The man in the green hat always got on at Bercy, always via the doors at the front of the compartment, and exited via the same doors at La Motte-Picquet–Grenelle, exactly 17 minutes later. That was on days when the stops, warning signals, and clanging were regular, the days that weren’t exceptionally overcrowded, when there were no accidents, terror alerts, or strikes, and no unscheduled stops to regulate the trains. Ordinary days. The days when you feel as though you’re a cog in a well-oiled machine, a huge mechanical body in which each person has their place and their part to play, willingly or not.
On those days, Juliette would take refuge behind her butterfly-framed sunglasses and her chunky scarf knitted by Granny Adrienne in 1975 for her daughter. The two-and-a-half-meter scarf was a faded blue, the color of distant peaks at seven o’clock on a summer’s eve, not just anywhere but in the Pyrenean town of Prades gazing toward Mount Canigou. And Juliette would sit wondering whether her existence in this world was any more precious than that of the spider she’d drowned that morning in her shower.
She didn’t like doing that—aiming the jet at the small, black, hairy creature and watching out of the corner of her eye as the spindly legs flailed in panic and then abruptly folded in on the body. Then the spider would whirl around, as light and inconsequential as a wisp of wool plucked from her favorite sweater, until it was sucked down the plughole which she immediately stopped up, jamming in the plug.
Serial murder. Every day, the spiders crawled up, emerging from the pipes after a wobbly climb. Were they always the same ones that, after being flushed down into the murky depths—the bowels of the city like a vast reservoir of teeming, stinking life—unfolded themselves, came back to life, and embarked on another ascent invariably destined to fail? It was hard to imagine. Juliette saw herself as a pitiless but negligent divinity, too busy most of the time to fulfill her role, intermittently guarding the gates of Hell. What were the spiders hoping for once their feet were on dry land, so to speak? What journey had they decided to undertake, and with what purpose?
The man in the green hat could perhaps have given her the answer if Juliette had dared ask him. Every morning, he would open his briefcase and take out a book covered in thin, almost transparent paper, also of a greenish hue. He’d unfold its corners with slow, deliberate movements, then slide a finger between two pages already separated by a strip of the same paper, and begin reading.
The title of the book was: A History of Insects Useful to Man, Animals and the Arts, with a Supplement on How to Destroy Pests. He would caress the mottled leather cover, its spine decorated with thin gold lettering, the title standing out against a red background.
He’d open it, bring it closer to his face, and sniff it, his eyes half-closed.
He’d read two or three pages, no more, like a food-lover eating cream pastries with a tiny silver spoon. A happy, enigmatic smile would appear on his face—the kind that Juliette, fascinated, imagined as that of the Cheshire Cat in Alice in Wonderland.
That smile faded at Cambronne, giving way to an expression of rueful disappointment; he would then refold the paper, put the book back in his briefcase, and snap it shut. And stand up. Not once did he look at Juliette, who, sitting opposite him—or standing, huddled against the shiny pole polished each day by hundreds of gloved or ungloved palms—devoured him with her eyes. He would patter off, very upright in his overcoat buttoned up to the neck, with his hat cocked over his left eyebrow.
Without that hat, without that smile, without that briefcase in which he shut away his treasure, Juliette probably wouldn’t have recognized him. He was a man like any other, neither good looking nor ugly, neither attractive nor repulsive.
A little portly, of uncertain age, or rather, a certain age, to speak in clichés.
Or rather, a reader.
Bees, silkworms, mealybugs, crayfish, wood lice, blister beetles, leeches . . .
“What are you on about?”
Juliette, who was humming, jumped.
“Oh! Nothing. A sort of counting rhyme . . . I was trying to remember the names . . .”
“I’ve received the energy performance certificate for the Boulevard Voltaire apartment,” said Chloe, who wasn’t listening. “Have you got the folder?”
Juliette nodded after a moment. She was still thinking about the man with the green book, about insects, about the spider she’d drowned that morning.
“Give it to me. I’ll file it,” she said.
She pivoted her chair, pulled a binder from the shelves that covered an entire wall of the office, and slipped the documents inside. The binder, she noted, was piss yellow. How sad that was. The whole bulging wall, bristling with labels coming unstuck at the corners, looked as if it were about to collapse on top of her like a mudslide. Juliette closed her eyes, imagining the swashing sound, the gas bubbles popping on the surface—and the smell. She pinched her nose hard to quell her mounting nausea.
“What’s up?” asked Chloe. Juliette shrugged.
“Are you pregnant?” her colleague pressed her.
“Of course not. I was just wondering how you cope with working opposite that . . . the color’s so disgusting.”
Chloe stared at her wide-eyed.
“Dis-gus-ting,” she repeated slowly. “You’re bonkers. They’re just binders. They’re ugly, I agree, but . . . are you sure you’re okay?”
Juliette drummed her fingers on her desk in a jerky rhythm: Bees, silkworms, mealybugs, crayfish, wood lice, blister beetles, leeches . . .
“I’m fine,” she replied. “What do you read on the Métro?”
From The Girl Who Reads on the Métro by Christine Féret-Fleury, translated by Ros Schwartz. Copyright © 2017 by Christine Féret-Fleury. Translation copyright © 2019 by Ros Schwartz. All rights reserved.