Roubaud walked into the room and placed his one-pound loaf, his pâté and his bottle of white wine on the table. That morning, before going to work, Madame Victoire must have put an extra heap of slack on the fire in her stove; the place was like an oven! The assistant stationmaster pulled open a window and leaned out.
The room was in the Impasse d’Amsterdam, in the last house on the right, a tall building in which the Western Railway Company housed certain of its employees. The window was on the fifth floor near the end corner of the mansard roof and looked out over the railway station, a broad trough gouged out of the Quartier de l’Europe. The horizon suddenly opened out in front of him. That afternoon, distances seemed even greater than usual, beneath a sweep of grey, mid-February sky, a tepid, misty grey, with the sun struggling to come through.
Directly opposite, the houses in the Rue de Rome appeared blurred and indistinct, almost insubstantial in the hazy sunlight. To the left stood the gaping entrances of the train sheds, their glass roofs grimy with smoke. The largest of them – the mainline station – an immense structure stretching back inside as far as the eye could see, was separated from the two smaller ones for the trains to Argenteuil, Versailles and the Paris circle line by the post-office buildings and the foot-warmer depot. To the right, the massive star-shaped iron structure of the Pont de l’Europe straddled the railway cutting, which then reappeared and continued for some distance further, towards the mouth of the Batignolles tunnel. Directly beneath the window at which he was standing, and filling the whole area in front of him, the three sets of double track that emerged from the bridge split up and fanned out in a seemingly infinite proliferation of railway lines, which eventually disappeared under the station roofs. The three pointsmen’s cabins in front of the arches of the bridge each sported their own bare patch of garden. Amidst the profusion of carriages and locomotives that crowded the lines, a large red signal added a vivid splash of colour in the pale afternoon light.
Roubaud remained standing at the window, absorbed in the scene below and comparing it to his own station back at Le Havre. Whenever he came to Paris and stopped at Madame Victoire’s like this, it never failed to remind him of his job. A mainline train had just arrived from Mantes, and the platforms were a buzz of activity. He watched the comings and goings of the shunting locomotive, a little six-coupled tank engine with diminutive wheels, as it began to disconnect the train. It went about its work with a will, detaching the carriages and reversing them into the adjacent sidings. Another locomotive, a powerful express engine with four large, voracious driving wheels, stood on a separate track, emitting a thick column of black smoke which rose slowly from its chimney into the still air. What most caught his attention, however, was the 3.25 train for Caen. It already had its full complement of passengers but still awaited a locomotive. The engine stood on the other side of the Pont de l’Europe just out of sight; Roubaud could hear it asking for the road, with short, repeated blasts on its whistle, like someone getting impatient. One of the linemen shouted the all-clear, and the driver responded with a further toot on the whistle in acknowledgement. There was a brief pause, the cylinder taps were opened, a deafening gush of steam shot along the ground from underneath the locomotive, and it slowly began to back on to its train. A huge white cloud came welling up from beneath the bridge, spreading outwards and swirling through the iron lattice-work like a flurry of snow. One part of the station disappeared behind a swathe of white, while the smoke from the express engine draped itself across the sky in a dense pall of black. From somewhere beyond the murk came the insistent calls of the shunters’ horns, orders being shouted and the clatter of turntables. Through a brief clearing in the smoke he caught a glimpse of a Versailles train and an Auteuil train passing each other in opposite directions on the far side of the station, one of them leaving and the other arriving.
Roubaud was about to walk away from the window when he heard someone calling his name. He leaned out to look. On the fourth-floor balcony below him stood a young man, some thirty years old, by the name of Henri Dauvergne. He worked for the railway company as a guard and lived there with his father, who was an assistant stationmaster at the mainline station, and his two sisters, Claire and Sophie, a pair of very attractive fair-haired girls aged eighteen and twenty. The two men brought in six thousand francs between them, and with this the girls saw to the family’s daily needs. It always seemed a wonderfully happy household; the elder sister was forever laughing and the younger one singing songs, accompanied by lively competition from a cage full of exotic birds.
‘Monsieur Roubaud!’ Henri called. ‘What brings you to Paris? Oh, of course . . . I heard about your little brush with the Sub-Prefect!’
Roubaud stood at the window and explained how he’d had to come down from Le Havre that morning by the 6.40 express. He’d been hauled over the coals by the senior traffic manager. He’d been told to come and see him in Paris immediately. He was lucky he hadn’t been given the sack.
‘Is Madame Roubaud with you?’ Henri inquired.
Yes, she had wanted to come too in order to do some shopping. He was expecting her back at any minute. Madame Victoire always let them have the key to her room whenever they came to Paris. They liked to have a quiet meal there on their own, while she, bless her, went off to her job as a lavatory attendant. They’d had a quick sandwich at Mantes so that they could get everything done before they had lunch, but it was now gone three o’clock, and he was starving.
Henri was in a chatty mood and asked if they were staying overnight.
No, they weren’t. They were returning to Le Havre that evening, on the 6.30 express. Some holiday! A lot of fuss and bother just to get a ticking off, and then it was back to the grind!
The two men exchanged knowing looks, but their voices were drowned by a loud burst of spirited piano playing. The sisters must have been at the piano together; their laughter could be heard above the sound of the music, and it had obviously excited the birds in their cage. Henri, not wanting to miss out on the fun, waved goodbye and went back into the room. Left alone, Roubaud stood for a minute or two looking down at the balcony, from which the sounds of youthful merriment continued to rise. When he looked up again, he saw that the locomotive had closed its cylinder taps and that the pointsman was sending it on to the Caen train. A few last wisps of steam evaporated into the great swirls of dark smoke that blackened the sky. Roubaud turned and walked back into the room.
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