natural for children to keep themselves busy. What if Hippolyte changed schools? You could find one more suitable for him...”

“You’re so out of touch with reality... Sorry, I didn't mean that. What I meant was... Schools haven’t evolved since the beginning of the twentieth century. On the one hand, there are kids who are too spoiled and dumbed down by constantly using electronic devices, and on the other hand, there are overworked, pontificating, and ever more incompetent teachers. If I had to go back... They used to offer apprenticeships to maladjusted students. Do apprenticeships still exist? Maybe that's Hippolyte’s solution.”

“You’re overreacting! He’s very intelligent and will succeed in his studies. Or maybe he'll become a top athlete. That jump he made really impressed me. Have you tried athletics? How about you? How are you doing? I thought you quit smoking.”

He took a long drag from his cigarette. Cheeks sunken, eyebrows furrowed, he looked even more anxious.

“It could be better... I did quit, but lately, I've been allowing myself one in the evening for a boost. As a reward... Does one cigarette a day make me a smoker? We're going through a difficult time. That idea of starting a business just after Daphné was born… Cécile has already sacrificed so many years of her life and didn't want to wait any longer, but the store didn't work out as planned. Out in the provinces, people aren’t as enthusiastic about olive oil as they are in Paris. She’s now bringing out a line of natural cosmetics that’ll hopefully improve business. Until then, she’s working long hours for a pittance and feels guilty for not being invested enough in the children's upbringing. And finally, we're juggling the nanny and various babysitters, because I'm as swamped as she is.”

As soon as she started talking about the lock, Claire realized she was making a mistake and tried to tone down the accusatory tone she had unwittingly assumed. Sébastien, who had helped her a lot during her last breakdown, did not have unlimited patience.

“Not at all,” he replied, “I never told you that I was going to get it fixed. I explained to you that you’d manage just fine, and I was right. And now you've learned the technique, you'll find you won't call a locksmith either.”

“I found it really unpleasant to be met with a closed door after such a stressful trip. I remember very clearly that you promised to take care of it.”

“You’re taking your medication correctly, aren’t you?”

She said nothing.

“Claire, answer me.”

“You ask me that every time we disagree.”

“Not so long ago, I used to ask you this question every day. I stopped since you asked me, but you need to allow me to occasionally take an interest.”

“I’m taking my medication and it wasn't a dream. You told me you’d call a locksmith. Don't use my illness to get out of it.”

He remained silent. She sighed and added in a calmer voice.

“I'm sorry. I know you're swamped and, believe me, I'm infinitely grateful for your help, but you don't have to worry, I'm over the divorce. I won't be the last wife whose husband leaves her for a younger woman. I’ve figured it all out, the rent for the apartment will be enough for me and I’ll take care of the farm, you'll see. With time, I think I'll be able to make a small income from it, but there's no hurry. Anyway, I don't want to live in Paris anymore. I was suffocating there.”

“You're probably right. I must have promised to call the locksmith and forgotten. If I keep asking about the medication, it's just because I don’t want to find you in a bad way again.”

“It won't happen again. I learned my lesson.”

“Would you be open to watching the kids from time to time? It’d take your mind off things, and you’d get to know them.”

What right did he have to ask her something like that? He who had never been interested in his nephews except to say “oh, they’re so cute" before running away to join his friends. And then, he just considered her project a whim or the hobby of a dilettante and did not realize the titanic labor that she was going to undertake. She had no desire to spend time with those spoiled, whining kids. What's the point, anyway? Children grow up and leave you... Like their fathers who lure you with promises only to take off with younger women. She agreed noncommittally and turned the conversation to Sébastien’s career. He had become a partner in a large firm and represented huge companies. He couldn't share the details of his business dealings, but he had often described his relationships with staff members to her, so she felt she knew them.

On the way back, she felt bad that she hadn't told him the whole truth. She did take the bright green tablets at the same time every night but had put aside the little white ones. She still remembered the sensation of calm they had given her at first, as if a thick blanket separated her from the outside world and from her own thoughts. But when she felt better and wanted to be rid of the cotton coating in which the antidepressant held her mind, she cut the pills with a very sharp knife and decreased the dose little by little until she stopped completely. All that was left were the green ones, which she would take for the rest of her life unless science discovered a wondrous treatment that would finally free humanity from mental illness.

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