Late that night, she was awoken by a harsh whisper. “Bérénice. Bérénice!”
She peeled her eyes open. It was Simon, she realized, crouching by the side of her bed. She blinked several times; her eyes were heavy. “What is it? Is something wrong?”
Simon gestured back over her shoulder at the doorway. Silhouetted in the light from the room beyond, Bérénice saw the slim figure of a child, a boy. It was Jean-Claude’s neighbor again, she realized.
Instantly she sat up, pushing back her blanket. “What is it?” she repeated.
“His mother is very sick,” the boy said softly. “She’s been taken to the doctor, but he had to stay behind. He wants to know if you’ll come help him.”
Bérénice was already getting out of bed. “Yes, of course,” she said. “What time is it?”
“A little before four,” Simon replied.
“Oh, god. I’m sorry you woke up before I did.”
“I wasn’t sleeping,” Simon said dryly.
Bérénice was casting about the room, grabbing a sweater, a wool skirt; she jammed her feet into boots, seized a coat. “Did he say he needed anything?” she said to the boy. “Food, money?” She felt a little dizzy, but she took a deep breath and blew it out hard, until she felt clearer.
The boy shook his head. “No, he just asked to see if you would come help him.”
“Yes, yes,” Bérénice said again, moving out her door. Simon and the boy trailed behind her. In the other bedroom, beyond the little kitchen, she could see Aïcha sitting wrapped in a blanket, looking puzzled and worried. Bérénice gave her a tired smile.
Then it seemed that they were already down the stairs, out in the street, Bérénice leading the way, the boy almost running to keep up with her long strides. It was a damp, raw night; mist had come in from the Seine, blurring the streetlights.
“What did you say your name was, again?” Bérénice asked.
“Paul,” the boy said.
And, breathlessly, the boy told her: her family had been awoken by Jean-Claude crying out for help below them, sharply audible through the gappy floorboards.
His mother had been tossing and turning all night, he explained later, unable to sleep; finally she had risen to get out of bed—he wasn’t sure why—taken a few steps, and fallen heavily to the floor. By the time that Paul’s mother had hurried down, Else was still unconscious, although breathing regularly.
With a little effort, a taxi had been hailed from the street; during the time that it took to find one, yet another neighbor, who had a telephone, had been roused, and a call placed to the doctor, so that he should be ready by the time the taxi arrived.
Paul’s father had carried Else into the taxi—but the taxi could not take Jean-Claude in his wheelchair. This was why Jean-Claude had asked for Bérénice’s help, Paul finally explained. Jean-Claude had asked the rest of Paul’s family to please go back to bed—but if Paul could remember his way back to Bérénice’s apartment…
The quarter was so small, they lived less than a half a mile apart; when Bérénice and Paul arrived at Jean-Claude’s studio, Paul guessed that it had only been half an hour since he had first been sent out.
Nonetheless, in the darkness, chill, and uncertainty, Bérénice felt keenly each moment slipping by—a sickly, nightmarish sensation. And when she opened Jean-Claude’s door and saw him waiting just beyond, she felt as if she had been struck in the chest. Slumping to one side in his wheelchair, he was twitching constantly, his head jerking from side to side, his legs clenching and straightening arrhythmically. His face was so white and drawn that he looked ten years older. With his arms clamped to his chest, he looked as if he were being gripped and shaken by a giant’s hand.
“Bérénice,” he said, and she was shocked again by how slurred his voice was. He struggled to voice the last syllable of her name; it disappeared into a muffled “mm.”
She concealed her reaction and simply answered, “Yes. You want the doctor? The one on the western side of the quarter?”
He nodded jerkily. From the look on his face, she could tell he was afraid that Else might die before he could see her.
“Yes. Yes,” Bérénice said, feeling that she was reassuring herself more than him. “Paul, you should go to bed. Thank you.”
The boy nodded and backed away; then they heard his feet running lightly up the stairs.
“Jean-Claude, it’s cold outside. Let me get a blanket for you.” Before he could say no, she strode over to the studio. Even without turning the lights on, she was able to navigate well enough to find the basket of blankets without difficulty.
She was already thinking about the short flight of stairs outside the studio. “Now how shall we go?” she asked Jean-Claude as she tucked first one, then another blanket around his shoulders. He was wearing his customary shirt and loose trousers, and a pair of leather slippers; she wondered if Paul’s mother had helped him dress.
He was still struggling to speak, grimacing as his head jerked. As she maneuvered him out onto the landing and reached for the outside door, he finally managed, “Take me down. In chair. Backwards.”
Quickly she pivoted his chair until she was ready to guide him backwards down the front stairs, balancing him from below. This proved to be easier than she had feared, but it made her mouth twist to see how his body lurched each time they dropped down another step. When she ran back up the steps to close the door behind them, she could see Paul’s mother watching, worried, from an upper window. Bérénice raised a hand briefly.
Then they were off down the pavement. When they turned onto the Boulevard Raspail, Bérénice spoke a silent blessing on the wide, well-kept pavements of Montparnasse’s main thoroughfares. She set her hands firmly on the wooden pushbar and set off at a pace only a little slower than running. Her breath bloomed out opaquely into the mist; sounds were deadened around them, even her own footfalls. They passed occasional knots of late-returning revelers, someone out smoking a solitary cigarette, two prostitutes wearily chatting in a doorway. Heads turned as they passed.
Crossing over to the western side of the quarter, they passed the Cimetière du Montparnasse. With a chill in her heart, Bérénice resisted the instinct to slow her pace to a more ceremonious one. The mist gave it all an uncanny, storybook-like flatness: the boundary of autumn-bare trees, the dense rows of funeral monuments receding into the silver-blurred darkness… Jean-Claude’s head was averted from the sight, but she could not tell if it was voluntary or not. Briefly she released one hand from the pushbar and reached out to touch his shoulder, but regretted it when he jerked violently in reaction. She replaced her hand, set her jaw, and kept going.
After the Cimetière, to break the mood, she ventured to ask, “Why didn’t you go in the taxi?” Clearly his wheelchair could not have been brought that way, but if Paul’s father had already accompanied Else, he could have helped Jean-Claude, too…
After a pause, Jean-Claude answered, “He didn’t want to take me. The driver.” The bitterness in his voice was clear.
Bérénice made a wordless exclamation of anger. She could picture it: the driver, superstitious or squeamish, already uncomfortable with the unconscious woman—might she die on him? and he be blamed?—had therefore refused contact with her crippled son. She admitted that even she had been shocked by Jean-Claude’s appearance tonight, by the erratic violence of his movements, his groaning voice. But still—to separate a son and his mother under such conditions…
Jean-Claude would have given in, finally, anxious for his mother to be seen by the doctor as soon as possible. She cursed the driver’s small-mindedness.
Nonetheless, Jean-Claude seemed to be regaining some measure of physical composure. His body was moving with less agitation; she was no longer afraid that he might lurch from his chair. In the mist, she could see his breath pluming out more steadily.
“The doctor,” she said carefully, “he’s someone who knows your mother?” She had been wondering—if Else’s condition were bad enough, might one of the hospitals not be a better choice…? And the expense of a private doctor…
“Yes,” Jean-Claude said. Reading her question, he continued, “The public hospitals near the quarter are terrible. People are afraid of them—l’Hôpital Cochin especially. That’s where people go to die, surrounded by strangers in filthy beds.” He fell silent again, so that his words hung heavily on them.
Bérénice exhaled and said, “We’ll see her soon.” Her voice was firm. And, knowing that they were close, no longer fearing she would exhaust herself prematurely, she broke into a real run, feeling with grim satisfaction her feet pushing against the pavement, her thighs burning, her hands propelling him forward.