Quim Monzó

O'Clock; Sixteen stories translated from the Catalan
Monzó - olivetti, moulinex, chaffoteaux et maury (french)1
This text is a short story entitled Thomson, Braun, Corberó, Philishave. It appears in O'Clock; Sixteen stories translated from the Catalan by Mary Ann Newman. New York: Ballantine Books, 1986.
To messrs. Justerini & Brooks, with gratitude.

As soon as he closed the door, Pol felt relieved. It had been a more tiring trip than usual, everyone seemingly intent on inventing unnecessary obstacles. He hung up his raincoat (and the dust on the hanger reminded him that he had to clean the apartment), pushed the start button on the generator, opened the water valve, turned on a few lights around the house and checked out each of the rooms. He drew the curtains in the living room: in the midst of a ring of snowcapped mountains the village nestled deep in the valley like a crêche.

He found some cognac on a shelf. He took a swallow. He left the typewriter in its case and the briefcase with his papers and books on the table. The only thing he unpacked was a bag of shrimp, which he left on the marble countertop in the kitchen. He felt like the ass in the folktale: He was just as anxious to start writing as he was to fix lunch. He went into the laundry room to turn on the gas and heat. He tried to light the pilot three times, but couldn't get the flame to catch. Just in case he had forgotten, he read the instructions etched on the button: 1. Ouvrir le robinet d'arrêt gas situé au bas de l'appareil. 2. Pousser ce bouton a fond et tourner vers la droite. Allumer la veilleuse. Attendre environ 15 secondes. Pousser de nouveau ä fond en tournant vers la gauche puis relâcher. The robinet d'arrêt gas was already open. He pushed ce bouton a fond once more and turned it to the left. Slowly, he let it relâcher. The flame went out again.

He decided to give it a little rest. Out in the kitchen, he put a few jars away and plugged in the refrigerator. He filled the ice trays with water and put the shrimp on one of the shelves. He picked up some empty bottles and left them in a straw basket. Everything was covered with dust. In the living room, he took the drop cloths off the couches, swept up and ran a dustcloth over the furniture. In the bedroom, he got clean sheets out of the closet, turned the mattress over and made the bed. He also swept the study and dusted the books.

By midafternoon he realized that, in bustling about, he had lost his appetite and forgotten to have lunch. He decided to fix the jambalaya for dinner. All the cleaning had left him feeling dirty; he needed a shower. Out in the laundry room, he tried to light the heater again. He pressed the button in as far as it would go, turned it to the right and released it, then he pushed it again and turned it back to its original position. He let go very gently; the flame disappeared. He tried four more times, with the same luck. The heater was broken.

He had to take a cold shower (and felt like a fool, seeing nothing but snow out the window). He got dressed, picked up the basketful of bottles, and went into town. He bought butter, milk, ham, green peppers, tomatoes, onions, garlic, parsley, and bread. He couldn't find Worcestershire sauce anywhere and it was clear to him that he should have brought it from the city just as he had done with the shrimp. He figured he could use soy sauce (which the town supermarket had a good stock of) and vinegar as a substitute.

At the bar, he had a snack (less out of hunger than as a way of asking the owner if he knew anyone who could fix his heater; now he felt dirty inside, and he thought of ordering some mineral water). The owner did know someone who could, but who happened to be away at the moment and wouldn't be back till the following day. No need to worry, he would take care of everything. It would be fixed the following morning, as soon as the local mechanic arrived.
Back home, he put his purchases away. He took the typewriter out of its case and placed it in the middle of the table. He put the stack of blank paper on the right; on the left, the books he would need. Out the window (it was rapidly getting dark) the snow was milky blue and the sky ashen. Since he'd had a snack in the late afternoon he decided to start preparing supper at nine. He had a couple of hours to write, so he got started.

Sooner or later - and always half empty- page after page ended up in the wastebasket. He pushed the machine away and lit a cigarette. In town only a few lights were on: none of the stores; only the lights from the bar, yellow, and the discotheque. He felt a Siberian frost creeping up his spine. Without much hope, he tried turning on the heater once again. He repeated each step twenty times. Finally he slammed his fist into it. He remembered how when he was a kid his father had always gotten a Japanese transistor going (the first transistor he had ever seen) by giving it a good punch. Perhaps the heater (though not Japanese, nonetheless French) required similar treatment. He punched the machine again, harder this time. The metal squeaked and the machinery seemed to groan. Newly hopeful, he ran through the procedure once again. But when the time came to relâcher the bouton, the pilot light went out.
He slammed the machine once more, this time so hard that the metal plate reading Chaffoteaux et Maury fell to the floor. He had dented the side of it and the noise was getting progressively louder. Keeping his face as far back as he could, he repeated the whole operation in a state of mind that combined his hope for a warm night with his fear of an explosion that might take his head with it. This time when he let go of the button, the pilot stayed lit, as if it were the simplest thing in the world. He was annoyed, because he felt that all along he must have been doing something wrong, if this time it had been so easy. He took a look at the dented surface and picked up the metal plate. He turned on all the radiators.

Feeling more relaxed, he turned on the television. Lines appeared. He tried moving the antenna. The lines turned into a network of spots that jiggled constantly, like sleet. He remembered that the reception was very bad up there. He turned the dial (wondering whether dial was the right word for the button on the television set that serves the same purpose as the dial on a radio). Finally, he felt that the picture was, if not good, at least acceptable, given the conditions and the place. Then he realized that they were broadcasting a soccer match, a spectacle he found not only unappealing but deeply depressing. He pressed the button for UHF. The screen was slashed by oblique lines. He ran through the whole routine again, trying to adjust the picture, but UHF was much more elusive than the other Spanish channel. A French voice came on suddenly, reminding him that, up there, it would be easier to get French TV on VHF than on UHF. He switched back. He ignored the Spanish broadcast and tried to hunt down the froggy one, but it refused to appear. Little by little, amidst a blizzard of fog, a girl's face emerged (but faded away as soon as he moved the button even a smidgen). He searched for her stubbornly, but she never reappeared; now there was a fat emcee hugging a gangster type - who must have been a singer - and presenting him with a horrible little statuette. They were moving their lips, but the only thing he could hear was fried noise. He moved the dial very slowly; he picked up the sound, very faint. They were speaking Italian, with neither subtitles nor translations. He was baffled. He tried to tune in the picture, but when the picture cleared up the sound disappeared, and when the sound cleared up then the picture came down with the measles. Finally he found a middle ground that satisfied him. The emcee signed off in Italian; the commercials were also in Italian. His last doubts were dispelled: He was in the presence of Italian television. (Once he had managed to tune it in from the beach, during the summer on a very clear day, but way up in the mountains in midwinter, with the threat of a snowstorm hovering in the air ...) He poured another cognac and felt quite pleased with himself. He drank it down in two gulps. It was very cold. He feared the worst. He got up in a flash and rushed over to the heater. The light was on. He breathed a sigh of relief. He checked the rooms: The radiators were cold.

As he walked by the television set, he saw Ornella Vanoni singing some Brazilian stuff. He got a move on. He looked at the heater. He wondered if the water was too low. (Or too high?) He opened the valve and the needle started to move slowly upward: 1, 2... Between the 4 and the 5 there was a red line that seemed for all the world to want to indicate danger. The monster's bowels began to rumble. It seemed as though the heat should start coming up any second. He increased the flow. The needle hit the 3. He closed the valve. The needle continued to rise for a few seconds. It stopped a bit above the 4. He made sure the valve was shut tight. The needle wavered a hair's breadth away from the red line. The monster's roar had gone up the scale to a shrill whistle, then the gas caught and the flame spread across the burner. The heater began to work.
He checked the radiators one by one. They were cold, but from the symphony the pipes were producing it seemed clear that the house would soon border on paradise. Meanwhile he headed back to the television: Ornella Vanoni smiled and waved. The fat emcee hugged her, handed her another statuette, and announced a brief pause, which Pol took advantage of to check the radiators again. Of the six in the house, four were already warming up. One of the two that weren't was in the foyer; that one didn't matter. But the other was in the bedroom. He looked to see if the knob was in the "on" position. It was. He tried to unscrew the knob. He looked for a screwdriver, but the one he found was too small. He gave the knob a sharp twist. The screwdriver bent like a toy, but he had managed to strip the threads and the knob was turning. When he took it off, water streamed out as if shooting from a high-pressure hose.

He was soaked from head to toe. The bed was soaked and the floor was transformed into a pool in a matter of seconds. He was hard put to replace the knob, but he finally did so, and in the process splashed the walls that thus far had escaped being drenched. He screwed it on and left it in place, dripping, with the radiator off. He listlessly took off his wet clothes and changed into his pajamas. He mopped the floor, then stripped the bed and stretched the blankets and sheets out all over the house. He considered his options: He could shut the water off and fix the radiator (but it had been so hard to get the heater going that he didn't want to run the risk of its putting another one over on him). He decided to write the radiator off. He would wait for the whiz kid the owner of the bar had promised him for the following day. In the meantime, he would sleep in the bed - with extra blankets - or in the living room in the sleeping bag. He took another look at the heater. It was in perfect working order.

On the television, a black trio was singing. He looked out the window. The bar was now closed and except for the discotheque the whole town was dark. He thought of getting up and going to bed. He had had a pretty harrowing day. If he went to bed early, he'd be able to work steadily the next day. He was sorry, though, about losing the Italian station (perhaps irretrievably) and having to postpone the jambalaya. Undecided, he curled up on the sofa. Within fifteen minutes, he was sound asleep and dreaming of feasts with laden tables in the sun-drenched gardens of New Orleans (on the street, trams were rattling along on tracks sketched through the grass and the trees). When the time came to be served, the chefs were shouting indignantly and he, having just arrived, felt guilty about being late and ran off under ironwork balconies, not knowing where the sauce was hidden. The chefs laughed in silence ...

He was awakened by the absence of noise. The television screen was blank, and he turned it off. He was as hungry as he was tired. In the kitchen, he heard a faint dripping that wasn't coming from any faucet. It was the refrigerator, which had broken down. The scant amount of ice that had formed in the short time it had been on was slowly melting. He unplugged it. With what seemed to him to be a titanic effort, he turned it around. He couldn't make heads or tails of the hieroglyphic wiring. He pushed the refrigerator back in place and plugged it in again. Not even the light bulb went on. Before leaving the kitchen he went out to the laundry room and looked at the heater again: The flame was right in place.

He got a sleeping bag out of the closet. He slid in and lay on the parquet right next to the radiator. He tossed and turned, unable to find a good position. He wondered whether it wouldn't have been better to turn the mattress over and sleep on it. Maybe it wasn't so wet as he had first thought. But he didn't have the strength to get up.
Forty-five minutes later, he admitted that he couldn't sleep. Out in the kitchen he fixed himself a few slices of bread with oil and sugar. He ate them. He sat down at the typewriter and began to write. He wrote half a page and ripped it out of the machine. He crumpled it up into a ball and threw it into the wastebasket. In the kitchen, he sliced some bread and prosciutto and ate it. He took Candide ou l'optimisme out of his bag. He read it, sitting on a chair in the kitchen.

The lights took exactly thirteen minutes to go out. By candlelight, he checked the fuses. They seemed fine. He looked out the window. The fact that there wasn't a single light out there didn't prove a thing; it was logical at four-thirty in the morning. He lighted more candles and went on reading.

When he woke up it was daylight. He had fallen asleep at the table and was frozen. He yawned and his bones felt ready to shatter into icicles. He felt the radiators; they were all cold. He ran to the heater; the flame was in place, but the thermostat read zero. He turned the water up3, 4, 4½... He left the red line behind. The excess water began flowing from a tube jutting out from the building. The heater groaned, the light seemed about to catch on the burner, but in the end it went out.
He thought of making some coffee. When he found the coffee mill full of whole beans, he remembered that it had been broken since his last visit. He found a pot and poured milk into it. Then he had a better idea: He left the pot of milk on the marble counter and looked for a pot and a pan. He turned on the stove (at least the stove was working). He cleaned and boiled the shrimp. Then he put a pan on the fire and added butter. The prosciutto followed in large cubes, along with finely chopped green pepper. He stirred this for a few minutes and, without stopping, added a little flour. A minute later, he added the shrimp, water, quartered tomatoes, minced onion, garlic, and parsley. When it started to boil he added rice, salt, thyme, red pepper, soy sauce, and vinegar. He covered it and turned down the flame. For half an hour he kept watch as it simmered.

There was a knock at the door: The guy at the bar had sent a mere child to fix the heater. Pol showed him not only the heater, but the whole gamut of gadgets that needed fixing, and the radiators: one by one. He took too long to explain. He realized this when he poured out the jambalaya. It had stuck to the bottom of the pan and the only thing he could salvage was a colorless paste, which bore scant likeness to a gastronomic treat.
He picked up the pot of milk and put it on the stove. The boy called him over to explain how easy it was not to break the radiator if; from the very start, you twisted the knob in the right direction. He got back to the kitchen too late: the milk had boiled over and flooded all four burners. Phlegmatically he guzzled his milk straight from the bottle. He stuck two slices of bread in the toaster. They came out charcoal gray.

He hid in the bathroom. He vowed firmly not to come out until all the machines within the radius of a kilometer were repaired. He pulled the chain and it broke in three places. He looked at himself in the mirror and saw a spirit in flight with five o'clock shadow. On the verge of making the worst mistake of his life, he looked at the electric shaver in his hand. He panicked and threw it into the bidet: He had seen its fangs.

Outs





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