In the Ivory Coast in Abidjan they like to eat bats in gooseberry jam. Gabriel Contamine likes to eat Lesieur canned peas, on Friday night, lounging in front of the TV. A documentary on the sex life of the staghorn sumac lets Gabriel forget the internecine plots hatched that week at the office, forget his worries. For a while.
Like numbers-men the world over, actuaries and accountants, Gabriel fears forgetting. The stove has to be checked three times before leaving, the lock’s bolt never rests easy in its strike, and hands have to be washed three times before he opens public washroom doors (always with his knee). Trig problems appear when Gabriel beholds a verdant pasture dotted with grazing cattle. Sometimes he counts the peas in the can before he shoves them down his gullet. To forestall asphyxiation.
At work he’s an underling. He can’t stand the man in the neighbouring cubicle, longs to learn that he has succumbed to a freak case of poisoning brought on by carelessly swallowing his own saliva. Gabriel Contamine cultivates his hatred for this man like a hothouse flower. Wishing for his enemy’s inferiority to be revealed. In vain.
Peering through his glasses Gabriel Contamine dreams of calculating the number of square metres of concrete between Dubai’s most modern buildings. But they always chose his colleague for overseas assignments, that half-wit who showed such skill when it came to sucking up to the boss. Gabriel, then, would stay here with his peas, surveying the streets of the financial district when he wasn’t in farm country measuring outbuildings.
His up-and-coming colleague, who said “ahnt” instead of aunt and “tomahto” instead of tomato, clipped his nails while talking to his mother on the phone. Click. Click. Click. Gabriel felt the urge to trip his enemy when he walked by the mouse- grey, pressed-wood walls of Gabriel’s prison, and each time he brushed by this charlatan’s cubicle.
Take comfort in doing as little as possible. Sleepless nights spent watching a documentary on the Sisters of Charity, whose thriving business keeps them busy, making communion wafers in their basement. Pretend, seem. Fall asleep on the blueprints, hold your eyes closed, just a few moments. Open the mailbox to find envelopes stuffed full of hundred-dollar bills, your reward for a few small lies. For drawing a few false lines on a piece of tracing paper, settling the dispute. The neighbours will fight it out over the coming centuries, all because the man of the house with his puffed-out chest had three square metres of useless lawn stolen from under his feet. The bowtie-wearing notary who signs off on the falsified documents keeps five per cent. Then the beloved dog mysteriously disappears. Thirty-foot high trees are felled for no clear reason. Razor wire fencing goes up toward the heavens. No more opening the barn to say Hi to the neighbour. Rat poison on the property line. To each their own secret revenge. Our enemies may be smart, but surely not as powerful as us.
Gabriel Contamine had always wanted to launder money for the mafia, to be a spy in Lebanon or a bank president in New York. He didn’t want to hear himself calling out numbers any more, or mark out quadrilaterals on graph paper. His canned peas were more and more often washed down with amber-hued scotch, accompanied by spring rolls. The Chinese guy on the corner, who had had his menu translated by a niece from Hong Kong, rolled a thousand a week; he had deals going with the neighbourhood grocery stores. Men of account. Free men, engaged in commerce.
On his lunch break Gabriel Contamine always ate the same ham and parsley sandwich, chewing each mouthful 15 times while watching Beatrice out of the corner of his eye. Beatrice, Executive Secretary, Rabin Rabin Surveyors, Ltd. Beatrice whose duties included dusting and misting each leaf of the countless plants before she was finally allowed to leave, exhausted. Spray…hibiscus leaves…Spray…Moroccan bay leaves…a million green leaves…and Gabriel, who smiled as he watched her lower her eyes, her slender fingers on the trigger. He wanted to wake up next to Beatrice on Sunday morning. Watch her read her horoscope out loud and read his. Pisces. Cancer. Scorpio. Ink-stained fingers. Then they would go eat at the Chinese restaurant. Honeydew soup, cuttlefish with candied vegetables, eight-flavour- chicken. Unfamiliar, surprising things. He would explain Euclid’s five postulates and illustrate Pythagoras’ theorem with his mechanical pencil on the paper placemat. Beatrice was a fast learner. But Gabriel didn’t have the guts. Everything that is true in him stems from his adolescent shyness.
In high school the young girls sitting around him wrote test-answers in blue ink on their thighs. They would wait for him next to the brick wall in the schoolyard, because even at this tender age Gabriel knew how to calculate tangents. The guy in the neighbouring cubicle must have been the best cheater of them all; he had easily gotten in the boss’s good books. A real octopus, excreting his ink. A smart bastard.
Gabriel was sad. His favourite philatelic columnist had died, leaving a gaping hole in his Sundays. He was waiting to hear who had been given the hospital addition in Dubai. Gabriel Contamine wished he had started collecting stamps younger. At ten he would have liked to become a famous cartographer. Survey the Seychelles on a twin-engined plane. Find an undiscovered island, never come back. But the Saudi Royal Family, through holding companies, had invested in Rabin Rabin Surveyors where he worked, and where he would grow old, and where he enjoyed a prodigious dental plan and a substantial pension.
A job that let him go to New York every year at Easter and buy three Taiwanese Cartier watches. A Cartier for his mother, one for his sister, and one for Beatrice. Beatrice, who wrote out the contracts that would never be settled, whose livelihood was in these fence-fights, these pointless quarrels between neighbours that would be drowned in all kinds of liquor when evening fell. Entire lives thrown out of orbit over rights of way, cottages cut off from the main road, addresses nailed to pine trees that were not legally yours.
His officemate, with that plummy voice of his, knew the true meaning of “buttering up.” Words were a toy in his hands. He invented worlds, to dupe people. Worked with intonation, caught you off guard. That libertine who invited women to eat Iranian caviar, rockfish, and the airiest Parmesan in his apartment where carpets adorned walls as well as floors. He’d be packing his bags, no doubt, and leaving for Dubai in the next few days. As for Gabriel Contamine, what he really wanted was to go down a snowy hill on a dogsled, one arm wrapped tightly around Beatrice. But he couldn’t build the relationship. He was a wuss, looking on sullenly as she presided over alpine disputes. My cabin. Your cabin. My land. Your land. Two thousand three hundred square metres of dispute, a diamond-shaped bit of lawn and then, one day, our little sanctuary isn’t what it used to be, nothing belongs to us.
For the last two months he had been on the case of a fifty-year-old Krakovian who owned two plots of land in the country. This Polish widow had hired the surveyors to flense off a few feet from her neighbour, who kept bay mares. It all started with a false dinner party. The old bat had spread two picnic tables with white tablecloths covered in finger-food. Radishes turned to resemble flowers. Toothpicks crowned in green cellophane piercing cubes of marble cheddar. The neighbour’s foal, who the widow often treated to little mint candies placed on hands held flat like tiny tables, had hopped the wooden fence, between two black spruce trees. One by one he had scooped up the canapés with his pink tongue, and quickly swallowed them down, looking over his shoulder as if he expected to be caught at any moment. The old lady called in the surveyors the following morning. She said, to whoever would listen, that she had been expecting Fidel Castro for tea.
A crazy old lady, another dispute. Another claim that would never be settled. Another lost chance to go to Dubai while the guy at the neighbouring cubicle scraped his way to the top. While the guy from the neighbouring cubicle was taking advantage of relaxed working conditions to bring his little chow-chow to work. This little smartass of a dog, bred to walk on tightropes, slept at his master’s feet, dreaming of jumping at the throat of the first person to try to pet him on the head. The guy from the neighbouring cubicle who would soon have his own office and a full-time secretary.
Beatrice was all he had left. Watching Beatrice sitting on her swivel chair, eating an apple whole: skin, flesh, core. Whole. Beatrice who kissed the air next each of Gabriel’s cheeks every year at the staff Christmas party. Love is the way you inhabit a space. Beatrice who made coffee with the elegance of a diplomat for visiting developers who snuck probing glances at her tweed skirt. Beatrice who turned Gabriel Contamine’s stomach into a nursery for exotic butterflies. Beatrice who copied the municipal plans like an artist, spreading them out beneath the copier’s lid, under the explosion of green light. One more thing created in the world.
Gabriel was now resolved to ask her out to the Chinese restaurant. He had spent too many Friday nights in front of the microwave watching the popcorn pop. Watching the tray spin around. Alone. Gutted. Without recourse. Without Beatrice. Dreaming of reading out loud to her from cloak-and-dagger novels.
That morning while driving over the freshly asphalted bridge he had sealed the envelope containing the twice-folded letter for Beatrice. He got to work ten minutes before the archives department opened. His hands smelled of the past. He was looking for the truth, the golden mean among the T-squares and the erasers. To work, to long for a better position, hoping to one day be the one who would revolutionize the way things were done here, to supplant the guy at the neighbouring cubicle, in all his glory. The underlings would sigh.
That lunch-hour Gabriel Contamine would be invited to the boss’s glassed-in office. The Machiavellian guy at the neighbouring cubicle would sneak up on Beatrice from behind, a letter-opener in hand. Beatrice would open the letter while the interloper looked over her shoulder and Gabriel Contamine looked on, eating his ham and parsley sandwich in the boss’s office. The guy from the neighbouring cubicle would laugh a laugh that exposed his cavities. The shy ones are always put back in their place. Gabriel would never take Beatrice to the Chinese restaurant, but he would be sent to Dubai for the big hospital addition.