On that day, like on any other, fish swam overhead. Necks craning, mouths gaping, thousands of visitors to the Oceanogràfic stared at them through the walls of a glass tunnel.
As the years passed the memory of the wriggling fish would fade for Claire Halde and the other tourists. The acrobatics of the killer whales and the dolphins, which they had all applauded so enthusiastically, would be erased too. They would forget the penguinarium with its Gentoo penguins, just as they would forget the names and faces of the incidental people who passed through their lives: classmates, neighbours, teachers, colleagues, one-night stands and travel companions alike.
The other tourists, too, would evaporate from Claire’s thoughts, along with most of the carefree children whose hands she held in the schoolyard as a girl, the smiles of the old ladies she bid a kindly hello to on the sidewalk, the voices of the teachers who squealed chalk on blackboards one-hundred-and-eighty days a year, the colleagues broken by boredom beside whom she tapped on a yellowed qwerty keyboard to pay for her education, even some of the men whom she kissed passionately in the middle of the night.
But Claire Halde would never forget the woman from Valencia. The strange woman who approached her that afternoon by the pool at the Valencia Palace holds firm in her memory – skin, face, voice, hair, eyes – even though she was only in her life for all of ten minutes, the time it took to exchange five sentences and then to look at each other in silence. Claire didn’t give the woman her name and didn’t ask for hers. She would forever remain the woman from Valencia, a nameless ghost.
Not a drop of rain had fallen on Montreal that July. At first, the heat seemed normal for the season, but then Claire and Jean started to drag under the merciless sun, in a constant quest for shade. It was as if the heat had become the explanation for absolutely everything: their fatigue, the arguments that showed the cracks in their relationship, the lack of drive to do anything with the kids, the blandness of the strawberries. In a way, it also explained their trip to Spain. They needed to get away from Montreal and its suffocating heat, even if only for a few days.
So on a whim they booked four flights to Valencia.
Around noon, that first day of vacation, a taxi drops Claire Halde and her family in front of the Valencia Palace Hotel. Claire pays the driver while Jean gets the suitcases out of the trunk. The children wait patiently while the luggage collects on the sidewalk in front of the hotel. The ground floor is bright with windows on two sides, one looking out over a conference centre designed by Sir Norman Foster where nothing seems to be happening, as if the building is deserted and frozen, rendered lifeless by the Valencian summer. Dead leaves are scattered on the ground in front of the glass entrance. The water basins are empty.
At fifteen storeys the Valencia Palace is more imposing, and it casts a shadow on the neighbouring buildings. The hotel looks like a giant ship run aground in the middle of the city, its triangular bow ploughing along the Avenida de las Cortes Valencianas.
They chose it for the pool, for the four stars, and for the kids. It’s not a great location, but they had been swayed by a summer promotion. Seven nights for the price of five.
At the front desk they are given a magnetic card for room 714. It’s a dark room. The curtains are thick and floral, unmoving. Claire is immediately struck by the cold, impersonal decor.
‘We could be in any city in the world; it’s completely generic,’ she tells Jean. ‘The windows don’t open. You can’t smell the air of the city, or feel the heat, or hear the sounds. And we’re miles from the sea.’
If it had been just the two of them they probably would have booked something more modest, a bed and breakfast or a charming hotel in the old city. The furniture would have been dark wood with patina and scratches, the bed would have squeaked. The windows would open onto the smells and sounds of a lively street, and the curtains would have been slightly faded along the folds. Valencia would have seemed less cold.
The hotel pool is on the fourth floor, on an indented terrace that looks onto the rest of the hotel’s fifteen storeys, dotted with square windows. A line of plants in pots and hedges with pale green leaves serve as a vegetal screen around the perimeter of the terrace; then there are a few frail trees chosen for their wind resistance and a few empty deckchairs lined up around the rectangular perimeter of the pool. On the wall a sign reads: no lifeguard on duty. There isn’t much shade. The afternoon sun is blinding. Their faces scrunch and eyes squint, and the delicate skin burns on the children’s noses, foreheads, bare shoulders, and little feet. From the terrace of the Valencia Palace Hotel you can’t see the city below, as if the terrace is suspended in the middle of the sky, floating above Valencia like a big, isolated cloud.
They are cut off from touristy Valencia in little-visited Beniferri, an area planted between the old city and the commercial centre, north of the Campanar district which they’ll visit by metro, bus and tram, indifferent to the attractionless streets they pass through, their colourful tourist map void of any points of interest.
After a dip in the pool at the end of the day they leave the hotel and join the crush of people on the N3 line, breathing in their full work day’s worth of rancid sweat, the citrusy perfume lingering in the hollows of throats and hair, the fresh, sweet smell of small children fidgeting on the moulded plastic seats.
The next day they wear sundresses and light shorts. With thin sandals on their feet, they follow their itinerary for day two: the City of Arts and Sciences in the morning, a visit to the Oceanogràfic, quick lunch in the old city, and then a stroll along the beach mid-afternoon. They take their time at the Oceanogràfic, enjoying the unpredictability of the aquatic ballet, until they grow tired of the scales and tropical colours and flapping gills. After a few roughly executed sand castles they go back to the hotel and head for the pool.
Claire, who isn’t used to bikinis and luxury hotels, rests on a deckchair in the one bit of shade that can be found on the roof, a book perched on her stomach like a fragile paper tent. She is looking absent-mindedly in the direction of the pool where her children – who can’t swim yet – are splashing about under the watchful eye of their father, who is in the water up to his waist.
Claire detects a movement in her blind spot, to the left. She looks over her shoulder, and in that very second Valencia becomes bleak. The sky turns grey.
The woman walks toward the pool. First in a straight line, her hips swaying in a pencil skirt that restricts her movements, long legs jerky and disjointed, then in zigzags around the garden furniture. It’s unclear if she’s looking for a spot to sit or for someone. Her steel-grey skirt is a crease-resistant polyester that shines in the sun, stiff fabric squeezing her body, which is hunched over in distress. She’s backlit, her silhouette frail, bony and disturbing. Tautness, tension in the hips and jaw. She is wearing plain high heels, an elegant blouse unbuttoned a little to reveal waxy skin. Her hair is blonde and faded. At first glance she has the air of another place, Eastern Europe, perhaps. Her face emanates melancholy; her eyes are dark and lifeless. Her arms move feebly, and a large leather bag, resting on her slender wrist, swings through the air, keeping time with her advance.
The bag seems disproportionately heavy and bulky against her frame. Mauve, in the shape of an anvil, neither shiny nor matte, worn the way only leather and hide do after the passage of time. Patina and cracks, wear and tear and faded lustre, dryness in the folds that could, in a way, sum up the woman’s existence. This is the woman walking toward Claire Halde on the roof of the Valencia Palace Hotel.
The kids are having fun. Jean was right about the pool; a swim in the afternoon is just what they needed. It’s the sort of treat they appreciate on holiday, even though this isn’t how she had pictured a vacation in Valencia, the charm of the winding streets of the old city and a sea view traded for a pool. And now this woman with troubled eyes appears, speaking to her in a foreign language she doesn’t recognize. Claire answers her in Spanish, then in English, but she still has a hard time understanding the woman; her voice is hoarse and thick, confused. ‘Can you help me? My bag, take my bag.’ The woman places her bag at her feet, revealing a cotton square taped over the veins of her right wrist.
The bandage is white, carefully applied, as if done by a nurse. Claire glances at the immaculate square and her throat constricts.
Then the blood starts to flow.
It leaks out both sides of the white cotton pad, rivulets multiplying, red trickles along an alarmingly pale arm. The stranger doesn’t seem to notice, she’s too busy trying to unzip her bag. Her hands are trembling, her gestures undefined. Claire looks away, toward the pool, toward her children. She feels numb and deaf, as if her head is being held underwater and cutting her off from the sounds above. Oxygen is slow to reach her brain. It’s the first time Claire has ever seen blood oozing from a self-inflicted wound like this. She’s seen scars – once on a man at a party, and another time on a girl she worked with as a summer camp counsellor. Claire has forgotten the names of these people who discreetly showed her the inside of their wrists like secrets. Time had passed over their skin. The wounds had healed, scarred and discoloured.
At first she thinks that the woman has just been released from a clinic or the psychiatric wing of a hospital near the hotel. But the way the blood is trickling, streaming now from wrist to palm and along her fingers, makes Claire realize that this is a very recent suicide attempt.
Still staring at the bandage, Claire asks the woman if she needs help, offers to call someone, get an ambulance, take her to a clinic. The woman becomes agitated and yells, ‘No no no no, no help, just the bag.’ Claire doesn’t insist; it occurs to her that she may be an illegal immigrant, that she has her reasons for avoiding the authorities, just like she has her reasons for wanting to end her life. The blood keeps trickling along her wrist, but the woman pays no attention to it; she is searching frantically through her bag. Claire is apprehensive; she thinks in turn of a gun and a knife, that her children will have to witness whatever happens next. The intuition is strong, and it paralyzes her: this woman is going to shoot herself in the head, right in front of my eyes, right in front of my son and daughter. Next she thinks that she is looking for a knife, that she’ll threaten her with it, hold it up to her throat.
The woman finally pulls out a pack of cigarettes. She holds one out to Claire, who declines with a faint, forced smile, her hand raised at a right angle. With trembling fingers the stranger lights a cigarette and goes off to smoke it in a corner of the terrace. She leaves her bag with Claire.
Claire doesn’t immediately understand what is happening. She looks at the kids in the pool. They are laughing. They are hanging off their father’s neck. They are splashing. They are happy.
She senses that her children shouldn’t be exposed to this woman. Her full attention is on them: protecting the children, not scaring the children.
The woman smokes for a little while near the bushes. She looks nervously at the ground, paces along the vegetation at the roof’s edge as if looking for something, then, shuffling, she returns to Claire, who holds out her bag. ‘Keep the bag, keep the bag!’ the woman yells in a harsh, irritated voice. She mumbles a few words that Claire doesn’t catch, a question waiting for an answer. The woman gets upset. She is having a hard time getting the words out. Claire offers her a towel, just in case, and points to a blue door to the right of the pool. The woman staggers toward the women’s changing room, the towel soaking up the blood from her arm.
Claire’s on the edge of the deckchair, and she can practically feel her nerves crackle. She tries to catch Jean’s eye – her pupils dilated, irises frozen. She wants to call out to him for help, but she can’t speak. He doesn’t notice the distress on her face. The danger awakens her instincts; her body starts sending out messages that run through her, nerve impulses, adrenaline hits her, accelerates her heart rate, her mouth suddenly dry, she’s nauseous. Primitive mechanisms kick in, the impulses of an animal stiffen her, mire her thoughts. The equilibrium is about to shift from Claire Halde’s sympathetic to parasympathetic nervous system.
She stays where she is, not moving, paralyzed, the bag resting against her naked thigh, her eyes glued to the still-closed door of the women’s changing room, not knowing what to expect – the midnight blue door, scratched near the frame.
Gaunt and grey: those are the words that come to mind when Claire sees the woman from Valencia exit the change room. Gaunt and grey, and blonde. Her narrow hips, her taut, flat stomach, her skinny arms, her emaciated neck, the bony body, the blonde hair, the hoarse voice, the lost, dark look in her eyes. Her body jerks in puppet-like movements as if invisible strings control her head, her arms and her legs, walking her to the edge of the roof. Her body straddles the parapet, bends at the pelvis, her buttocks rest a moment on the coping and for a few seconds time seems suspended. Then the woman gently drops into the air.
Passers-by scream on the boulevard below.
Claire doesn’t see the body of the woman from Valencia fall through the few cubic metres of air that separate the roof from the sidewalk. But she sees the flash in her eyes ten seconds before she did it, sees the subtle shift forward of a body that has just decided to let itself fall. Claire imagines the rest, the fall and the impact, the bones and the concrete, the violent death.
Claire Halde doesn’t actually see anything, so the jump that she keeps picturing bears no relationship to reality. The event defies accurate reconstruction. Standing near her deckchair, the large bag dangling from her hand, she has a hard time imagining the true brutality of it. The woman was ripped out of her field of vision as violently as she entered it, taking one last look at Claire, who turned her head away to the children, to the worried face of the little girl running toward her.
Claire explains nothing to her six-year-old daughter, who stares at her with big, black eyes, eyebrows peaked in the middle and wrinkling her smooth forehead, asking, dripping in her pink polka dot bikini: ‘But why did the lady jump? Why? Why did she do that? Why do you have that bag, Mommy?’
Claire will say the sky was grey. It’s something she will always repeat when she talks about the incident. She will stick to that grey sky, yet she could have sworn that the sun had blinded her when the woman first walked toward her.
Something runs cold when she forms the four syllables – Va-len-ci-a – in her mind. A chill is cast over her whenever she remembers what should have been a pleasant little trip; it was August after all, a beach city, a stifling summer. She sees the ash-grey sky again, the charmless room, the pool, the air-conditioned gym with treadmills and a wall covered with a long mirror. She forgets the temperature of the Mediterranean, she forgets the streets and the cathedral, but she remembers all too well the feeling of being stock-still on the roof of the Valencia Palace Hotel while the woman walks toward her, hands her the bag and jumps into thin air.
It’s only afterward that the blood comes back, it’s only in the rush, the race to the elevator, dropping alone in the cage with the bag, that her heart, a hollow organ with four chambers, starts pounding again in her chest.
A fragment of a human body, severed muscles and ligaments, shiny cartilage: that is what Claire sees as she approaches the paramedics. A piece of heel the size of an unripe apricot lying about a metre from the body. It must have ricocheted like a stone in a game of hopscotch. Light, quick bounces on the concrete that damaged the fine skin. It lies there, an ordinary piece of bone surrounded by flesh, barely any blood, matching the wound to the foot. The woman is lying on her back, her legs convulsing on the sidewalk.
Claire will carry the shattered heel inside her mind for a long time; she will think of it often. She will picture bone crashing into concrete a thousand times over the weeks to come, imagining the pain that must have accompanied the impact. She looks this up; over seven thousand nerve endings connect to the spinal cord in a single foot. She would have felt a blow to the stomach, like a brick or a crowbar that cuts through the midsection, like a fist splitting her in two.
Claire knows what that lack of air feels like. When she was ten she fell several metres while hammering a nail into a board of a tree house she was building. It happened in an instant: she tumbled into the void, hammer in hand, the bark scratching the delicate skin of her small white stomach in long burning stripes. When she hit the ground the wind was knocked out of her for a few seconds. She was embarrassed by her clumsiness, had blood in her mouth and pine needles in her hair.
But right now Claire Halde is breathing freely, standing there, trying to sort through the information flowing and stalling around the body: textures, concrete and sky, bricks and trees, passing sounds growing fainter, the muted decibels of grass hissing in the wind and traffic accelerating and braking. She notices how calm the hotel employees are. One of them lights a cigarette, takes a drag, then expels a puff of smoke. For a few seconds blue wreaths hang in the air.
Out of the corner of her eye she sees an old lady making the sign of the cross on the median of the dusty boulevard while a paramedic bends over and lays a thermal blanket over the chest, shoulders and bare, thin neck of the woman, leaving only her face visible. She stares at the sweat beading on the man’s neck, trickling down toward his back and soaking the collar of his pale shirt. Claire doesn’t dare ask whether the woman is dead. She imagines that she is since no one is trying to resuscitate her. There is no blood, or at least there is very little: no red puddle under her skull, maybe because her hair is absorbing it. Claire’s seen more blood on her little boy’s sheets when he has a nosebleed at night. She stares at the skin on the stranger’s legs, concentrating on the thighs, the knees, the calves sticking out from beneath the silver blanket, unable to look for more than a second at the mutilated foot. She will never forget the woman’s skin. It seems so smooth, flat, numb. The delicacy of flawless skin, or perhaps it’s extreme rigidity. There is something horribly smooth in its grain – strange, morbid skin, as if it weren’t flesh, but rather material made to look like flesh, like the mannequins in store windows or the wax dolls old ladies keep under glass. It is hard to tell whether she is wearing perfectly matte stockings or whether it really is her skin that looks so diaphanous and even. No red spots, no suntan, no tan lines. It adds to the ghostly quality of this woman.
Claire doesn’t wait for them to take the body away. She goes back up to join her husband and children at the edge of the pool. When Jean asks her why she didn’t give the bag to the hotel employees, when he insists on knowing what’s going through her head, she responds with the cold detachment used to recite a line learned by heart: ‘The woman asked me to keep the bag, and I’m respecting her final wishes.’
Their daughter asks them to take her to the park like they had promised earlier in the day. She insists, hops up and down, waves her arms, cleaving the air with her limbs: ‘A picnic, I want a picnic!’ Claire slowly swallows, holding the worried eyes of the child’s father. Deliberately, with an even, lifeless tone, she says: ‘Yes, let’s have a picnic. Let’s go upstairs and make the sandwiches and cut the vegetables.’ She vomits bile into the sink in the hotel room while Jean tries to distract the kids.
The family goes to Benicalap Park, leaving through the back of the hotel to avoid passing the spot where the woman’s body ended its fall. They take a detour on the way to the park to let the movement of the stroller settle their son for his afternoon nap. They don’t speak. The only sound is the squeaking of the stroller’s wheels as they turn and grind against the rusty hub. The area is undeveloped. Vacant lots, neglected space, a dilapidated building covered in graffiti. It’s grey, dirty and overgrown. There are few traces of human life in the area: scraps of bags and fabric, empty beer cans, cigarette butts, an abandoned chair. Claire wonders whether the woman came from this uncertain area, on the verge of being dangerous. This is no place for tourists, for a family walk, no place to hold a child of six by the hand and push a baby whose head bobs against the bright orange canvas of his stroller, the only flash of colour around them, aside from the little girl’s fuchsia sundress.
When Claire thinks back to that picnic it’s the taste of raw carrots that comes back first. Lots of little dry, woody pieces roaming under her tongue, bumping against her molars, breaking apart under her canines, rolling toward the uvula. Bits of carrot caught in her throat, irritating the mucus of the palate, making it hard to breathe. Still today, years later, when she bites into a carrot Claire Halde thinks about the woman from Valencia. She can barely swallow. Even after all this time it almost makes her choke.
She keeps thinking of the woman from Valencia as the months go by. man jumps from the roof of the tate museum, she reads one afternoon in July. She’s reminded of the Spanish city again when Le Téléjournal releases the details of an investigation into the death of a drunk man, hit in the head by the metro one January evening. After being hit, he lay on the platform of the Langelier station, while some forty metro riders and two transit employees looked on without rescuing him. Two more metros passed a few centimetres from him, sixteen minutes went by, and indifference prevailed while the man lay dying.
At night, too, she sees the woman’s silhouette, her skin, her blonde hair. She hears the brutally hoarse, thick voice in her nightmares. And when she goes for a run, even months or years after the trip, she sometimes feels a dull pain, an impact in her heel that recalls the piece of bone detached from the foot, the bit of pink flesh on the sidewalk. She can’t hear the word ‘Valencia’ without thinking of the woman’s suicide, without telling herself: you let someone die during your trip to Spain.
To read this text in French, please visit granta.com/hotel-valencia-palace-perrault/