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Excerpt: 'The Woman With The Bouquet'

The Woman With The Bouquet

At the train station in Zurich, on platform number three, there is a woman who has been waiting, every day for fifteen years, with a bouquet in her hand.

In the beginning, I didn’t want to believe it. I had already made several journeys to see Egon Ammann, my German language publisher, before I noticed her; then it took me a long time to formulate my surprise, because the elderly lady looked so normal, so dignified, so noble, that you paid her no attention whatsoever. Dressed in a black woolen suit with a long skirt, she wore flat shoes and dark stockings; an umbrella with a knob sculpted in the shape of a duck’s beak emerged from her handbag of cuir-bouilli; a mother of pearl barrette held her hair in a chignon against her head, while a modest bouquet of wildflowers, with a dominant orange note, made a small splash of color in her gloved hands. There was nothing there that suggested she might be a madwoman or an eccentric, so I had attributed my encounters with her to chance.

One spring, however, Ulla, one of Ammann’s colleagues, met me on the platform by my carriage, so I pointed out the strange woman.

“It’s very odd, I think I’ve often seen this woman. What a coincidence! She must be waiting for my double, someone who always takes the same train that I do and at the same time.”

“Not at all,” exclaimed Ulla, “she stands there every day and she waits.”

“Who for?”

“Someone who doesn’t come…because she goes away again every evening alone to come back the following day.”

“Really! How long has this been going on?”

“Well, I’ve been seeing her for five years but I spoke with a stationmaster who ways he noticed her at least fifteen years ago!”

“Are you making fun of me, Ulla? You’re making up a novel!”

Ulla blushed—the slightest emotion turned her crimson—then she stammered, laughed in confusion, and shook her head.

“I swear, it’s true. Every day. For fifteen years. In fact, it must surely be more than fifteen years, because each of us has taken years to notice her presence… So the first one must have as well… For example, you’ve been coming to Zurich for three years and you’ve only mentioned it today. Maybe she’s been waiting for twenty or thirty years… She’s never replied to anyone who asked what she was waiting for.”

“She’s right,” I concluded. “Besides, who could answer such a question?”

We could not elucidate the matter any further, because we had to turn our attention to a series of interviews with the press.

I didn’t think about it again until my next trip. The moment “Zurich” was announced over the train’s loudspeakers, I recalled the woman with the bouquet and wondered, will she be there, yet again…

She was there, vigilant, on platform number three.

I looked at her closely. Light eyes, almost the color of mercury, on the verge of fading away. Pale but healthy skin, marked by the expressive claw of time. A thin body, still in good shape, that must once have been lively and vigorous. The station master was exchanging a few words with her, and she was nodding, smiling amiably, and then she went on her way, imperturbably, staring at the railroad lines. I was able to find only one eccentricity: a folding canvas seat, that she carried with her. Or was that the sign, rather, of a practical nature?

As soon as I arrived at the Ammann Verlag, after changing the tram several times, I decided to conduct an investigation.

“Ulla, if you please, I must find out more about the woman with the bouquet.”

Her cheeks went raspberry.

“As I was sure you would ask me again, I prepared myself. I went to the station and chatted with a few members of the staff, and now I’ve become very friendly with the man who runs the left luggage.

Well aware myself of how easy it was to like Ulla, I had no doubt that she had managed to extract as much information as possible. Although she can be abrupt, and slightly authoritarian, with a piercing gaze as she looks at her interlocutors, she offsets her rather strict approach with an explosive sense of humor, and the sort of good humor one would not expect from someone with such dark features. If she easily befriends everybody, it is because she is basically well-disposed toward people—and irrepressibly curious as well.

“Even though she spends her days outside on the platform, the woman with the bouquet is anything but a tramp. She lives in a fine bourgeois house, in a leafy street. She lives alone, with the daily help of a Turkish woman in her fifties. Her name is Frau Steinmetz.”

“Frau Steinmetz? Will the Turkish woman tell us who she’s waiting for at the station?”

“The Turkish woman hurries away the minute you go up to her. This I found out from a friend who lives in a neighboring street: the cleaning woman speaks neither German, nor French, nor Italian.”

“Then how does she communicate with her boss?”

“In Russian.”

“The Turkish woman speaks Russian?”

“As does Frau Steinmetz.”

“This is all very intriguing, Ulla. Were you able to find out this Frau Steinmetz’s marital status?”

“I tried. I wasn’t able to find anything.”

“A husband? Children? Parents?”

“Nothing. Let me be precise: I can’t swear she doesn’t or didn’t have a husband, or children, I am only saying that I don’t know.”

At teatime, over some macarons, the employees and the publisher Egon Ammann himself came to join us, and I brought the subject up once again.

“In your opinion, who is she waiting for, the woman with the bouquet?”

“Her son,” answered Claudia. “A mother is always hoping that her son will come.”

“Why her son?” asked Nelly, annoyed, “Why not her daughter!”

“Her husband,” said Doris.

“Her lover,” amended Rita.

“Her sister?” suggested Mathias.

In actual fact each of them, in their answer, was telling their own story. Claudia suffered from not seeing her son, who was a professor in Berlin; Nelly’s daughter was married to a New Zealander; Doris was pining for her husband, a sales representative, who was constantly away on business; Rita changed her lover as often as her underwear; as for Mathias, this young man was a pacifist and a conscientious objector, doing his civil service by working rather than serving in the army, and he was clearly nostalgic for his family cocoon.

Ulla looked at her colleagues as if they were all mentally retarded.

“None of that, she’s waiting for someone who died and she can’t accept the fact.”

“That doesn’t change a thing,” exclaimed Claudia. “It can still be her son.”

From The Woman With The Bouquet by Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt. Copyright 2010 Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt. Excerpted by permission of Europa Edition.

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Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt