Read an extract of The Hand by Georges Simenon below
I was sitting on the bench, in the barn. Not only was I aware of being there, in front of the sagging door that, with each swing, let in a gust of wind and snow, but I saw myself as clearly as in a mirror, noting the incongruity of my situation.
The bench was a garden bench, painted red. We had three of them, which we put away for the winter along with the lawnmower, the garden tools and the window screens.
The barn, also of wood painted red, had been a real barn a hundred years earlier, but was now nothing more than a vast shed.
If I begin with that particular moment, it’s because it was a kind of awakening. I had not slept. Yet I was emerging, abruptly, into reality. Or was it a new reality that was beginning?
But then, when does a man begin to . . . No! I will not let myself go down that slippery slope. I am a lawyer by profession and have the habit, some even say the mania, of precision.
And yet, I don’t even know what time it might have been. Two o’clock? Three o’clock in the morning? At my feet, on the floor of beaten earth, the pink filament of the small flashlight was still shedding its last gleam without illuminating a thing any more. With cold, numb fingers, I was trying to strike a match to light my cigarette. I needed to smoke. It was like a sign of recovered reality.
The smell of tobacco felt reassuring to me, and I stayed there, leaning forward, elbows on my knees, staring at the huge banging door that might collapse at any moment under the onslaught of the storm.
I had been drunk. I probably still was, which has happened to me only twice in my life. I remembered everything, however, the way you remember a dream when laying scraps of it end to end.
After a trip to Canada, the Sanders had come to spend the weekend with us. Ray is one of my oldest friends. We studied law together at Yale and, later, after our marriages, we had kept up the connection.
So. That evening, Saturday 15 January, when the snow had already begun falling, I’d asked Ray:
‘How do you feel about coming along with us for drinks at old Ashbridge’s place?’
‘Harold Ashbridge, from Boston?’
‘I thought he spent the winter down at his home in
Florida . . .’
‘Ten years ago, he bought some property about twenty miles from here to play the gentleman farmer. He’s always there for Christmas and New Year’s and only goes off to Florida around mid-January, after a big party.’
Ashbridge is one of the few men who impress me. As is Ray. There are others. Actually, they aren’t as rare as all that. Not to mention the women. Mona, for example, Ray’s wife, whom I always see as an exotic little animal, although as far as exotic goes, she’s barely one-quarter Italian by blood.
Isabel is tall, with a graceful figure, regular features and a slightly condescending smile, as if those with whom she is speaking were at fault in some way
‘He doesn’t know me . . .’
‘At Ashbridge’s, you don’t need to know anybody.’
Isabel was listening without saying a word. Isabel never intervenes in such moments. She is the docile wife par excellence. She does not protest. She simply watches you and passes judgement.
At that point, there had been nothing to criticize in my behaviour. We went every year to that party at the Ashbridges’, which is like a professional obligation. Isabel did not point out that the snow was falling hard and that the drive up to North Hillsdale is a difficult one. In any case, the snowplough had certainly gone by.
‘What car are we taking?’
‘Mine,’ I said.
And at the back of my mind – it’s only now that I discover this – there was a tiny ulterior motive.
Ray works on Madison Avenue. He is a partner in one of the biggest ad agencies. I see him almost every time I go to New York and am familiar with his routine. Without being a drinker, he does need two or three double martinis before each meal, like almost all those in his profession who live on their nerves.
‘If he drinks a bit too much, at the party . . .’
It’s funny – or tragic – to recall those little details a few hours later. For fear that Ray might over-indulge, I was taking precautions, arranging to be the driver on the way home. Except that I was the one who had got drunk!
At first, there were at least fifty people, if not more. An immense buffet was set out in the front hall, but all the doors were open, with people coming and going, even in the upstairs bedrooms, and bottles and glasses were everywhere.
‘May I introduce Mrs Ashbridge . . . Patricia, my friend Ray . . .’
Patricia is only thirty. She is Ashbridge’s third wife. She’s very beautiful. Not beautiful like . . . I wouldn’t say like Isabel; my wife has never been truly beautiful. Besides, I always find it difficult to describe a woman and I automatically do so in relation to my wife.
Isabel is tall, with a graceful figure, regular features and a slightly condescending smile, as if those with whom she is speaking were at fault in some way.
Well, Patricia is the opposite. On the small side, like Mona. Even more of a brunette than she is, but with green eyes. And Patricia, she looks at you, fascinated, as if she desired nothing more than to learn your innermost thoughts or to confide her own to you.
Isabel never conjures up the image of a bedroom. Now, Patricia – she always makes me think of a bed.
They say . . . But I pay no attention to what people say.
First of all, I don’t trust hearsay. And then, I instinctively loathe indiscretion, so I hate backbiting all the more.
The Russels were there, the Dyers, the Collinses, the Greenes, the Hassbergers, the . . .
People talk, drink, come, go, nibble things that taste like fish, turkey or beef . . . I had, I remember, a serious conversation off in the morning room with Bill Hassberger, who was thinking of sending me to Chicago to settle a legal matter.
Those people are rich. For most of the year, don’t ask me why, they live in our little corner of Connecticut, but they have business interests more or less throughout the country.
Compared to them, I’m a poor man. Dr Warren as well, with whom I chatted briefly. I was not drunk, far from it.
I don’t know exactly when it all began.
Or rather, as of a few seconds ago, I do know, because on my bench, where I’m having at least my fifth cigarette, I’m suddenly discovering in myself a curious lucidity.
I went upstairs, for no reason, like others before and after me. I pushed open a door and quickly shut it, with just time enough to see Ray and Patricia in what wasn’t even a bedroom, but a bathroom, where they were making love, completely clothed.
I may be forty-five years old, but that image made such an impression that I can still see it in minute detail. Patricia saw me, I’m sure of that. I would even swear that the look in her eyes was not embarrassment, but a kind of amused defiance.
That’s very important. That image has considerable importance for me.
Find out more about the author
A new translation of George Simenon's taut, devastating psychological novel set in American suburbia. The inspiration for the new play by award-winning playwright David Hare.
'I had begun, God knows why, tearing a corner off of everyday truth, begun seeing myself in another kind of mirror, and now the whole of the old, more or less comfortable truth was falling to pieces'
Confident and successful, New York advertising executive Ray Sanders takes what he wants from life. When he goes missing in a snow storm in Connecticut one evening, his closest friend begins to reassess his loyalties, gambling Ray's fate and his own future.
'The romans durs are extraordinary: tough, bleak, offhandedly violent, suffused with guilt and bitterness, redolent of place . . . utterly unsentimental, frightening in the pitilessness of their gaze, yet wonderfully entertaining' John Banville
'One of the greatest writers of the twentieth century . . . Simenon was unequalled at making us look inside, though the ability was masked by his brilliance at absorbing us obsessively in his stories' Guardian
'A supreme writer . . . unforgettable vividness' Independen