I’m Ahlème, by the way, and I’m walking through the crush of all these people in a rush, bumping into each other, running late, arguing, on their mobiles, not smiling, and I can see my brothers who are so cold, like me. I can always spot them, it’s something in their eyes, like they want to be invisible, or somewhere else. But they’re here.
I never complain at home, not even when our heating cuts out, because Dad just goes: ‘You keep quiet now, you didn’t live through the winter of ’63.’ Not much I can say to that, in 1963 I wasn’t even born. So I shuffle and slide along France’s slippery streets, passing Rue Joubert where a few prostitutes on the pavements call out to each other. They look like beat-up old dolls who aren’t afraid of the cold any more. Working girls are the climatic exception, it doesn’t matter where they are, they’ve stopped feeling anything.
My appointment with the temping agency is for 10.40 a.m. Not 45. Not 30. Things are kind of precise here in France, where every minute counts, and it’s something I’ll never get used to. I was born on the other side
of the sea, and the African minute contains a lot more than sixty seconds.
Mr Miloudi, the youth adviser in my area, suggested I apply to this new outfit: Temp Plus.
Miloudi’s old skool. He’s been running the youth advisory service on Uprising Estate since back in the day, and he’s seen all the ASBOs in our endz. He’s efficient, I guess. But he’s always in a hurry. So it wasn’t like there was any hanging around in my interview:
‘Sit down, young lady.. .’
‘And next time, please remember to knock before entering.’
‘Sorry, I wasn’t thinking.’
‘I’m only saying it for your own benefit, you can fail an interview for that kind of thing.’
‘Good, let’s get going, no time to waste, we’ve only got a twenty-minute slot. You need to fill out the skills form in front of you, write in block capitals in the boxes, and don’t make any spelling mistakes. If you’re not sure about a word, ask me for the dictionary. Did you bring your CV?’
‘Yes. Five copies, like you said.’
‘Very good. There’s the form, fill it out carefully. I’ll be back in five minutes.’
He took a box of kitchen matches out of his pocket, together with a pack of Marlboros, and walked away, leaving me to face my destiny. There were piles of files on his desk, forms everywhere I looked, taking up all the space. And a giant clock fixed to the wall.
Each time its hands moved, it made a noise that echoed in my ears like someone ringing the end of time. I felt hot all of a sudden. Mental block. The five minutes sped by like a TGV, and all I’d written was my surname, my first name and my date of birth.
I could hear Mr Miloudi’s dry cough in the corridor; he was coming back.
‘So? Where are you up to? Have you finished?’
‘No. Not yet.’
‘But you haven’t filled in anything!’ he complained, leaning over the piece of paper.
‘I didn’t get time.’
‘There are plenty of people waiting for an appointment, I have other clients after you, as you saw in the waiting room. We’ve only got ten minutes to contact the SREP now, because at this time of year there’s no point going via AGPA, there won’t be any places left. I suggest we try for paid training at the FAJ…. Why can’t you fill it out? It’s straightforward enough.’
‘I don’t know what to put in the ‘life plans’ box…’
‘You must have some idea.’
‘I can see from your CV that you’ve had plenty of professional experience, there must be something there you enjoyed.’
‘Those were casual jobs, like being a waitress or a shop assistant. They were about money, Mr Miloudi, not my life plan.’
‘Okay, let’s leave the application form for now, we haven’t got time. I’m going to give you the address of another temping agency, while we’re waiting to hear from the FAJ.’
Johanna at Temp Plus looks sixteen, her voice trembles and it’s painful trying to make out what she’s saying. I get that she’s asking me to fill out a questionnaire. She gives me a biro with her office’s stupid logo on it and asks me to follow her. She’s wearing these extra-stretchy jeans that show up all the times she’s stuffed her face instead of sticking to her Weight Watchers’ diet – they make her look like she’s having an affair or something. She points to a seat by a small table where I’m meant to sit down. It’s difficult to write, my fingers are frozen stiff, I’m finding it hard to unclench them. It reminds me of when Dad – the Boss, we call him – used to come home from work. He always needed a bit of time before he could open his hands. ‘It’s because of the pneumatic drill,’ he used to say.
I scribble, I fill in their boxes, I tick and sign. Everything on their application form is teeny-tiny and their questions are bordering on the annoying. No, I’m not married, no I haven’t got any kids, or a driving licence,
no I didn’t go on to higher education, no I’m not registered disabled and no I’m not French. In fact, where’s the box for: ‘My life’s FLOPPED’? That way, I’ll just tick it, end of story.
Johanna, whose jeans are so tight they’re cutting up into her crotch, puts on this sympathetic voice and offers me my first temping ‘assignment’. It’s funny how they call them ‘assignments’. Makes shitty jobs seem like an adventure.
She’s offering me stocktaking out in Leroy Merlin next Friday evening. I say yes, straight up, I need the work so badly I’d take almost anything.
I come out of there feeling well pleased with myself, which just goes to show it doesn’t take much.
Then I head off to join Linda and Nawel at the Cour de Rome, which is a café in the Saint-Lazare area, near to the agency. They’ve been trying to see me for a few weeks now, but to be honest I mostly avoid going out when I haven’t got any money. Plus these days they’re glued to their boyfriends, which is kind of boring, and I always feel so clumsy plonked in between them. I’m not far off winning the European and African Championships for Best Female Gooseberry.
The girls are sitting on the bench at the back of the café. Typical, bunch of smokers hiding away, I know their old tricks by heart. They even set up this HQ in our endz where they used to hang out behind the stadium, to bill up one, and the code to meet was: ‘Anyone fancy keeping fit?’
They’re dressed to kill, nothing new there. I’ve noticed how slick they always look, and I’m thinking how can they spend so much time getting dressed, doing their hair and make-up? Nothing’s left to chance, everything
matches, it’s all calculated and chosen carefully.
It’s not often I sign up to making the effort, but when I do it nearly kills me, it’s too much like hard work if you ask me. What wouldn’t us girls do for an admiring look or a compliment on a bad-hair day? So if someone says she’s gone all out with the garms just to please herself it’s like, yeah right!
I’m level with the girls now and they light their cigarettes in sync, welcoming me with a warm smoky ‘hi’.
Sticking to the rules, a ‘wassup?’ follows hot on its heels, and we always leave a bit of space to think about this before kicking off the discussion.
Then comes the question I’ve been dreading.
‘Any new boyfriends to tell us about?’ A shake of the head, they get the idea. How come they always ask about boyfriends, plural? I mean, it’s hard enough finding one person you like, so why complicate things?
Next up, same old: ‘So what’s a fine girl like you doing still single? Your problem is, you don’t really want a boyfriend…. You’ve only got yourself to blame, you’re too choosy. We’ve set you up with some fit guys, we’re talking bare buff beasts for real, there’s nothing else we can do for you, you’re shut off.’
I can never get them to understand it’s not as bad as they’re making out because, if things work out, it’s not like I’ll be going through the menopause tomorrow. But they just keep on busting a gut to introduce me to total plonkers. We’re talking guys with an IQ of 2 who are so up themselves it’s unreal, or else complete tossers, or wastemans who can’t string two words together, or manic depressives.
So, I do this nifty manoeuvre to get them to change the subject – I’ve got a real talent for dodging obstacles and problems, three times African and European champion.
Basically, I reckon the girls have already decided on their life plan, same as most people, it’s all mapped out in their heads, like pieces of a jigsaw waiting to fit together. They divide their time between their J.O.B.
and leisure, they go on holiday to the same place every summer, they always buy the same brand of deodorant, their families are chilled and they’ve got long-term boyfriends. In fact, even their guys are spotless, I mean, I like them and everything, but you wouldn’t catch me going away with them for a weekend. No flies there. Plus they come from the same village as the girls, back in the bled, so their parents are bare haps. It’s like incest is back in fashion. At least if it’s your brother, you can be sure he comes from exactly
the same place as you, just ask your mum. The girls reckon it’s practical, because if the families came from different traditions, they wouldn’t agree on everything; and another thing, it makes bringing up the kids more
complicated if you don’t speak the same language…. If you ask me, they’re just stupid details, and you don’t set up home together just because it’s practical.
Nawel’s back from holiday; she was in Algeria staying with her dad’s family, and I tell her she’s lost loads of weight, at least five kilos.
‘Yeah? Am I really skinny?’
‘You’ve dried up, for real. People’ll feel sorry for you, miskina!’
‘That’s going back to the bled for you.’
‘Diet holiday, innit.’
‘Yeah, for real… All that heat, stringy beans every meal, your gran’s jokes, Chilean soap operas…. Course you’re gonna lose weight.’
‘How did you do it?’ asks Linda, she’s curious now. ‘Two whole months in the bled, I’d have got depressed, straight up.’
‘I guess the time just goes. But the TV, man, that was ova-wack, there’s only one channel. Even Mr Bean is censored over there.’
‘At least you don’t get embarrassing stuff like the whole tribe in front of the telly and bam! a hot scene flashes up, or one of those shower gel ads. You get me, the old man starts coughing and you’ve got to grab that remote and zap, fast as. That’s why we’ve got a satellite dish round ours now. It’s saved our lives because on French TV they RATE all the girls getting their kit off, and it’s like totally random.’
‘How was it staying with your family?’
‘Bunch of scavengers more like…. The first week, they loved us up because our suitcases were bulging. But as soon as we’d handed out all the presents that was it, our ratings dropped. I said to my mum: ‘Next summer, I swear on the Koran, let’s just get Tati to sponsor us, it’d make life a lot easier.’
Coming up, it’s time for the neighbourhood gossip with Linda.com. She’s too much, this girl, a total blabbermouth. Linda knows everything about everybody, I don’t get how she does it, sometimes she even knows what’s going on with people before they do.
‘You know Tony Lopez…?’
‘No, who’s he?’
‘Yes you do, the new guy at number 16.’
‘The blond one?’
‘Nah, tall guy with brown hair. Works at Midas.’
‘Yeah, what about him?’
‘He’s going out with Gwendolyn!’
‘What, that short girl? The redhead in your block?’
‘No, not her. The anorexic with loads of half-finished tattoos. Nawel, you know who I mean…’
‘Yeah, got you, I see her on the bus on the way to my J.O.B. So how come she never got her tattoos finished? I’ve always wondered about that.’
‘How’s Linda supposed to know that?’ I ask, me being naïve.
‘Yeah, yeah, I know this one…’
‘Shit, man, you’ve got all the tabloid. Spit it out.’
‘So, she was with this dodgy guy before, right, a tattoo artist. Well, that’s it, innit. He starts on her tattoos and then he never gets to finish them because he dumps her for another girl.’
‘Bastard. He could of finished the job.’
‘So anyway, Anorexia’s going out with Tony Lopez, and then what?’
‘Well, he wanted to leave her. According to my sources, it’s because he’s sticking it in the accountant round at Midas. But seeing as Gwendolyn ova-LIKES him, she did all this psychological pressure shit to make him
stay. So that’s what he ended up doing and then he had to pay for it big time…’
‘Meaning? Spit it out! Cut the tacky suspense.’
‘Wifey only goes and makes a kid behind his back. Like, she’s preggo out to here. Crazy, innit?’
Every time, Linda signs off with: ‘Crazy, innit?’
Before going our separate ways, we told each other a few more stories, the kind you tell in hushed voices, and the same smile that gave away a few of our secrets is protecting me now against the big chill of the outside world.
The platform’s black with people, severe delays occurring. One train in four, that’s what they said on the radio.
No choice, I’m gripping the overhead bar in the carriage. No air in this RER, people are pushing me, crushing me. The train is sweating and I’m feeling choked by all these sad bodies craving colour. All the air in Africa wouldn’t be enough for them. They’re ghosts, and they’re all sick, contaminated with sadness.
I head back to Ivry to help my neighbour, Auntie Mariatou, and her children. My asthmatic RER spits me out into our endz, where it’s even colder. Days like today, you don’t know where you’re going any more, you’re
clean out of luck, too bad, I guess. Yeah, it’s sad, but luckily, deep down, there’s still this little thing that helps you get up in the morning. There’s no guarantee, but you hold out for it getting better one day. Like Auntie says: ‘The best stories have the worst beginnings.’
Translated from the French by Sarah Ardizzone (Chatto & Windus 2008)
Faïza Guène was born in France in 1985 to Algerian parents. Her first novel, Just Like Tomorrow, written when she was 17 years old, was a huge success in France, selling almost 400,000 copies, and was translated around the world. She lives at Pantin, Seine-Saint-Denis, a suburb north of Paris.
Sarah Ardizzone won the 2005 Marsh Award for her translation of Daniel Pennac’s Eye of the Wolf and the 2007 Scott-Moncrieff Prize for Faïza Guène’s Just Like Tomorrow.