Mother died today. Or, maybe, yesterday; I can’t be sure. The telegram from the Home says: YOUR MOTHER PASSED AWAY. FUNERAL TOMORROW. DEEP SYMPATHY. Which leaves the matter doubtful; it could have been yesterday.
The Home for Aged Persons is at Marengo, some fifty miles from Algiers. With the two o’clock bus I should get there well before nightfall. Then I can spend the night there, keeping the usual vigil beside the body, and be back here by tomorrow evening. I have fixed up with my employer for two days’ leave; obviously, under the circumstances, he couldn’t refuse. Still, I had an idea he looked annoyed, and I said, without thinking: “Sorry, sir, but it’s not my fault, you know.”
Afterwards it struck me I needn’t have said that. I had no reason to excuse myself; it was up to him to express his sympathy and so forth. Probably he will do so the day after tomorrow, when he sees me in black. For the present, it’s almost as if Mother weren’t really dead. The funeral will bring it home to me, put an official seal on it, so to speak...
I took the two-o’clock bus. It was a blazing hot afternoon. I’d lunched, as usual, at Céleste’s restaurant. Everyone was most kind, and Céleste said to me, “There’s no one like a mother.” When I left they came with me to the door. It was something of a rush, getting away, as at the last moment I had to call in at Emmanuel’s place to borrow his black tie and mourning band. He lost his uncle a few months ago.
I had to run to catch the bus. I suppose it was my hurrying like that, what with the glare off the road and from the sky, the reek of gasoline, and the jolts, that made me feel so drowsy. Anyhow, I slept most of the way. When I woke I was leaning against a soldier; he grinned and asked me if I’d come from a long way off, and I just nodded, to cut things short. I wasn’t in a mood for talking.
The Home is a little over a mile from the village. I went there on foot. I asked to be allowed to see Mother at once, but the doorkeeper told me I must see the warden first. He wasn’t free, and I had to wait a bit. The doorkeeper chatted with me while I waited; then he led me to the office. The warden was a very small man, with gray hair, and a Legion of Honor rosette in his buttonhole. He gave me a long look with his watery blue eyes. Then we shook hands, and he held mine so long that I began to feel embarrassed. After that he consulted a register on his table, and said:
“Madame Meursault entered the Home three years ago. She had no private means and depended entirely on you.”
I had a feeling he was blaming me for something, and started to explain. But he cut me short.
“There’s no need to excuse yourself, my boy. I’ve looked up the record and obviously you weren’t in a position to see that she was properly cared for. She needed someone to be with her all the time, and young men in jobs like yours don’t get too much pay. In any case, she was much happier in the Home.”
I said, “Yes, sir; I’m sure of that.”
Then he added: “She had good friends here, you know, old folks like herself, and one gets on better with people of one’s own generation. You’re much too young; you couldn’t have been much of a companion to her.”
That was so. When we lived together, Mother was always watching me, but we hardly ever talked. During her first few weeks at the Home she used to cry a good deal. But that was only because she hadn’t settled down. After a month or two she’d have cried if she’d been told to leave the Home. Because this, too, would have been a wrench. That was why, during the last year, I seldom went to see her. Also, it would have meant losing my Sunday—not to mention the trouble of going to the bus, getting my ticket, and spending two hours on the journey each way.
The warden went on talking, but I didn’t pay much attention. Finally he said: “Now, I suppose you’d like to see your mother?”
I rose without replying, and he led the way to the door. As we were going down the stairs he explained:
“I’ve had the body moved to our little mortuary—so as not to upset the other old people, you understand. Every time there’s a death here, they’re in a nervous state for two or three days. Which means, of course, extra work and worry for our staff.”
We crossed a courtyard where there were a number of old men, talking amongst themselves in little groups. They fell silent as we came up with them. Then, behind our backs, the chattering began again. Their voices reminded me of parakeets in a cage, only the sound wasn’t quite so shrill. The warden stopped outside the entrance of a small, low building.
“So here I leave you, Monsieur Meursault. If you want me for anything, you’ll find me in my office. We propose to have the funeral tomorrow morning. That will enable you to spend the night beside your mother’s coffin, as no doubt you would wish to do. Just one more thing; I gathered from your mother’s friends that she wished to be buried with the rites of the Church. I’ve made arrangements for this; but I thought I should let you know.”
I thanked him. So far as I knew, my mother, though not a professed atheist, had never given a thought to religion in her life.
I entered the mortuary. It was a bright, spotlessly clean room, with whitewashed walls and a big skylight. The furniture consisted of some chairs and trestles. Two of the latter stood open in the center of the room and the coffin rested on them. The lid was in place, but the screws had been given only a few turns and their nickeled heads stuck out above the wood, which was stained dark walnut. An Arab woman—a nurse, I supposed—was sitting beside the bier; she was wearing a blue smock and had a rather gaudy scarf wound round her hair.
Just then the keeper came up behind me. He’d evidently been running, as he was a little out of breath.
“We put the lid on, but I was told to unscrew it when you came, so that you could see her.”
While he was going up to the coffin I told him not to trouble.
“Eh? What’s that?” he exclaimed. “You don’t want me to ...?”
“No,” I said.
He put back the screwdriver in his pocket and stared at me. I realized then that I shouldn’t have said, “No,” and it made me rather embarrassed. After eying me for some moments he asked:
“Why not?” But he didn’t sound reproachful; he simply wanted to know.
“Well, really I couldn’t say,” I answered.
He began twiddling his white mustache; then, without looking at me, said gently: “I understand.”
He was a pleasant-looking man, with blue eyes and ruddy cheeks. He drew up a chair for me near the coffin, and seated himself just behind. The nurse got up and moved toward the door. As she was going by, the keeper whispered in my ear:
“It’s a tumor she has, poor thing.”
I looked at her more carefully and I noticed that she had a bandage round her head, just below her eyes. It lay quite flat across the bridge of her nose, and one saw hardly anything of her face except that strip of whiteness.
As soon as she had gone, the keeper rose.
“Now I’ll leave you to yourself.”
I don’t know whether I made some gesture, but instead of going he halted behind my chair. The sensation of someone posted at my back made me uncomfortable. The sun was getting low and the whole room was flooded with a pleasant, mellow light. Two hornets were buzzing overhead, against the skylight. I was so sleepy I could hardly keep my eyes open. Without looking round, I asked the keeper how long he’d been at the Home. “Five years.” The answer came so pat that one could have thought he’d been expecting my question.
That started him off, and he became quite chatty. If anyone had told him ten years ago that he’d end his days as doorkeeper at a home at Marengo, he’d never have believed it. He was sixty-four, he said, and hailed from Paris.
When he said that, I broke in. “Ah, you don’t come from here?”
I remembered then that, before taking me to the warden, he’d told me something about Mother. He had said she’d have to be buried mighty quickly because of the heat in these parts, especially down in the plain. “At Paris they keep the body for three days, sometimes four.” After that he had mentioned that he’d spent the best part of his life in Paris, and could never manage to forget it. “Here,” he had said, “things have to go with a rush, like. You’ve hardly time to get used to the idea that someone’s dead, before you’re hauled off to the funeral.”
“That’s enough,” his wife had put in. “You didn’t ought to say such things to the poor young gentleman.” The old fellow had blushed and begun to apologize. I told him it was quite all right. As a matter of fact, I found it rather interesting, what he’d been telling me; I hadn’t thought of that before.
Now he went on to say that he’d entered the Home as an ordinary inmate. But he was still quite hale and hearty, and when the keeper’s job fell vacant, he offered to take it on.
I pointed out that, even so, he was really an inmate like the others, but he wouldn’t hear of it. He was “an official, like.” I’d been struck before by his habit of saying “they” or, less often, “them old folks,” when referring to inmates no older than himself. Still, I could see his point of view. As doorkeeper he had a certain standing, and some authority over the rest of them.
Just then the nurse returned. Night had fallen very quickly; all of a sudden, it seemed, the sky went black above the skylight. The keeper switched on the lamps, and I was almost blinded by the blaze of light.
He suggested I should go to the refectory for dinner, but I wasn’t hungry. Then he proposed bringing me a mug of café au lait. As I am very partial to café au lait I said, “Thanks,” and a few minutes later he came back with a tray. I drank the coffee, and then I wanted a cigarette. But I wasn’t sure if I should smoke, under the circumstances—in Mother’s presence. I thought it over; really, it didn’t seem to matter, so I offered the keeper a cigarette, and we both smoked.
After a while he started talking again.
“You know, your mother’s friends will be coming soon, to keep vigil with you beside the body. We always have a ‘vigil’ here, when anyone dies. I’d better go and get some chairs and a pot of black coffee.”
The glare off the white walls was making my eyes smart, and I asked him if he couldn’t turn off one of the lamps. “Nothing doing,” he said. They’d arranged the lights like that; either one had them all on or none at all. After that I didn’t pay much more attention to him. He went out, brought some chairs, and set them out round the coffin. On one he placed a coffeepot and ten or a dozen cups. Then he sat down facing me, on the far side of Mother. The nurse was at the other end of the room, with her back to me. I couldn’t see what she was doing, but by the way her arms moved I guessed that she was knitting. I was feeling very comfortable; the coffee had warmed me up, and through the open door came scents of flowers and breaths of cool night air. I think I dozed off for a while.
I was wakened by an odd rustling in my ears. After having had my eyes closed, I had a feeling that the light had grown even stronger than before. There wasn’t a trace of shadow anywhere, and every object, each curve or angle, seemed to score its outline on one’s eyes. The old people, Mother’s friends, were coming in. I counted ten in all, gliding almost soundlessly through the bleak white glare. None of the chairs creaked when they sat down. Never in my life had I seen anyone so clearly as I saw these people; not a detail of their clothes or features escaped me. And yet I couldn’t hear them, and it was hard to believe they really existed.
Nearly all the women wore aprons, and the strings drawn tight round their waists made their big stomachs bulge still more. I’d never yet noticed what big paunches old women usually have. Most of the men, however, were as thin as rakes, and they all carried sticks. What struck me most about their faces was that one couldn’t see their eyes, only a dull glow in a sort of nest of wrinkles.
On sitting down, they looked at me, and wagged their heads awkwardly, their lips sucked in between their toothless gums. I couldn’t decide if they were greeting me and trying to say something, or if it was due to some infirmity of age. I inclined to think that they were greeting me, after their fashion, but it had a queer effect, seeing all those old fellows grouped round the keeper, solemnly eying me and dandling their heads from side to side. For a moment I had an absurd impression that they had come to sit in judgment on me.
A few minutes later one of the women started weeping. She was in the second row and I couldn’t see her face because of another woman in front. At regular intervals she emitted a little choking sob; one had a feeling she would never stop. The others didn’t seem to notice. They sat in silence, slumped in their chairs, staring at the coffin or at their walking sticks or any object just in front of them, and never took their eyes off it. And still the woman sobbed. I was rather surprised, as I didn’t know who she was. I wanted her to stop crying, but dared not speak to her. After a while the keeper bent toward her and whispered in her ear; but she merely shook her head, mumbled something I couldn’t catch, and went on sobbing as steadily as before.
The keeper got up and moved his chair beside mine. At first he kept silent; then, without looking at me, he explained.
“She was devoted to your mother. She says your mother was her only friend in the world, and now she’s all alone.”
I had nothing to say, and the silence lasted quite a while. Presently the woman’s sighs and sobs became less frequent, and, after blowing her nose and snuffling for some minutes, she, too, fell silent.
I’d ceased feeling sleepy, but I was very tired and my legs were aching badly. And now I realized that the silence of these people was telling on my nerves. The only sound was a rather queer one; it came only now and then, and at first I was puzzled by it. However, after listening attentively, I guessed what it was; the old men were sucking at the insides of their cheeks, and this caused the odd, wheezing noises that had mystified me. They were so much absorbed in their thoughts that they didn’t know what they were up to. I even had an impression that the dead body in their midst meant nothing at all to them. But now I suspect that I was mistaken about this.
We all drank the coffee, which the keeper handed round. After that, I can’t remember much; somehow the night went by. I can recall only one moment; I had opened my eyes and I saw the old men sleeping hunched up on their chairs, with one exception. Resting his chin on his hands clasped round his stick, he was staring hard at me, as if he had been waiting for me to wake. Then I fell asleep again. I woke up after a bit, because the ache in my legs had developed into a sort of cramp.
There was a glimmer of dawn above the skylight. A minute or two later one of the old men woke up and coughed repeatedly. He spat into a big check handkerchief, and each time he spat it sounded as if he were retching. This woke the others, and the keeper told them it was time to make a move. They all got up at once. Their faces were ashen gray after the long, uneasy vigil. To my surprise each of them shook hands with me, as though this night together, in which we hadn’t exchanged a word, had created a kind of intimacy between us.
I was quite done in. The keeper took me to his room, and I tidied myself up a bit. He gave me some more “white” coffee, and it seemed to do me good. When I went out, the sun was up and the sky mottled red above the hills between Marengo and the sea. A morning breeze was blowing and it had a pleasant salty tang. There was the promise of a very fine day. I hadn’t been in the country for ages, and I caught myself thinking what an agreeable walk I could have had, if it hadn’t been for Mother.
As it was, I waited in the courtyard, under a plane tree. I sniffed the smells of the cool earth and found I wasn’t sleepy any more. Then I thought of the other fellows in the office. At this hour they’d be getting up, preparing to go to work; for me this was always the worst hour of the day. I went on thinking, like this, for ten minutes or so; then the sound of a bell inside the building attracted my attention. I could see movements behind the windows; then all was calm again. The sun had risen a little higher and was beginning to warm my feet. The keeper came across the yard and said the warden wished to see me. I went to his office and he got me to sign some document. I noticed that he was in black, with pin-stripe trousers. He picked up the telephone receiver and looked at me.
“The undertaker’s men arrived some moments ago, and they will be going to the mortuary to screw down the coffin. Shall I tell them to wait, for you to have a last glimpse of your mother?”
“No,” I said.
He spoke into the receiver, lowering his voice. “That’s all right, Figeac. Tell the men to go there now.”
He then informed me that he was going to attend the funeral, and I thanked him. Sitting down behind his desk, he crossed his short legs and leaned back. Besides the nurse on duty, he told me, he and I would be the only mourners at the funeral. It was a rule of the Home that inmates shouldn’t attend funerals, though there was no objection to letting some of them sit up beside the coffin, the night before.
“It’s for their own sakes,” he explained, “to spare their feelings. But in this particular instance I’ve given permission to an old friend of your mother to come with us. His name is Thomas Pérez.” The warden smiled. “It’s a rather touching little story in its way. He and your mother had become almost inseparable. The other old people used to tease Pérez about having a fiancée. ‘When are you going to marry her?’ they’d ask. He’d turn it with a laugh. It was a standing joke, in fact. So, as you can guess, he feels very badly about your mother’s death. I thought I couldn’t decently refuse him permission to attend the funeral. But, on our medical officer’s advice, I forbade him to sit up beside the body last night.”
For some time we sat there without speaking. Then the warden got up and went to the window. Presently he said:
“Ah, there’s the padre from Marengo. He’s a bit ahead of time.”
He warned me that it would take us a good three quarters of an hour, walking to the church, which was in the village. Then we went downstairs.
The priest was waiting just outside the mortuary door. With him were two acolytes, one of whom had a censer. The priest was stooping over him, adjusting the length of the silver chain on which it hung. When he saw us he straightened up and said a few words to me, addressing me as, “My son.” Then he led the way into the mortuary.
I noticed at once that four men in black were standing behind the coffin and the screws in the lid had now been driven home. At the same moment I heard the warden remark that the hearse had arrived, and the priest starting his prayers. Then everybody made a move. Holding a strip of black cloth, the four men approached the coffin, while the priest, the boys, and myself filed out. A lady I hadn’t seen before was standing by the door. “This is Monsieur Meursault,” the warden said to her. I didn’t catch her name, but I gathered she was a nursing sister attached to the Home. When I was introduced, she bowed, without the trace of a smile on her long, gaunt face. We stood aside from the doorway to let the coffin by; then, following the bearers down a corridor, we came to the front entrance, where a hearse was waiting. Oblong, glossy, varnished black all over, it vaguely reminded me of the pen trays in the office.
Beside the hearse stood a quaintly dressed little man, whose duty it was, I understood, to supervise the funeral, as a sort of master of ceremonies. Near him, looking constrained, almost bashful, was old M. Pérez, my mother’s special friend. He wore a soft felt hat with a pudding-basin crown and a very wide brim—he whisked it off the moment the coffin emerged from the doorway—trousers that concertina’d on his shoes, a black tie much too small for his high white double collar. Under a bulbous, pimply nose, his lips were trembling. But what caught my attention most was his ears; pendulous, scarlet ears that showed up like blobs of sealing wax on the pallor of his cheeks and were framed in wisps of silky white hair.
The undertaker’s factotum shepherded us to our places, with the priest in front of the hearse, and the four men in black on each side of it. The warden and myself came next, and, bringing up the rear, old Pérez and the nurse.
The sky was already a blaze of light, and the air stoking up rapidly. I felt the first waves of heat lapping my back, and my dark suit made things worse. I couldn’t imagine why we waited so long for getting under way. Old Pérez, who had put on his hat, took it off again. I had turned slightly in his direction and was looking at him when the warden started telling me more about him. I remember his saying that old Pérez and my mother used often to have a longish stroll together in the cool of the evening; sometimes they went as far as the village, accompanied by a nurse, of course.
I looked at the countryside, at the long lines of cypresses sloping up toward the skyline and the hills, the hot red soil dappled with vivid green, and here and there a lonely house sharply outlined against the light—and I could understand Mother’s feelings. Evenings in these parts must be a sort of mournful solace. Now, in the full glare of the morning sun, with everything shimmering in the heat haze, there was something inhuman, discouraging, about this landscape.
At last we made a move. Only then I noticed that Pérez had a slight limp. The old chap steadily lost ground as the hearse gained speed. One of the men beside it, too, fell back and drew level with me. I was surprised to see how quickly the sun was climbing up the sky, and just then it struck me that for quite a while the air had been throbbing with the hum of insects and the rustle of grass warming up. Sweat was running down my face. As I had no hat I tried to fan myself with my handkerchief.
The undertaker’s man turned to me and said something that I didn’t catch. At that same time he wiped the crown of his head with a handkerchief that he held in his left hand, while with his right he tilted up his hat. I asked him what he’d said. He pointed upward.
“Sun’s pretty bad today, ain’t it?”
“Yes,” I said.
After a while he asked: “Is it your mother we’re burying?”
“Yes,” I said again.
“What was her age?”
“Well, she was getting on.” As a matter of fact, I didn’t know exactly how old she was.
After that he kept silent. Looking back, I saw Pérez limping along some fifty yards behind. He was swinging his big felt hat at arm’s length, trying to make the pace. I also had a look at the warden. He was walking with carefully measured steps, economizing every gesture. Beads of perspiration glistened on his forehead, but he didn’t wipe them off.
I had an impression that our little procession was moving slightly faster. Wherever I looked I saw the same sun-drenched countryside, and the sky was so dazzling that I dared not raise my eyes. Presently we struck a patch of freshly tarred road. A shimmer of heat played over it and one’s feet squelched at each step, leaving bright black gashes. In front, the coachman’s glossy black hat looked like a lump of the same sticky substance, poised above the hearse. It gave one a queer, dreamlike impression, that blue-white glare overhead and all this blackness round one: the sleek black of the hearse, the dull black of the men’s clothes, and the silvery-black gashes in the road. And then there were the smells, smells of hot leather and horse dung from the hearse, veined with whiffs of incense smoke. What with these and the hangover from a poor night’s sleep, I found my eyes and thoughts growing blurred.
I looked back again. Pérez seemed very far away now, almost hidden by the heat haze; then, abruptly, he disappeared altogether. After puzzling over it for a bit, I guessed that he had turned off the road into the fields. Then I noticed that there was a bend of the road a little way ahead. Obviously Pérez, who knew the district well, had taken a short cut, so as to catch up with us. He rejoined us soon after we were round the bend; then began to lose ground again. He took another short cut and met us again farther on; in fact, this happened several times during the next half-hour. But soon I lost interest in his movements; my temples were throbbing and I could hardly drag myself along.
After that everything went with a rush; and also with such precision and matter-of- factness that I remember hardly any details. Except that when we were on the outskirts of the village the nurse said something to me. Her voice took me by surprise; it didn’t match her face at all; it was musical and slightly tremulous. What she said was: “If you go too slowly there’s the risk of a heatstroke. But, if you go too fast, you perspire, and the cold air in the church gives you a chill.” I saw her point; either way one was in for it.
Some other memories of the funeral have stuck in my mind. The old boy’s face, for instance, when he caught up with us for the last time, just outside the village. His eyes were streaming with tears, of exhaustion or distress, or both together. But because of the wrinkles they couldn’t flow down. They spread out, crisscrossed, and formed a smooth gloss on the old, worn face.
And I can remember the look of the church, the villagers in the street, the red geraniums on the graves, Pérez’s fainting fit—he crumpled up like a rag doll—the tawny-red earth pattering on Mother’s coffin, the bits of white roots mixed up with it; then more people, voices, the wait outside a café for the bus, the rumble of the engine, and my little thrill of pleasure when we entered the first brightly lit streets of Algiers, and I pictured myself going straight to bed and sleeping twelve hours at a stretch.