He stopped because he’d forgotten his hat. It wasn’t particularly cold, but of course you can’t trust a spring day. The pavement was crowded. Someone pushed past.
He had time to dash home, but he hesitated. What if he saw Madame Marchand? She might be polishing the stairs. She might look up and say, ‘Monsieur LeClercq. What a surprise. Are you ill?’
But no. That didn’t matter. He would explain about the hat and then she’d understand. Still, it would be awkward.
And even if there was no Madame Marchand, what then? He would climb the stairs and come to his apartment. He would put his key in the lock. He would hesitate. Then he would open the door and see the furniture.
People were jostling him, hurrying to the station. A cold wind tousled his hair. Head bowed he hurried back to the house.
He climbed the stairs and there was no Madame Marchand. He paused outside his apartment. He stood with the key in his hand and thought, ‘I’ll go straight in and straight out. I won’t look round.’
He stepped inside, holding his breath. He went to the bedroom and took his hat from the wardrobe. The furniture was watching the back of his legs. He hurried towards the hallway, whispering, ‘Look straight ahead.’
The hallway was the hardest part. It was long and narrow, with a strip of carpet down the middle. He kept his eyes on the carpet, but couldn’t help glimpsing the furniture. There was a hallstand leggy with umbrellas and walking sticks, a hall table that trembled as he passed, and an upright chair with its hands on its knees.
He walked quickly, staring at the floor. He nearly made it out of the flat – but an old watercolour hung on the wall behind the door. In its murky glass he caught his reflection.
He stopped. The furniture waited. He stood behind the door in his hat and coat thinking, ‘I’ll go out in a minute.’ Half an hour later he went to the bathroom. Even here he could feel the furniture. He had interrupted its quiet.
He went back to the door and tried to think. The problem now was that he’d be late at the office. Everyone would look up when he came in. They would watch him cross the office and sit at his desk and reach for his pen. He sat down on the upright chair behind the door. He would wait until lunchtime.
At dusk, around the time he would normally get home, he took off his hat and coat and spent a normal evening. Next day he went to the office, enduring questions but saying little. The day after he again sat behind the door.
There were more comfortable chairs. He thought of his tiny sitting room with the stuffed armchair and the fat sofa. But clearly upholstered chairs were more alive, so he stayed in the hall, leaning against a wall or the hall stand, or perched on the edge of the wooden upright chair behind the door, staying nowhere for very long. That night he lay on the bed fully dressed, his arms by his sides. Sometimes his stomach made a noise because he hadn’t eaten for so long, and he was ashamed of the noise. All this was exhausting, so during the long days that followed he perched in the hall chair, his head against the door.
The flat belonged to the furniture. He had realised this recently, when he was tired after the office or at weekends during the long afternoons. At first he had only noticed the silence, but then he had seen that there was a faint atmosphere, the furniture agreeable with each other, collegiate, comfortable, like the furniture in a library perhaps.
But now, sitting behind the door, he saw that things were more complicated, as all societies are complicated. The leather sofa. The kitchen table, patient as a horse. The two chairs with their knees under the dining table, facing like friends. The sideboard. The tall stand with the vase on its head like an African. The leggy trembling side table, and the pictures on the wall that leaned out to look. He had interrupted all this when he came back to the flat.
If he sat behind the door it was all bearable. But sooner or later he always needed the bathroom. He would creep along the hall, careful not to touch the furniture, thinking, ‘Ignore me. Only a visitor.’
In the bathroom was another problem: he had hung his new mirror on the wall, but it was opposite the mirror over the washbasin. And next to the washbasin was the round mirror that he used for shaving. His image was tossed among these mirrors. At odd moments, when he wasn’t ready, he would glimpse his face, anxious in this maze, so that he was afraid to shave. ‘I’ll throw out that new mirror,’ he thought – but what about the awful noise and fuss?
Exhausted he would steal back to the chair behind the door. Sometimes the chair arms touched his waist, which was so horrible that he leaned forward, his head against the door. This is why he was so startled by the knock. It came again, very loud.
‘LeClercq! Answer, please.’ It was his office manager. He shrank against the wall. There was a flap over the keyhole like a tiny shield. He heard it sliding aside and a wink of light before it darkened again. Someone was looking in.
LeClercq sat for a long time with his eyes squeezed shut.
His supervisor would return. Perhaps tomorrow, perhaps today. He would return with Madame Marchand, who would open the door. They would ask questions, and would stare when he tried to answer.
His heart thumped. He tried holding his breath, but when his next breath came it was all the more loud. He rushed to the bathroom to hide. As he came among the mirrors he thought how the furniture had been here before him and would serve the next tenant equally well.
He looked at himself in the mirrors. Tragic, mad, miserable, a failure now and always. He reached for the razor.