Yesterday, he started feeling lonely. It happened suddenly. Sitting beside the stern, waiting for the captain, he became conscious of his back against the bench, a sensation that was bizarrely painful. He was aware of his legs extending from his pelvis. His nose, usually invisible, doubled and intruded on his vision. The outline of his body weighed on him as a hard, sore shape, and his heart beat very fast. He assumed the feeling would pass. But it did not, and that evening simple interactions with the quartermaster, dining attendants, other passengers, took on a strained and breathless quality. It must be obvious to them, he thought, how raw his skin felt. During the night he pressed the stem of his pocket watch compulsively in the dark, lifting the lid on its pale face. The ticking lulled him to sleep. Then he woke a second time and, continuing to check the hour as the night progressed, began to see in those twitching hands the spasms of something monstrous.
It was with a strong feeling of relief, therefore, and a sense that his sharp outline had softened slightly, that he smiled back at his new friend.
“What do you imagine it will be like?” said Faruq.
“Imagine what, France?”
“Before I came, the first time, I had many pictures of it in my mind. Some turned out to be quite accurate, in the end. Some were—” He pinched his lips and smiled in self-mockery. “For some reason I had an idea about wigs. You know, the false hair. I’m not sure where I got it from, possibly I had seen an old drawing.”
Midhat made a sound like he was thinking, and looked through the window at the sea.
His high school in Constantinople was modelled on the French lycée. The textbooks were all French imports, as were half the teachers, and even most of the furniture. Midhat and his classmates had sat on ladder-back chairs with woven rush seats reading “la poésie épique en Grèce,” memorizing the names of elements in a mixture of French and Latin, and only when the bell rang did they slip into Turkish and Arabic and Armenian in the corridor. Once formulated in French, certain concepts belonged in French, so that, for instance, Midhat knew the names of his internal organs as “le poumon” and “le coeur” and “le cerveau” and “l’encéphale,” and understood philosophical abstractions by their French names, “l’altruisme,” “la condition humaine.” And yet, despite being steeped for five years in all things French, he struggled to conjure a picture of France that was separate from the furnishings of his classrooms, whose windows had displayed a hot Turkish sky, and admitted shouts of Arabic from the water. Even now, from the vantage of this ship, Provence remained hidden by fog and the earth’s unseeable curves. He looked back at Faruq.
“I cannot imagine it.”
The Parisian will be published on 11 April 2019