Archive for November 2012

Marble [short galactic novel]

By Marie Lebert, December 2019.
Translated from French by Jane Golding.
With drawings by Denis Renard.

“Marble” is a short galactic novel for all ages. Here is a summary. On the planet Coral, the bubble office of the centre for scientific research gets ready to celebrate the New Year. But a marble containing ten years of intensive scientific research is sent mistakenly to planet Earth. On the morning of the first of January, a scientist leaves on a mission to find the marble.


Twenty-eighth of December / Twenty-ninth of December / Thirtieth of December / Thirty-first of December / First of January / Second of January / Third of January / Fourth of January / Fifth of January


Twenty-eighth of December

It was the twenty-eighth of December.

Even on this distant planet, the twenty-eighth of December comes after the twenty-seventh of December and before the twenty-ninth of December. On the planet Coral too, time is important.

The head of the centre for scientific research of the planet Coral goes by the name of Plastic. If you want to seem well mannered when you are first introduced to her, whether professionally or personally, or as some would say, if you want to be in her good books – you should pronounce the “a” of Plastic like an “aah.” This has nothing to do with snobbery; no, it’s simply a question of good taste.

As her name clearly indicates, Plastic is mad about plastic. Her hobby is collecting tupperware. tupperware is the plastic object which, in her opinion, meets the most stringent aesthetic criteria. For some people, it’s jade eggs; for others, beautifully bound leather books. For her, it’s tupperware. There’s no accounting for taste on Coral, either.

A few years ago, Plastic lost her left eye because of tupperware. She was in a galactic imports shop and had decided to buy a new piece for her collection. She had been saving up for this purchase for ages. Suddenly, she spotted a superb new piece of tupperware. It reflected the light like mother of pearl shells in seawater. It had a mauve border that reminded her of her best party dress with a slit in the back.

She picked up this superb piece of new tupperware and stared at it so intensely that her eyes burst out of their sockets. She just had time to catch her right eye with her right hand but not the left eye with her left hand, because, of course, her left hand was holding the beautiful tupperware. She couldn’t bring herself to drop it on the ground, as it would have been dented.

***

In the past few years, the centre for scientific research, of which Plastic was the director, had greatly expanded, and now had seven departments.

The seventh department was rather unusual, as it was the department of dreamy scientists. In the other departments the researchers were great scientists, but not noted for their vivid imagination.

A few years ago, the department of dreamy scientists had been in the basement, like the others. But this department had stagnated, partly because the director who had been appointed to the post had no imagination. As a result of serious professional misconduct, the director was transferred elsewhere, which was a great relief to the dreamy scientists. Having to look at this director all the time blocked their imagination. He didn’t exactly annoy them, but he wasn’t on their wavelength and he didn’t understand anything about anything.

In fact, there had been a mix up over two candidates with the same name — an imaginative person and a non imaginative person. The wrong person was the one who was given the director’s chair. When Plastic discovered her mistake, she couldn’t do anything about it; it was too late, as the contract had already been signed by the two parties. That’s why she had to wait until the serious professional misconduct to replace him.

This time, Plastic was more careful. She had had enough of the dreamy scientists looking daggers at her every time she walked down the corridor. She appointed the right person, whose name was quite simply Chief, a name which was perhaps not very original but left no doubt about his role.

It only took Chief a few hours to analyse the situation in his new department, as he was both efficient and quick thinking. He arranged a meeting with Plastic to explain the problem to her. He sat down in one of the armchairs in her tupperware office. The three armchairs were also in the shape of tupperware, like all the other objects in the room.

Chief didn’t pass any comment on the beautiful reflections like mother of pearl shells that had just emerged from the sea. He was perfectly polite, but not obsequious.

Chief wasn’t the type, either, to take three hours explaining what could be explained in two sentences. This was one of his many qualities. The first sentence outlined the problem; the second gave the solution. Many other departmental directors could well have taken inspiration from such conciseness, but this was unfortunately not the case.

While Plastic stared hard at him with her plastic left eye, which made her look strangely charming, Chief explained to her:

“It is just not possible to use our imagination when we have to spend eight hours a day in a basement. My colleagues need to work where they can see outer space, the stars and the galaxies.”

Plastic understood straight away.

“Right. Please prepare the plans for an open-air department for tomorrow morning.”

The next morning, Chief sat down again in one of the tupperware-shaped armchairs with the shiny mother of pearl reflections, and showed Plastic the plans for a very large, bubble-shaped office which was completely transparent.

After studying the document very closely and asking many questions, each more relevant than the one before, Plastic added her large signature to the bottom right and drew a rectangle around it.

When asked about this subject, the graphologist of the centre for scientific research said that the rectangle was a symbol for her favourite type of tupperware. No doubt he was a particularly psychological graphologist.

The bubble office was built by the beginning of the following week. Chief supervised the works very closely, and the seven researchers soon moved in, an hour after the post-construction cleaning.

Chief advised them to have a good clear out before the removal, and gave them all a very large green bin bag for this purpose, rather than a black one. As black is always associated with the loss of beloved objects, they wouldn’t have liked it, and it would have hindered their sorting out.

Chief had chosen the largest available bin bag on purpose, to encourage a large-scale clear out. When he thought about it, it was crazy what his colleagues could amass in and around their offices on the pretext that it might be useful one day, which was a delusion, as the things that were hoarded were never reused.

The operation was partly successful. The bin bags weren’t as full as Chief would have liked, but he couldn’t bring himself to interfere with this tidying. He swore by the old adage “Mind your own business.”

Besides, Chief had also left a brief message on Plastic’s tupperware voice assistant saying,

“No inauguration and no formal address, otherwise I resign.”

Chief had a horror of social events such as business lunches and cocktails. He only agreed to make an effort once a year, for the New Year drinks. Everyone knew that was a huge effort for him, so no one annoyed him further by imposing other official engagements on him, especially as it was difficult to impose anything at all on him.

However, on the first day the bubble office was open, very early in the morning – that day, unusually, she had got up at the crack of dawn – Plastic placed a rose on each of the seven desks, a magnificent plastic rose, with petals that reflected the light like mother of pearl shells in seawater.

Everyone in the department was very touched; after all, it’s the thought that counts.

Next morning, the researchers presented Plastic with a new piece of tupperware for her collection, on behalf of all of them.

This piece of tupperware, discovered in the drawer of a desk before the big clear out, had miraculously escaped the bin bags, as one of the researchers thought it might come in useful. Too true! He dug out the tupperware from the drawer of his new desk when they were discussing a thank you present for Plastic.

Everyone gave a unanimous sigh of relief. It meant that they didn’t have to spend any money; and above all, they didn’t have to rush round the shops when they had heaps of work to do or were thinking about their plans for the end of year party.

That day, Hob, the cook, had prepared cakes in the shape of tupperware and plastic roses, which they ate politely, on condition that this did not happen again. The scientists couldn’t stand bad taste, even in the shape of cakes.

Afterwards, they had a long discussion about where to put the roses without hurting Plastic’s feelings, and above all so they wouldn’t have to look at them, as that would immediately impede the most active imagination.

Finally, they tied the roses together in a bouquet. The number seven was just right. The most beautiful bouquets were made up of an odd number of flowers: one, three, five, seven, nine, eleven, thirteen — thirteen can be left out if you are giving the flowers to someone superstitious –- fifteen, seventeen, nineteen, twenty-one. Not everyone can afford twenty-one roses, especially if you buy the best roses in the shop.

Luckily, in the case of the bubble office, the number of roses stopped at seven because there were seven researchers, and luckily Plastic had only given them one rose each.

With a unanimous decision, the bouquet of seven roses was hoisted up to the top of the glass roof of the bubble office. Each time she visited the department, Plastic would casually peer up to see if her bouquet was still in place, as if nothing had happened, which meant that she didn’t have to look at the mess that was all around.

The researchers were delighted not to have the bouquet in their sights all the time. Although they were eccentric, they usually worked sitting up and not lying on their backs. Because of the roses, if any of them felt the need for a little siesta, they had to lie on their stomach and not on their back. In serious cases, if they really couldn’t sleep on their stomach, they had to protect their eyes from the sight of the bouquet with thick dark glasses or an open paper magazine. It didn’t matter which page; the idea was to use it as a screen.

Chief had got it just right; insight was one of his many qualities. Being in the open air gave free range to the researchers’ imagination.

Some bespectacled journalists, exaggerating a little, even announced that, from now on, the most important discoveries on the planet Coral were taking place in this very department.

This created problems with the other departments. The researchers in the bubble office were highly amused when they followed the news. But it didn’t bother them. Their great intelligence put them above such petty rivalries.

If the rivalries went too far, Chief would fire off a few well-chosen sentences from his smartphone. If that wasn’t enough, he would repeat his warning and threaten to turn up in person. As Chief was a strapping hulk and a karate champion, people would immediately stop messing around, not keen on the idea of having their features disfigured or, if they happened to be out, having their office devastated by a tornado.


Twenty-ninth of December

It is the twenty-ninth of December, with seven researchers in the bubble office, as we already know.

There is no official hierarchy amongst them, just an unofficial hierarchy with Chief as the boss. The researchers will simply be introduced in alphabetical order.

First of all, Boubou and Bub are an inseparable couple. Boubou, who is female, and Bub, who is male, are both mad about round objects. In the bubble office, all their things are round: the tables, the armchairs, the computers and the tablets. It’s the same in their home: the house is round, the bed is round, the television is round, the bath is round, etc., etc.

Boubou and Bub eat kilos of peanuts during the day. It’s not the only food in their diet — their doctor regularly insisted on the need for a good diet — but it’s their main food. They even keep a packet on the bedside table in case they feel hungry in the night or have insomnia.

At first, at the beginning of their marriage, if they were hungry in the night, they didn’t switch the light on, in case they woke each other; but fifty per cent of the time, the packet would fall on the floor, and the result was the exact opposite of what was intended. They had to switch on all the lights with the round bulbs, and both of them had to crawl round on all fours looking for the peanuts. They would burst out laughing, have races to see who could find the most peanuts, and then eat them all.

After a few years, they grew tired of this little game. Now, they switch on the light to eat the peanuts. Then all they have to do is prolong their insomnia with passionate embraces, interspersed with peanut breaks and shrieks of laughter.

Their colleagues were distressed by the choice of peanuts with a non round shape disrupting a round world. It upset their quest for perfection because, although they were imaginative, they craved for perfection, at least from time to time.

The other researchers would often ask them,

“Why peanuts and not something perfectly round? Lots of fruits are much rounder.”

To which Boubou and Bub would reply patiently, both speaking at the same time, “It’s the exception that proves the rule,” an Earthly proverb.

Bub loves the sea. Before going to sleep, he and Boubou usually watch videos of the Earthly seas. They point their big round television in the right direction before curling up in their big round bed covered with a big round duvet covered in royal blue fake fur.

Then Bub grabs the round remote control and presses one of the seven round buttons, while Boubou stretches out like a cat and snuggles up against the ample chest of her beloved.

Even before the title appears on the screen in capital letters, Bub always declares,

“The most beautiful seas are on Earth.”

Invariably, Boubou bursts out laughing, because this is so subjective; Bub first flirted with Boubou by the side of an Earthly sea.

Everyone in the bubble office knew how they met.

Boubou was the plumpest girl in the group, with soft, round curves everywhere: round cheeks, round bosoms, round bottom, round hips. Her hands and feet matched the rest; they were also round and chubby.

Bub sat down next to her. He had to squeeze up against the porthole, because of all Boubou’s round curves. He didn’t make any of the unpleasant remarks that were sometimes made to Boubou, remarks which made her shrug her round shoulders, but had never led to the slightest inkling of going on a diet. On the contrary, Bub didn’t understand why the seats on the galactic rockets were so narrow. Not all the travellers are skinny.

Bub wanted to get to know her. After a few minutes, he drew a very crumpled packet of peanuts from the left pocket of his shorts and offered it to Boubou with a resounding,

“Would you like some peanuts?”

She accepted gratefully, and even took a large handful. It was definitely the first time he’d met a girl who liked peanuts. Usually they moaned about their blasted healthy diet and always replied,

“You know, I like them, but I don’t want to get fat.”

This didn’t stop them from stuffing themselves with cakes or ice cream from time to time, when they were out with the girls.

While chatting between two peanuts, Bub and Boubou realised that they both belonged to the same travel group, “New Planets: Great journeys at bargain prices”, and to the same sub-group, “Earth Europe France.”

In fact, to be precise, Bub belonged to the sub-group “Earth Europe Italy,” but he was delighted that he had finally found a girl who ate peanuts without making a fuss about it.

On the way to the toilet, he looked for the group leader.

“Is it still possible to change groups?” He asked. “On reflection, I would prefer to spend my holiday in France.”

The group leader consulted his diary.

“No problem. You’re lucky! There’s just one place free in the group which is going to France.”

He noted down the change.

Bub returned to his seat, near Boubou. They exchanged names, and talked about their childhood memories and how they were feeling at the moment. Boubou confessed to Bub rather sadly,

“Actually, I don’t like travelling, in fact I hate it. I don’t know what came over me. Now it’s too late to go back, isn’t it?”

Bub nodded. Surprised that he still hadn’t said anything silly in the conversation, he immediately thought of the right reply,

“When we arrive, we’ll go and buy some real Earthly peanuts, so the time will go more quickly for you. Anyway, I’ve heard that the Earthly peanuts are the best in the galaxy.”

Boubou smiled. All the sadness had disappeared from her big round blue eyes.

In the end, Bub and Boubou spent a month together on a French beach facing the English Channel. They ate kilos of Earthly peanuts of every kind and from all sorts of places, from the local market and the local grocery shop to the local supermarket.

They couldn’t understand why the checkout girls in the local supermarket stared at them, dumbfounded, when they saw their trolley full of salted peanuts, shelled salted peanuts, unshelled peanuts, small colourful packets of salted and shelled peanuts, and large, transparent packets of unshelled peanuts.

They discovered the existence of shellfish, at least, of winkles and whelks — their budget was quite tight, despite all the small jobs they had both done to pay for the trip. They also ate mussels and chips. They kissed, went swimming, and played ball.

They joked about the Earthlings on the beach. Boubou said in astonishment,

“Oh my goodness, the Earthlings are so thin!”

The most astonishing was the way some Earthlings stared at the female Earthlings, although you could see their ribs sticking out and although their bosoms and bottoms didn’t wobble when they walked. On the planet Coral, people prefer plump people; perhaps not as plump as Boubou, but in any case, much plumper than the Earthlings.

Boubou and Bub also drank beer and wine, as the Earthly salted peanuts made them thirsty. Put simply, this Earthly European French holiday was absolutely fantastic.

By the time they returned to Coral, they were inseparable. Boubou’s big round blue eyes were full of tears, while Bub was fiddling nervously with the remaining peanut packet in the left pocket of his shorts, tearing it to shreds.

Eventually, they were united forever in a kiss that was more passionate than any on the holiday and decided to live together. They continued their scientific studies together. Then, still inseparable, they began their careers in the planetary scientific research centre.

That’s why, ever since the first time he flirted with Boubou, Bub still loves the sea so much.

For years they have been watching their maritime videos together before going to bed. They have a set weekly programme which has never changed – Monday: Pacific Ocean; Tuesday: Atlantic Ocean; Wednesday: Indian Ocean; Thursday: Mediterranean Sea; Friday: English Channel; Saturday: Arctic Ocean; Sunday: a mixture of the six preceding seas.

The endless movement of the waves helps them sleep soundly, without ever being monotonous. The huge waves and rollers of Monday’s Pacific Ocean produce a completely different sensation from the icebergs of Saturday’s Arctic Ocean.

On Sunday, they spend the day at the Maritime Museum. At lunchtime, they eat fish and shellfish and drink white wine, which reminds them of their Earthly European French holiday.

Their favourite fish is grilled mackerel with a jacket potato wrapped in aluminium foil. The first time, Bub wasn’t paying attention and, without realising, ate the foil as well. This made Boubou laugh until she cried; even more than the time when, without batting an eyelid, he ate the skin of an avocado.

They like a little variation for shellfish. They choose — one after the other, or sometimes at the same time — mussels in cream, wiping up the last drop of juice with pieces of bread; pink shrimps in mayonnaise; oysters with lemon; two different types of clams, plain or stuffed; three different kinds of crab, including tiny little black ones, so small that they are a challenge to eat; razor clams with Martinique Sauce; sometimes langoustines and once in a while, exceptionally, a whole lobster.

When their budget is tight at the end of the month, they gobble up winkles or whelks, which the waiters of the French restaurant also call “rangs” or “bulots”, by their Earthly local names, to add a touch of originality.

They also order a huge plate of seafood for their birthdays and eat all of it, right down to the last microscopic winkle and the last tiny morsel of seaweed. They hate waste and never leave anything on their plates. When they are not hungry, which is very rare, as they both have good appetites, they skip a meal and that does the trick.

Here ends the introduction of the two first researchers.


Thirtieth of December

We are the thirtieth of December, already.

After introducing the two first researchers, Boubou and Bub, it’s time to introduce their colleagues too.

The third researcher, in alphabetical order, is Chief. Chief is a boss everyone loves because of his inquisitive mind. He’s a pipe smoker. His favourite pipe is a briar pipe, an Earthly import. Unfortunately, since smoking has been banned in workplaces and public areas in the whole galaxy, he no longer fills it with tobacco.

Chief only lives for his work and doesn’t like holidays, when he sits at home, bored stiff, in front of his model of the bubble office. He is also a confirmed bachelor, not from necessity but entirely from choice. However, for some time he has been harbouring a secret passion for Plastic.

The fourth researcher, in alphabetical order, is Coffee. As his name suggests, Coffee is a great coffee lover. He always drinks it with a drop of milk, frothed up at a height of approximately five centimetres above the coffee. Then he presses on the frothy milk with his finger and pushes it, little by little, into the brown liquid in the cup.

Before he discovered coffee, an Earthly import which he found by chance one day in the planetary supermarket, Coffee used to literally fall asleep at work. Now, he would be lethargic if he didn’t drink coffee throughout the day and if he didn’t have a thermos of coffee on his bedside table to drink as soon as he woke up. He is a perfect example of a completely calm researcher; too calm perhaps, a researcher who never raises his voice — the only one in the bubble office.

Coffee and Bub have been friends for many years. Like chalk and cheese, as the Earthlings say. Bub likes Earthly proverbs and peppers his conversation with them, to the delight of Boubou and Coffee and to the annoyance of some colleagues. However Bub’s range of Earthly proverbs is limited, and he often repeats the same ones. Sooner or later, the new proverbs find their way into the bubble office’s vocabulary, and are often included in the scientific dictionary that is published every three years.

Bub and Coffee’s offices are next to each other. During the many breaks that punctuate the working days, they drink a coffee together with a drop of milk and eat a few peanuts. This is purely for friendship’s sake, because Bub is not keen on coffee, and even less keen on coffee with milk, and Coffee finds the taste of peanuts quite mediocre.

They talk about work, sport or their private lives. For work, it’s easy; they have something in common, as they both work in the same department. As for sport, Bub keeps fit at the gym, early in the morning and at lunchtime. Coffee doesn’t like sport, and only watches Coral Cup matches on television. For their private lives, Bub has loved Boubou for many years, while Coffee changes girlfriends all too often — they find him too wimpish and get fed up with him.

The fifth researcher, in alphabetical order, is Frondex.

Frondex’s physique is impressive, and so is his strength. His waist measurement is about the same as the Earthly European French cinema star Obélix. Since Frondex had thrown himself into the adventures of the Gallic warriors Astérix and Obélix, following a marketing campaign from the planetary supermarket to get people to read, he finally knew what to wear. From then on, he has always worn blue and white striped dungarees. His tailor was in heaven.

Unlike the Earthly film star, Frondex doesn’t need a magic potion to be both strong and smart at all times. However, when his doctor broaches the subject of weight during the annual medical check up, Frondex always replies,

“That’s not fat; it’s muscle.”

Once a year, it’s true, the doctor on duty advises Frondex to make an appointment with a dietician, and Frondex mutters fiercely under his breath. As his natural bulk is equal to at least five times that of the doctor, the doctor usually has the sense to leave it at that, and not persist with advice which, in any case, would fall upon deaf ears.

One year, a young junior doctor was not as good at psychology as the others. He took it upon himself to emphasise the importance of losing weight to stay healthy, and recommended a diet to be started the next morning. It was never clear exactly what happened, but the doctor found himself in hospital; after that, he threatened to resign if he wasn’t posted somewhere else. He was so insistent, or as his psychiatrist said, so obsessed, that he eventually got what he wanted.

Ever since he was in his cradle, Frondex has been mad about catapults. He would undo the elastic in his nappies and use it to shoot whatever he could put his little hand on as far as he could. His mummy never said anything; she was already stunned with admiration for her little boy, and bought him the best nappies on the planet with the strongest elastic.

As long as one can remember, Frondex has always had the latest model catapult in one of the big pockets of his blue and white striped dungarees. His regular practice in catapult shooting is part of his daily research work. Marbles are his favourite projectiles lately, but any other object will also do the job.

The sixth researcher, in alphabetical order, is Hob. As his name suggests, Hob is in charge of the kitchen, and has a predilection for baking, especially cakes. His speciality is speedy pastry. It only takes him a few minutes to rustle up delicious cakes for any occasion on flying, remote-controlled trays for a faultless service.

The researchers in the bubble office love cakes and wolf down whole platefuls of them; or even whole trays of them. None of them has a problem with weight, as they are all so mentally active. Everyone knows that, in terms of calories used, intellectual activity is at least equal, if not superior, to physical activity.

The seventh researcher, in alphabetical order, is Mouse. As her name suggests, Mouse is in charge of the computers in the bubble office. She is also as small and fast as a mouse, but she doesn’t wear grey. She prefers suits in gaudy colours and matching high-heeled shoes.

Mouse looks after the computing, which is not a difficult task, because, very quickly, she trained all her colleagues to manage on their own and not bother her with problems of blocked cursors, software full of bugs, and saved files that couldn’t be found.

Her favourite area of research is rapid transport. A few years ago, for example, it still took her five seconds to propel someone onto Earth. Well before that, when she was a student carrying out her first trials, she needed half an hour. Now, her technique is so well developed that she only needs a fraction of a second. She often bursts into laughter when she watches lengthy space voyages organised by other planets.

Mouse loves practical jokes. For example, every time she sends Bub to a planet — he is the only one in the team who likes travelling — she reserves a little surprise for him. Once, Bub went off to film the Earthly seas, so she sent him straight into the icy water of the Arctic Ocean. Bub, soaked to the skin, went back to Coral without completing his mission. To Mouse’s surprise, he didn’t find it at all amusing. No doubt he was more sensitive to cold than he appeared, and in any case, he was very angry, which was highly unusual. After that, Mouse made an effort to choose her practical jokes more carefully.

Mouse lives with Hob, and that they have loads of children, some of their own and some adopted. They can both manage their professional and family lives because their mothers live with them. Moreover, the two mothers are inseparable, which is rare, but does happen. They look after the children, who adore them, because they are never bored, and they whip through the housework in the blink of an eye.

They also take care of the shopping. While the children are at school and the parents at work, they go round the planetary supermarket, chasing each other with their shopping trolleys and laughing like madwomen. They check who can fill up their trolley the quickest with anything that comes into their head. The only shelves they avoid are the so-called health food products.

The whole family is delighted that Hob does the cooking at home; especially because he lets his imagination run away with him like a galloping horse, depending on what he finds in the fridge and in the cupboards. The meals are always copious and full of surprises, and they always begin with the dessert.

Both in the bubble office and at home, Mouse and Hob often have epic fits of laughter. Their colleagues at the bubble office don’t always join in, but at home, the whole family gets hiccups and tears in their eyes for minutes on end, even when the story is a bit far-fetched. At first, the neighbours were rather astonished, but now, not at all; they often join in for dessert and a good laugh.

Here’s the story that recently broke all the records for laughter in the bubble office.

Once, during a meeting in which Frondex was bored stiff — the subject of the meeting wasn’t about catapulting — he decided to use a cake as a projectile, in order to analyse its trajectory and include the analysis in his new research project. Frondex often looked for different projectiles for new experiments, and as yet he hadn’t tried cakes. To his horror, the cake did not follow the predicted trajectory but landed on Mouse’s keyboard, where it squashed to pieces.

At first, everyone laughed a lot, while Mouse was trying to clean the keyboard. But the cream had seeped right into the gaps between the keys. The damage was irreparable, and a new keyboard seemed necessary. Mouse was laughing even louder, if that were possible, at which point Hob heard her from the kitchen and came to see what was going on.

For months, Mouse had dreamed of a keyboard with rainbow keys, because of the seven different colours — red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet — which would match the seven suits she wore, one for every day of the week. Up until now she hadn’t been able to buy it; she was only allowed a new keyboard once every three years. Thanks to the cake’s failed trajectory, the keyboard of her dreams was on her desk the very next morning. It gave her work a real boost, and her colleagues were all flabbergasted.


Thirty-first of December

In the bubble office, it was the last day of the year, the thirty-first of December, to be precise.

It was approximately three o’clock in the afternoon on New Year´s Eve. Frondex decided to show his colleagues some real catapulting, meaning exceptional catapulting on an exceptional day.

He picked up a marble that was lying around in a tooth mug on Coffee’s table. A bit nervous given the challenge, he didn’t take the time to notice if it was a common marble or an EXTI marble, EXTI meaning “extremely important” with cutting-edge scientific research.

Frondex adjusted his brand new catapult — designed and built the evening before — and, as usual, launched the marble through an air vent in the bubble office. The only difference with this shot, compared to his usual shots, was that he used all his strength. Since he was in the cradle, Frondex was unusually strong. Dumbfounded, he didn’t see the marble fall down a few metres away with the usual spark showing that it had reached its point of impact. There was no spark this time; the marble had simply disappeared into the galaxy.

His colleagues, who had been watching, were amazed, but Frondex was a little bothered. Coffee returned a few minutes later after a stop to the toilet. Frondex waved his catapult under Coffee’s nose and, looking him right in the eyes while drawing a huge arch with his left hand, explained,

“Very sorry, old chap. I picked up the marble that was lying around in your tooth mug and I shot it a bit hard. It’s gone off somewhere into the galaxy.”

Coffee sank into his ergonomic armchair with the shape of a coffee bean, which was not at all like him. He went white, then blue, then green, a sign of great anxiety.

His colleagues shouted,

“Quick! Bring a strong coffee!”

If Bub had been there, he would have given Coffee a handful of peanuts. But Bub was giving a talk elsewhere in the galaxy. Coffee held his head in his hands, and turned from white to blue again, then from blue to green again. The others watched him attentively. If he turned yellow, that would be then end of him.

The coffee quickly arrived on a flying tray. His hands trembling, Coffee spilled half of it on his desk and drank the rest in little nervous sips. If it had been anyone else in the department, some bad words would have been shouted in Frondex’s face. But Coffee said very calmly, because he never gets angry,

“The marble is an EXTI marble. This marble is essential for my research, essential. Without it, it’s ten years’ hard work down the drain.”

After a long silence, he added in a quavering voice,

“Could I have another coffee?”

The tray flew straight back to the cafeteria, and returned even more quickly with a cup of strong coffee, and with frothy milk on top of it.

Rushing around him, his colleagues asked in astonishment,

“But why didn’t you take a photomarble? That’s elementary to regularly save your work no matter what.”

“Bad luck,” he replied. “I was just taking the marble out of the secret drawer in my desk, you know, the one I made from an empty coffee tin, and I was going to take the photomarble when I was overcome with an urge. The problem is, the pockets of my shorts have holes in them. So, while I was out, I put the marble in my tooth mug on the table. That’s all.”

Alerted by Hob and Mouse’s hiccupping laughter, Chief arrived, with his famous briar pipe in his mouth. He didn’t hurl bad words at everyone. With his usual politeness, he simply asked,

“Would you please explain what has happened?”

Frondex pointed to his new cutting-edge catapult. Chief was interested; at any other time, he would have liked to have a go with it, but this was not the moment. After New Year’s Day, he would ask Frondex to give him a demonstration in the underground corridors of the research centre. They could even have a competition; that would be interesting, even though he would be sure to lose.

First of all, Chief listened to Frondex’s account of his catapult shot. For the second time, he made an effort to hold back his wish to try out the catapult right away.

Then he listened to Coffee’s account of the marble in the tooth mug. He didn’t get involved in fruitless discussions about the presence of this EXTI marble in Coffee’s tooth mug, or why Frondex was testing his new catapult with maximal strength. He was practical, and knew that regrets about what happened were useless.

Chief asked then for a show of hands.

“Who agrees that we carry out a search for the missing marble?”

Everyone put up their hands in unanimous agreement. That’s what he liked about his department; the researchers didn’t all start talking at once, like in the other departments, saying things like,

“There are plenty more marbles around.”

They felt solidarity with Coffee. They knew that, without this marble, his days were numbered, and the bubble office’s scientific reputation would be all the poorer for it.

Immediately after the unanimous vote, Chief sprang into action. First of all, he made his way to the cafeteria and asked Hob,

“Would you please order a hundred large tins of instant coffee and twenty cartons of drops of milk?”

Hob asked in astonishment,

“Is it urgent? There’s still some left.”

“Yes, it’s urgent,” Chief replied, “We need to have it delivered this evening, you never know when we might need it. Coffee’s morale isn’t going to be good in the next few days, and we might need to go all out with the drinks.”

Next, the marble’s trajectory. Chief returned to the scene of the drama and asked Frondex,

“Would you please reconstruct your catapult shot for me in as much detail as possible?”

Chief was dying to try out this new catapult. He really didn’t know if he was going to be able to wait for two more days. Maybe Frondex would agree to stay later this evening, or to come in for just an hour on New Year’s Day, or even to lend him the catapult? But no, Frondex hadn’t liked lending things since the last boss lost one of his catapults, even if the boss was fired after that. And Frondex would have to be there to correct Chief’s first shots.

Frondex took a marble from Coffee’s marble box. This time, he followed the usual procedure and carefully checked that the marble was not an EXTI marble. Under the beady-eyed stare of his colleagues, Frondex tucked the marble into the catapult, aimed at the same air vent again, and fired, but this time without using all his strength. This shot was a real work of art, but no one dared to applaud, as it didn’t seem appropriate with the grim look on Coffee’s face.

Mouse had already made the right calculations between the catapult and the air vent in order to guess the far end of the trajectory. She entered the parameters using her new keyboard with rainbow keys, and read the data to her colleagues, chuckling a little, and biting her cheeks until they bled to stop herself laughing,

“Galaxy: ditto. Planet: Earth. Continent: Europe. Country: France. Region: Normandy. Town: Ouistreham. Exact place: the beach near the ferry terminal.”

When Mouse read the word “Earth,” she felt relieved. Her colleagues also sighed with relief. Chief started sucking on his briar pipe again, even though it had no tobacco in it. He said,

“Every cloud has a silver lining! Thank goodness it’s Earth. We have reasonably good diplomatic relations with Earth. No need for a visa. With other planets we would have come up against administrative nightmare. They make you wait weeks for their visa and official stamp!”

Coffee ordered again, in a quavering voice,

“A coffee, please!”

The flying tray hurried to the cafeteria and came back with the coffee topped with a drop of milk.

Chief trumpeted,

“Hob, would you please have some cakes sent for everyone?”

Hob sent some cakes straight away on a very large flying tray. They were in the shape of marbles, a choice that was particularly appropriate. The cakes were obviously much larger than marbles, as all this emotion had made the researchers hungry, but the colours were quite realistic.

Coffee drank his coffee with a drop of milk while his colleagues ate the cakes. Today he had no appetite. He wanted the meeting to be over quickly so he could go home and cry in the arms of his latest girlfriend while drinking coffee.

When he had eaten a few marble cakes, Chief wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and inserted his briar pipe, which had enjoyed a few moments’ respite in his left pocket. That was the sign that things were getting serious. He immediately cut to the quick. It was not his style to get wrapped up in convoluted digressions.

“Your attention, please. Who would like to go on a trip to recover the marble? All expenses paid, of course.”

Chief could have asked an Earthly correspondent to recover the marble, but he wasn’t the sort of boss to palm off his department’s problems onto someone else. You never know who you might get, and it was an internal matter, so it was up to his team to take responsibility for it.

Another point was that he would have to find an official explanation for the mission, something out of the ordinary. The fact that it was a lost marble must not go beyond the bubble office. This was purely their own business, not that of the centre for scientific research in general, and even less the inhabitants of Coral, and certainly nothing to do with the Earthlings.

If news of the affair got out, and Plastic got to hear of it when she was in a bad mood, she would be quite capable of transferring Coffee and Frondex somewhere else. They were both exceptional researchers in their own way, and you never know who might be brought in to replace them. Ever since she mixed up the names of the director, everyone had become mistrustful of her, including Chief, despite the secret attraction he felt for her.

After this brief internal monologue, Chief reiterated his question, surprised how unusually silent his colleagues were.

“Who would like to go on a trip to recover the marble? I would draw your attention to the fact that someone has to take care of this, all the same.”

No one volunteered. The next day was New Year’s Day; everyone had engagements, and quite simply, no one was familiar with Earth.

Suddenly, Mouse exclaimed,

“But Bub knows Earth! He went there on holiday once, with Boubou. Then he went a second time to film the Earthly seas.”

“As a matter of fact, where is Bub?” Asked Chief.

“He’s on mission on a satellite of Coral, giving a lecture on the Earthly seas,” Boubou replied. “He’ll come to the office at the end of the afternoon for the end of year drinks.”

Mouse seized her keyboard with rainbow keys and sent the following message:

“Don’t dawdle on the way and don’t come back on foot. We’re waiting impatiently for you in the office.”

Sitting comfortably in the return rocket — he had taken the omnibus rocket, which meant a five-minute journey instead of a fraction of a second — Bub read the message as it appeared on his round wristwatch.

He was quite surprised, indeed very surprised, by the content of the message. His colleagues weren’t at all the type who would wait impatiently for him. But he didn’t ask any questions, firstly because he couldn’t be bothered to reply, and also because he had his mouth full — he was busy eating the handful of peanuts that the flight attendant had just offered him with a glass of white wine.

When Bub arrived at the airport, a taxi was waiting for him. Well, it must be really urgent! Normally, after a lecture, he would go back to the bubble office on foot, for some exercise.

The taxi made the journey in a few seconds and dropped him right in front of the entrance of the bubble office. Six people looked up when he arrived. Bub pinched a marble cake, gobbled it up in a flash and sat down next to Boubou.

Chief briefed him on the current matter. Bub held back a strong urge to laugh; this story was really silly but Chief looked like death warmed up. This Earthly proverb, imported by Bub like many others, had quickly become part of the team’s professional vocabulary.

Then Chief posed the crucial question, which was quivering on everyone’s lips.

“Bub, would you agree to go and recover the marble? You’ve already been to Earth twice, and as one of your Earthly proverbs so rightly says, ‘Everything happens in threes.’ In any case, you are the incontestable and uncontested specialist in round objects on Coral.”

Bub remained silent; his mouth was full. After reflecting for a few seconds behind the virtual curls of pipe smoke visible only to him, Chief added:

“Moreover, if I may say so, although there is no doubt that Frondex is the main person responsible, you are also partly responsible for this matter. Since the beginning of your friendship with Coffee, he has been carrying out important experiments on marbles instead of cups of coffee.”

After another virtual curl of pipe, Chief went on:

“If you agree to go on this mission, we will, of course, cover all the cost of peanuts and any other expenses incurred during the mission, including Earthly European French clothes.”

After a short pause, he concluded,

“It goes without saying that Boubou can go on mission with you, if she wants to.”

Bub ate another marble cake to give himself some time to think.

“I already have the right clothes — a brown corduroy suit and a matching cap. It’s a souvenir from my second stay on Earth. I like that suit. I wear it once a year for the carnival.”

“Are you sure you can still get into it?” Asked Mouse, and burst out laughing.

Bub looked daggers at her, another Earthly proverb, before eating a third and last marble cake, which gave him a few extra seconds to think. Every pair of eyes was out on stalks, and looking straight into his — a sign that they were really paying attention, as a change.

Bub looked at Coffee.

“Of course, I agree to go on mission, first thing tomorrow morning if I have to, since it involves Coffee and his EXTI marble.”

Then he turned to Boubou.

“I would be glad to ask Boubou to come with me, but I already know the answer. She doesn’t like travelling.”

Boubou nodded approvingly, smiling.

Bub continued,

“There is just one problem, and it’s a sizeable problem.”

“What problem?” Asked all the pairs of eyes looking straight into his.

“It’s not going to be as easy as that to find the marble. On Earth, marbles are a children’s game, don’t you remember, Boubou? Many children have their little bag of marbles. They play with them and swap them.”

“A children’s game?” Exclaimed the researchers, stunned.

For them, the marble was a highly sophisticated research tool. No one — even the most imaginative researcher — could conceive of ever giving marbles to a child.

Bub explained,

“The Earthly equivalent of the marble is the test tube. On Earth, they don’t work with marbles, they play with them. That’s all there is to it, and you’ll just have to get used to it.”

After a short silence while eating another marble cake, he continued,

“As far as I’m concerned, that makes this mission much more complicated. Just imagine if a child finds Coffee’s marble on the beach near the ferry terminal while I’m talking to you, at this very moment. He could already be swapping it with another child’s marble.”

It wasn’t difficult for the researchers to use their imagination — that was their job.

“It could be a real nightmare!” They called out, all at the same time.

After a short pause to eat a marble cake, Bub regained his train of thought.

“Don’t expect me to bring you back the marble tomorrow evening. It could take one or two days, or even as long as three days. In any case, how many inhabitants are there in Ouistreham?”

Mouse consulted her computer screen.

“Around nine thousand.”

“There must be quite a few children. Not counting adults who play marbles, and people who keep marbles in jars on a shelf as an ornament in their home.”

His colleagues were stunned; they couldn’t get over it. They helped themselves to more marble cakes to digest this astounding information.

Bub got up from his chair.

“Tonight, exceptionally, even though it’s not a Friday, Boubou and I are going to watch the video, ‘English Channel,’ so I can test the waters. I’ll come back tomorrow morning in my Earthly European French suit.”

“At what time?” Chief asked him.

“It’s not worth leaving at three in the morning. In Ouistreham, on the first of January, it doesn’t get light very early, and it’s not worth looking for a marble in the dark; there’s no point complicating things even more. Let’s say eight o’clock.”

Bub got up and said goodbye with everyone wishing him both safe travels and a successful outcome for this difficult mission. Boubou and he went home walking, almost silenced by the prospect of the coming separation, however short it might be.

The other researchers reflected for a few moments. Frondex summed up everyone’s feelings with great insight.

“Ah, this business of marbles being a children’s game, that’s a real surprise.”

It didn’t take Chief long to organise the mission. He asked,

“Mouse, although tomorrow is a public holiday, would you kindly agree to come into the bubble office early in the morning to propel Bub into space as far as Ouistreham?”

Mouse’s kindly face broke into a big smile.

“Yes, very exceptionally, Chief. As you know, I don’t like working on public holidays, but I am ready to make a bit of an effort, again very exceptionally, of course.”

Chief also asked everyone,

“Would you be willing to postpone the New Year drinks until the day Bub returns, so that Coffee no longer looks like death warmed up?”

Chief called for a vote and five hands went up, including his own.

“A unanimous yes,” he declared. “Well, it only remains for me to wish you a happy New Year!”

When the meeting had finished, everyone was chattering like anything. That Earthly idea of marbles being a children’s game, that would be the best story to tell on New Year’s Eve.

At Hob and Mouse’s home, there would be huge gales of laughter, as usual. The neighbours were already quivering, and they had already battened down their own Christmas trees.

Just as Frondex was getting ready to leave, Chief finally asked him the question that had been on the tip of his tongue for a while.

“Frondex, would you, please, give me a catapult lesson right away?”

“No, not now. I’ve promised my wife I’d spend the evening with her,” Frondex replied.

“Well then, tomorrow, although it’s New Year’s Day?” Chief persisted.

And he added, rather anxiously,

“You know, since I saw your demonstration, I’ve been fascinated by the art of catapulting. Until then, I hadn’t realised the full scope of it. I really can’t wait to try out your catapult, and if I don’t try it in the next twenty-four hours, it will make me ill!”

“Alright. First thing tomorrow afternoon, then,” Frondex replied.

Although he was unusually strong and tough, Frondex wore his heart on his sleeve.

He added,

“I’ll make you a catapult for tomorrow. That’ll be my New Year present to you.”

Chief was delighted. Apart from the matter of the lost marble, the new year was off to a good start.


First of January

On the first of January, just before eight o’clock, Bub took leave of Boubou, his beloved wife.

As he was leaving, she slipped a packet of peanuts into the left pocket of his trousers and murmured into his ear,

“It’s my ‘good bye’ and ‘see you soon’ present. Exceptionally, I won’t send you peanuts by express delivery every day, because you’ll be able to buy them there.”

She added, winking, “Earthly peanuts are the best in the galaxy.”

Bub looked very stylish in his brown corduroy suit and matching cap. Sadly, he took off his flip-flops and replaced them with Earthly walking shoes.

“This is not something I enjoy doing,” he explained to Boubou, who was surprised. “I don’t like shoes, they pinch my feet, but on Earth I can’t walk in flip-flops. It’s the middle of winter there.”

Mouse was waiting for him in the bubble office. When she saw him in his strange getup, she started giggling in front of her keyboard with rainbow keys. Bub looked daggers at her, without saying a word. He swallowed a French translation software pill so that he could communicate with the Earthly European French people, and sat down in the fast travel seat.

The journey lasted a fraction of a second. Bub found himself perched on a lonely rock, with his legs hanging over the sea. There was not a soul in sight. It was pouring rain.

He ate his bag of peanuts while looking out over the English Channel, which he only remembered vaguely. Friday’s video was very true to life.

In a single leap, he jumped off the lonely rock onto the ground. He rushed along the sea wall, whistling cheerfully despite the pouring rain.

Bub asked a man who was passing by,

“Is this Ouistreham?”

The man gave him a funny look. Who was this chap, walking about in this weather without rubber boots or waterproofs?

“No,” he replied. “But you are in the right direction, over there.”

And, with a sweeping gesture, he pointed at the rainy landscape in the background.

Ouch. Bub, who was naturally intuitive, thought this must be one of Mouse’s practical jokes. She was certainly curled up with laughter in front of her screen. At least, he didn’t end up straight into the freezing water this time, but she could have chosen a spot nearer his destination.

Bub gazed at the horizon.

“How can I get to the ferry terminal?”

“By walking,” the man replied, making another sweeping gesture.

He was clearly wondering why this strange man was looking for the ferry terminal on the first of January.

Bub was still gazing at the horizon.

“Walking is fine with me. But this is about work, so I really can’t waste any time, you know.”

The man did not know.

“You’ll find people who walk their dogs along the way.”

The man seemed in a hurry. And also, it was cold.

“Just one last question. Where can I find peanuts?”

The man shook his head. He was perplexed.

“There are a few shops around. But it’s not certain they’ll be open on the first of January, and they might not sell peanuts.”

“Where is the first shop?” Asked Bub.

“The coffee shop at the ferry terminal,” said the man, making another sweeping gesture.

Bub carried on walking along the beach, whistling. He was happy; his French was surfacing in his memory again and he could make himself understood.

A few minutes later, he was in the coffee shop, which was open for the passengers waiting for ferry to Portsmouth.

“A coffee with a drop of milk, please!” Ordered Bub in a booming voice.

It was the very first time he had ordered a coffee with a drop of milk on Earth. It seemed the right thing to do in the circumstances, because he was on a mission to find Coffee’s marble. If he had been on holiday, he would have ordered a beer, preferably a draft beer, or else some wine, a glass of red, a glass of rosé or a glass of white, depending on his mood at the time.

Bub added,

“And I’d like the drop of milk frothed up five centimetres above the coffee, please.”

“You’re three months too early! It’s not the first of April today, it’s the first of January!” Said the proprietor, laughing.

Bub didn’t understand the joke, but he didn’t pursue it.

The drop of milk was in a small white milk jug. As Bub was a bright spark — to put it mildly — he soon deduced that he had to pour the white drop of milk at an angle into the black coffee, instead of simply pushing it down vertically like they did on Coral. He achieved a similar result, and the two liquids merged in a creamy blend.

Bub took little sips of his coffee, like a connoisseur. Suddenly, he asked,

“Do you have any peanuts?”

The proprietor pouted doubtfully. Bub’s face went completely white, which for him was a sign of great anxiety.

“Yes, I have four packets left. Here’s one,” said the proprietor, sliding a packet of salted shelled peanuts along the counter.

Bub opened the packet as if it contained fine crystal marbles. He took out the first peanut delicately between the thumb and index finger of his left hand. When the peanut made contact with his palate, he turned green with amazement. How delicious, how wonderfully delicious! These were completely different from the peanuts on Coral. He savoured the hundred and twenty-three peanuts one after the other.

As he paid the bill, Bub asked the proprietor,

“Is there a way for the rain to stop?”

The proprietor laughed.

“No. Can’t you wait until the rain stops?”

Bub was very annoyed.

“No,” he said gloomily.

Bub broke out in a cold sweat. He was in such a hurry to leave Coral that he had completely forgotten to call into the planetary foreign exchange office to pick up the envelope of Earthly European money that Chief had ordered, as well as the credit card that went with it. Oh, the well-known absent-mindedness of the bubble office’s dreamy researchers!

He rummaged feverishly in his pockets. His fingers found a few coins stuck in the lining. He hoped that the coins of his previous trip were still valid.

Bub paid for the coffee, the drop of milk and the packet of a hundred and twenty-three peanuts. The proprietor seemed satisfied with the coins. There was still some money left, so Bub bought the remaining packets of peanuts, three packets, to be precise, one for the left pocket of his trousers and two for the pockets in his shirt. He had exactly the required sum, not a cent more. What a stroke of luck, as they say on Earth.

Bub reached the shore, then dived into the bad weather. He walked briskly, because of the cold. A rainy walk for an hour, with the sea on his left all along — an unforgettable moment.

Bub would willingly have sat on a bench and gazed at the sea, if he hadn’t been on an urgent scientific mission. Up above, on Coral, Coffee was certainly following his every move on the screen of the galactic computer. He must have been cheered up to see such a brilliant start to the investigation as he watched it live on the screen.

That evening, Bub would go to the end of the rocky sea wall along the ferry terminal, when it was dark and not possible to work any more.

Bub shook himself. Why was Normandy so cold and rainy? He adjusted his clothes, and checked to see if the three packets of peanuts were full of water. No, they seemed perfectly waterproof.

Suddenly, he did an abrupt about-turn. What if he asked about the marble at the lost and found office of the town hall? There was one chance in a hundred and twenty-three million four hundred and fifty-six thousand seven hundred and eighty-nine that it might be in the lost and found office, but why not? Nothing ventured, nothing gained, as the Earthly proverb so rightly says.

A few moments later, Bub was walking with some new found confidence. After struggling under the pouring rain for one mile or so, he nervously pushed open the door of the lost and found office, which was closed. Coffee was watching him, he was sure.

“What are you looking for?” Asked a passer-by walking her dog.

“The lost and found office, for something I have lost,” replied Bub.

“It is closed today. It’s the first of January. You’ll have to come back tomorrow. What have you lost?”

“I’ve lost a marble.”

There was a slight pause. The passer-by seemed surprised.

“A marble? I don’t think they keep marbles.”

Seeing how upset Bub looked, and the way he was gawking at her, she added,

“You know, marbles are two a penny. They can’t keep lost marbles too, otherwise there’d be no end to it.”

Bub still looked upset, so the passer-by asked,

“Is this marble especially beautiful? What colour is it?”

“Yes, it is beautiful, with mother of pearl colours. It is important to me.”

“Could you recognise it? You know, all marbles look more or less the same, don’t they?”

“Yes, I could recognise it. Do you advise me to come back tomorrow, or isn’t it worth it?”

“Oh, it’s not worth coming back for a marble.”

“I’ll come back tomorrow anyway. You never know,” sighed Bub.

Bub’s distressed look still hadn’t gone, so the passer-by started rummaging around in her handbag’s mess.

“Have you lost something too?” Asked Bub.

“No. I was just looking to see if I had a replacement marble to give you.”

“Don’t go to all that trouble,” said Bub. “I’ll look for it myself.”

“I wish you well, then,” the passer-by replied, “if you think it’s possible to find a lost marble. You might as well look for a needle in a haystack.”

Bub carefully noted this new Earthly proverb in the back of his memory. He never wrote anything down. The Earthlings had a lovely proverb for that. It was one of his favourites: “Culture is what remains when everything else is forgotten.” There. If it’s important, we remember it; if it’s not important, we forget about it.

Bub muttered an faint goodbye, and walked back to the shore. After struggling under the pouring rain for one mile or so, he sat down on a bench facing the beach and gazed at his area of investigation while opening his third packet of peanuts.

But the tide was high. Well, he would have to wait for the tide to go out to be able to go on the beach, that’s all there was to it. What was the point of getting worked up? You have to let things take their course, as the Earthly proverb so rightly says.

Bub watched the mother of pearl waves, the sandy puddles and the passers-by hurrying along with their dogs. He had all the time in the world to take in the little details of the place as he ate his hundred and twenty-three peanuts. Only part of the beach had been uncovered by the tide, and it was getting dark quickly. There was no point continuing now; he would come back early tomorrow morning.

How would he survive during the investigation? He asked himself. This money problem was really annoying. He would have to think about it in more detail tomorrow. Could he sell his jacket? But it was cold. Sell his trousers? Ditto. Sell his cap? Maybe, but it suited him, and it did make him look like an Earthly European French guy. Bub resolved to put all thoughts out of his mind. Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof, as the Earthly proverb so rightly says.

Bub walked in the direction of the rocky sea wall along the ferry terminal. He sat on a granite flat stone for the night, with his feet dangling over the edge. He took out the remaining packet of peanuts and squeezed it delicately between his knees. There was no question of letting this last packet be swept into the waves by the north wind. Night was falling, the rain had stopped, and he felt in tune with the poetry of the place.

Live video, no, sorry, Live English Channel. See you tomorrow.


Second of January

On the second of January at dawn, on planet Earth, Bub was cold after staying up all night gazing at the sea.

In fact, he was blue with cold and couldn’t move his fingers or toes. For the fingers, it wasn’t too serious, because the last packet of peanuts was now firmly in the past. For the toes, it was not supposed to last with a walk ahead. You wouldn’t expect it to be a mild night if you were gazing at the English Channel on the night of the first of January.

Suddenly, while moving around to warm up a little, Bub felt something rough under the left side of his bottom. Groping around with his hand, he pulled out a small, round, flat object that had been stuck there.

“Hurray,” he shouted into the wind, “it’s a coin!”

Bub moved from a sitting position to a standing position. You don’t get anything for nothing, he thought. That was the first Earthly proverb of the day, a short proverb, just to practice.

His first steps on the beach were rather laboured, but walking cleared his head. He made himself some plans for the day, immediately classifying them in chronological order, as a true researcher. One: get up at dawn. That was already done. Two: drink a coffee with a drop of milk. This was for soon. Three: go to the beach nearby, hoping that the tide would be out. Four: find some money. Five: buy some peanuts. Six: go to the lost and found office; you never know, just in case. But a day divided into six points didn’t augur well. On Coral, he preferred ordinary days divided into three points and busy days divided into seven points. Fortunately, a last point showed quickly. Seven: gaze at the sea, of course.

Before going any further, Bub would have to tackle point two. He rummaged in the bottom of his pocket with his numb fingers to make sure that the miracle coin was still there, hoping this coin would do. He wasn’t Coffee, but still, some habits in life are essential. For some people, it’s a cigarette; for others, it’s a black coffee. For him, at least for the time being, it was a coffee with a drop of milk.

Bub walked in the direction of the coffee shop in the ferry terminal. When he arrived, he pushed the glass door open with his numb left hand and closed it violently. He apologised, lifting his cap up slightly, a simple movement, which was a great effort for a frozen man.

Bub went up to the counter and asked,

“A coffee with a drop of milk, please.”

He added,

“For the drop of milk, could it be frothed up five centimetres above the coffee?”

The proprietor didn’t understand everything, but he could see that this chap was really cold. Moreover, with his accent he was definitely a foreigner, English maybe, or Australian.

“Do what you like with the milk,” replied the proprietor. “Here’s the jug of milk.”

“Is it possible to warm the milk?” Asked Bub.

“No problem,” replied the proprietor.

“Do you have any peanuts?” Asked Bub, drinking his coffee.

“Not anymore, but you’ll find some in a supermarket,” replied the proprietor.

“Will this quarter be enough to pay for the coffee?”

“No, but it’ll do for now.”

Bub pulled his cap down onto his head. Now that he had drunk his coffee he would have to think about the marble. He said goodbye and left, slamming the door by mistake. There were no doors on Coral. Next time he would see a door, he would close it instead of slamming it.

Bub walked briskly. The coffee had reached the tips of his toes. He checked the road to a supermarket where they sold peanuts, for later, and went back to the beach in a jiffy, to begin point three of his plans for the day.

Bub surveyed the landscape with his beady eyes. On Earth, the tide comes in, and ends up as the high tide. Then the tide goes out, and ends up as the low tide, like a gigantic dance that has taken place for many millennia. Bub knew all about it, because he had explained it regularly to an enraptured audience in his lectures about the Earthly seas on various planets.

The sea had uncovered the beach. To work! Bub went down onto the beach and combed the beach with his eyes, inch by inch. Sand, seaweed, rocks; nothing escaped his gaze. He was relying on his intuition to guide him, but his intuition wasn’t telling him anything at the moment.

Fortunately, there weren’t many people walking their dogs on the beach. Because we were in winter, no one was sunbathing on a beach towel, which would have complicated his search even further.

From time to time, someone or other would ask him,

“Have you lost your watch?”

“No, a marble,” Bub invariably replied.

Taken aback, they would walk away with a sigh or an encouraging remark, such as,

“Well, you’ll be lucky if you find that!”

The hours passed, with no sign of the marble. It must have been at least three o’clock in the afternoon. The tide was coming in, and was now encroaching on his working area. Bub decided to stop. His staring eyes were burning with the effort of working too hard.

Where was he on his seven-point plans? Oh yes, point four: money problem.

He walked to a thrift store he had spotted along the way, not far from the supermarket for peanuts. It was open. He pushed the door open and closed it again without slamming it.

Bub went straight to the heart of the matter.

“Look, I’ve a beautiful suit and a lovely cap.”

The lady agreed; it was true.

Bub continued,

“I am foreign and I have no money. I want to sell the suit and cap, and buy some cheaper clothes, to get some cash. I’ll keep the shoes, because I walk a lot, and as someone said to me, it’s better to wear shoes you’re used to.”

The lady seemed to understand his French.

“But can’t you get some money out from your bank?” She asked. “It would be a pity to sell your suit. You don’t often see them like that, and in such good condition.”

“No, that’s not possible. It would take too long to explain,” Bub replied.

“I mostly sell vintage clothes,” the lady explained. “But I hope you’ll find the clothes you are looking for.”

In the next ten minutes, Bub changed his corduroy suit and matching cap for some slightly washed out jeans, a large and warm checked shirt, a blue knitted sailor’s hat — necessary in that weather — and a few five euro notes.

With those notes, if his calculations were correct, he would have just enough to last for three days if he only bought the essentials: peanuts and coffees. This time, no hotel, no hot shower, no warm meal, no fish, no seafood, no beer, no wine, no movies and no camera rental for a new maritime video. This regime was bordering on depressing. Luckily there was the sea; otherwise, he couldn’t have lasted.

Bub thanked the lady effusively. He was careful not to slam the door. This wasn’t the right time to have to pay for a broken pane of glass with his tight budget. Large panes of glass were darned expensive. On his last trip he had to pay for three of them.

Point five of his plans for the day. Bub went into the supermarket. After plodding up and down nearly all the aisles, he finally found a row of packets of peanuts, artistically lined up one behind the other. His mouth started to water and he began to open a packet. A glowering look from a passing shopper quickly brought him to his senses. He remembered that on Earth you only start eating after you have paid at the checkout.

Bub went through the checkout with five packets, one for each pocket and one for immediate consumption. He had made sure that his new jeans and large checked shirt had two pockets each.

What did he still have to do today? Point six of his plans for the day, the lost and found office. When entering the town hall, he took hold of the door handle carefully so he wouldn’t cause a shower of broken glass.

Once again, Bub went straight to the heart of the matter.

“I’ve come to see if by any chance a marble was brought here on the thirty-first of December.”

“We don’t keep marbles,” said a smiling woman, “otherwise there would be no end to it.”

She wasn’t at all shocked by Bub’s helpless look and staring eyes. She must have been used to strange questions.

The only easy solution had just been ruled out for once and for all. It was time to drink a draft beer to clear his head. But no, that wasn’t possible on his tight budget. And he was on a mission, and Coffee was watching.

After walking back to the ferry terminal, Bub dawdled along the beach, checking again if the marble was not hiding there, and taking a few moments in between to watch the sky and the sea gradually change colour.

When night fell, he went back to the rocky sea wall, and sat down on a granite flat stone. He squeezed a packet of peanuts between his knees, because of the gusty wind.

Live video, no, sorry, Live English Channel. See you tomorrow.


Third of January

On the third of January, dawn was breaking and it was raining.

Bub moved from a sitting position to a standing position and walked briskly towards the coffee shop in the ferry terminal to drink his morning coffee with a drop of milk. He opened the door and closed it without slamming it. His teeth were chattering with cold. The proprietor recognised him, despite his change of clothes.

Bub managed to say,

“I’ve come to pay you the coffee from yesterday, and I’ll also have a large coffee with a drop of milk, to warm me up a bit.”

The warm coffee went straight into his bloodstream. It was the best moment of the day.

“Mind you don’t slam the door,” said the proprietor.

Bub didn’t slam the door when he left for a new Earthly day.

With a coffee in his stomach, a clearer head and three packets in his pocket — there’s no need to say they were packets of peanuts — Bub walked towards the beach. When he arrived, he sat down on a bench to have a think.

His intuition told him that the marble was no longer on the beach. So, what to do? Knock on all the doors around? There weren’t many. Visit all the schools in Ouistreham and on the Mother of Pearl Coast? It was a waste of time. He might as well look for a needle in a haystack. There, this Earthly proverb was now part of his vocabulary, a glimmer of satisfaction in a cold and depressing day.

Bub went back to the lost and found office. With so much walking, he was glad not to have sold his Earthly shoes. Nothing there. That was a waste of time as well. No time to have a look at the heritage buildings around the church. He was on a mission to find a lost marble. In front of his screen, Coffee was watching while drinking coffee after coffee.

Bub walked back to the shore. He gazed nostalgically, in the distance, at the end of the rocky sea wall along the ferry terminal, where he had spent the last two nights, two unforgettable nights.

Half-way down to screening the beach for the lost marble, Bub changed his mind. Today, he would stay at the end of the sea wall during the whole day. He loved the rocky coast, the seagulls and the feeling of being alone in the world. He had some peanuts left as well.

The hours passed slowly. Night fell. Bub stared wide-eyed at the sea. The yellow lights of the ferry sailing to Portsmouth were shining in the background. It was a beautiful night.

***

What was happening on planet Coral during this time?

Mouse was very pleased with her clever trick. A perfect trajectory to a lonely rock between sea and land, with some walking needed to the ferry terminal, what a success! She had already told this story to her family several times, and each time, she set off a storm of laughter.

However, on the official papers related to the mission, she had noted that the target achieved was the ferry terminal in Ouistreham. All her colleagues in the bubble office had a sense of humour, but this wasn’t necessarily true of Plastic and others in the administrative and financial departments of the research centre.

On the same official papers, Chief had noted that the main objective of Bub’s mission was the comparative study of Coral’s marbles used in science and the Earthly marbles used in games, in a place called Ouistreham, which was particularly representative of Earthly towns because of its location and its size.

On the afternoon of New Year’s Day, as planned, Chief went to meet Frondex at the bubble office in order to try out his new catapult, designed and built the same morning by Frondex as a New Year’s present.

First of all Chief and Frondex pinched all the marbles they could find, while carefully avoiding Coffee’s office. They double checked each marble to be sure there was no EXTI marble — one disaster was enough –and went down to the basement, which for once was strangely empty because of the holidays.

Nearly all Chief’s shots were good ones. The target was a cheap dartboard at the end of a long corridor that linked the six underground scientific departments. In a lyrical flight of fancy, a bespectacled journalist once described it as the longest corridor on the planet. No one ever checked to see if it was correct.

One single shot missed the target. The marble got stuck in Plastic’s left eye when she ran out into the corridor. Chief had phoned her the previous evening to invite her to watch a few shots. Cleverly, he suggested that she came in the middle of the lesson, and not at the beginning, so he wouldn’t look too ridiculous.

Plastic didn’t shriek with pain; she calmly removed the marble from her left eye. Chief apologised profusely. Plastic replied, with a smile,

“It’s not serious. These things happen.”

Then she rummaged in her handbag and pulled out a brand new plastic eye from a small tupperware pot. She placed it carefully in her empty eye socket, now adorned with a jewel that was even more shiny than the previous one. That was Chief’s opinion, not Frondex’s. Frondex was rather annoyed by this distraction.

The lesson continued with a merciless competition between Chief and Frondex, which Plastic offered to referee. She took it as an opportunity to test her new left eye, which happened to be much better than the old one; proof that you can’t stop progress.

Chief proved to be an excellent student. The following day, Frondex gave him a one-hour lesson in the morning, a one-hour lesson at lunchtime and a one-hour lesson in the evening, which makes three hours in the same day. Chief made amazing progress, so much so that he and Frondex even considered a professional competition during the New Year drinks.

During that time, Coffee was following Bub’s investigation day and night on the screen of the galactic computer while drinking coffee after coffee — served up on a flying tray that went back and forth from the kitchen to the office. At this rate, he would finish the hundred tins of instant coffee and the twenty cartons of drops of milk that had been ordered three days ago. Three days to drink the quantity usually planned for a year. Even Hob was impressed.

Minute by minute, Coffee followed Bub’s Earthly European French odyssey: the Earthly coffees, the Earthly peanuts, the Earthly sea, the Earthly walks, the Earthly nights, the Earthly visits to the lost and found office, the Earthly problems with money, the Earthly clothes.

Although he always appeared phlegmatic, Coffee was actually quite tense, so tense that he was under medical supervision for it. However, he didn’t doubt for one minute that Bub’s mission would be successful. Years of shared coffee-peanut breaks had forged a lasting friendship between them, and Coffee knew that Bub wouldn’t let him down no matter what.

The bubble office’s doctor came every seven hours to check Coffee’s health. His diagnosis was made at lightning speed. He didn’t waste his words, and never kept anyone waiting. His prescription, always the same, was short and to the point.

“As much coffee as you can drink, and nothing else.”

Boubou would come to keep him company from time to time and drink a coffee with a drop of milk for moral support. She couldn’t wait for Bub to return from his Earthly trip.


Fourth of January

On the fourth of January, the first light of dawn appeared on the horizon of the English Channel.

In one leap, Bub moved from a sitting position to a standing position. He ran nearly all the way down to reach his usual coffee shop in the ferry terminal.

A few moments later, the warmth of his daily morning coffee was flooding into his bloodstream. This time, even the sky looked as if it also had a drop of frothy milk in it, with white clouds sliding towards an unknown destination.

Bub walked inland and waited for the supermarket to open. He rushed in like a whirlwind to buy up the last five packets of peanuts left on the shelves. He carefully put a packet in each pocket of his jeans and each pocket of his checked shirt. He perched the fifth packet on the palm of his hand, opened it with his teeth and ate the peanuts one by one as he walked inland towards the lost and found office, to no avail.

Bub counted and recounted his remaining five euro notes. He didn’t have enough to buy a pair of gloves. Sad and shivering, he walked down the Avenue de la Mer. The idea of wandering round outside all day didn’t appeal to him at all. But he was on a mission, and Coffee was watching.

When he saw the colourful bookshop on the right, he had an moment of insight. He crossed the street and looked at the books displayed in the windows.

And there, in a window, what did he see? The marble, Coffee’s marble, reposing on a snow white cloth between two books of poetry, in the warm, while he had been freezing outside for two days and three nights looking for it.

Perhaps it was a mirage, the illusion of an oasis surrounded by palm trees appearing in the distance in a burning desert, like the story an Earthling had once told him. Or else it was a marble that bore much resemblance to the missing one.

Bub pushed the door while the bookseller was putting some books on the shelves.

“May I see your marble?” Asked Bub too quickly, in a strained voice.

The bookseller didn’t understand the question.

Bub said again, articulating more clearly,

“May I see your marble, the one which is in your window?”

“Yes, of course, it’s beautiful, isn’t it?”

The marble fell into Bub’s open palm. It was definitely Coffee’s marble; now, he was sure of it. For one thing, it looked slightly foreign, as if it had come from somewhere else; for another, it radiated intelligence, another unmistakable sign.

“When did you find it?” He asked the bookseller.

“Someone who found it on the beach brought it three days ago, on the thirty-first of December, I think. I put it in the window for its owner to see it.”

“Would it upset you to give me back the marble?” Said Bub. “It’s me who lost it.”

“Ah! You lost it on the beach?”

“No, well yes, something like that.”

“Fine with me.”

“Thank you very much, you’ve really got me out of a spot.”

The bookseller laughed.

“It’s only a marble!”

Bub put the marble away carefully in the left pocket of his jeans, underneath the packet of peanuts. He mustn’t lose it again.

He had plenty of time for books now, at last. He looked at all the rows of books on the shelves, delicately flicking through some of them. Oh, a dictionary of proverbs! He read a few pages of the dictionary, to learn some proverbs for his talks on Coral and for his scientific articles.

Several hours later, the bookseller’s voice made him jump.

“We have to close now. Come back tomorrow morning, if you like.”

“I doubt this will be possible, but thank you,” said Bub.

Bub left without slamming the door, since the bookseller shut the door behind him.

Before going back to Coral, Bub had to gaze at the sea again. No doubt it will be the last chance for a long time. He went back to the rocky sea wall. Shivering, he didn’t miss a second of the dance of the waves as they pounded against the sea wall, throwing up sprays of white foam. It was bitterly cold and the wind was blowing in gusts, with the damp cold going right through his bones.

Using his round wristwatch, Bub sent Coffee a message saying that he had found the marble and had completed his mission. Coffee knew it already, but it was good to be sure. After so many hours following Bub’s every step, Coffee felt his stomach unknotting and craving for a salmon sandwich. He took his eyes off the screen and flopped back into his ergonomic armchair with the shape of a coffee bean.

Mouse quickly made arrangements for Bub’s return journey. Bub was going to miss gazing at the sea but couldn’t wait to be back in the permanent warmth on Coral. His teeth were chattering as he waited for a signal from Mouse.

Ah, there was the signal. The fuchsia pink scroll shape drawn in the sky looked exactly like the shape of a peanut. No doubt Mouse wanted to be forgiven for her joke at the beginning of his Earthly mission, when Bub landed on a lonely rock instead of the ferry terminal.

The return journey lasted for a fraction of a second. As usual after his galactic journeys, Bub fell back down next to Boubou, in their big round bed. Boubou threw herself into his arms, laughing and crying at the same time, before hiccupping with laughter when she saw his new outfit.

In a last burst of energy, Bub carefully took Coffee’s marble out of his pocket, before getting rid of his damp Earthly European French outfit. He tossed the faded jeans, the big checked shirt and the blue knitted sailor’s hat in a heap on the floor.

Coffee swept in hastily and noisily, for the first time in living memory. Bub held out the marble to him, saying,

“I won’t invite you for a coffee now. I’ve had it up to here with coffees with a drop of milk. Tell the colleagues that we’ll be at the bubble office tomorrow evening for the delayed New Year drinks.”

Bub and Boubou stayed in bed for twenty-four hours in a row. By mutual agreement, exceptionally, they decided not to watch a video about Earthly seas.


Fifth of January

It is the fifth of January, and already the evening on planet Coral.

Bub and Boubou had set the alarm of their round clock so that they wouldn’t miss the New Year drinks — delayed by a few days for reasons we all know.

Arm in arm, they walked to the bubble office wearing their party flip-flops. Boubou cried with laughter all the way while Bub was telling her about the new Earthly proverbs he had just learned in the dictionary the day before, and explaining them as best he could.

Everyone was there for the delayed New Year drinks, with family and friends, and with unlimited marble cakes and champagne. To his colleagues’ high relief, Coffee no longer looked like death warmed up. His face even had an unusual spark.

As for Plastic’s face, it was dazzling, and her left eye gave her a strange charm. When she arrived at the bubble office, she briefly checked that her bouquet of roses was still hanging on the top of the glass roof, a good way to make sure once again that her left eye was as effective as a laser.

Chief and Frondex were discussing the comparative merits of their catapults, in a lively conversation presaging a lasting friendship.

Mouse and Hob were listening to them, doubled up with laughter.

The night before, Chief had made a few arrangements in the bubble office, under Frondex’s expert guidance, to be able to practice catapulting on the spot without throwing marbles into their colleagues’ eyes.

Chief had also asked for a translucent marbleproof cloth to be hung outside the bubble office, for marbles to ricochet instead of disappearing in the galaxy.

A hungry stomach has no ears, as an Earthly proverb so rightly says. Everyone ate marble cakes and drank champagne before moving on to serious matters. Bets were taken before watching the merciless catapult competition between Chief and Frondex, refereed by Plastic.

During halftime, while sipping a glass of champagne, Plastic expressed the wish to learn how to use a catapult instead of only refereeing catapult competitions. She asked Frondex if he would be willing to accept a new student. Frondex politely agreed because it also meant better wages. Soon everyone wanted to join in. The first catapulting lesson was planned for the following morning.

Before the competition, Coffee had carefully hidden all his marbles in the secret drawer of his desk. The place of choice was for the lost and found marble, renamed the Earthly marble. While enjoying the quietness of the secret drawer, the Earthly marble was a little sad, thinking about the snow white cloth between two poetry books in the window of the bookshop in Ouistreham, instead of a drawer smelling of coffee with other marbles.

If Coffee ever needed to send a marble into space in the future, this time for a voluntary scientific mission, the Earthly marble was ready for a new challenge. It already had some first-hand experience.

But one thing at a time, as the Earthly proverb so rightly says.


Moon [six timeless short stories]


Copyright © 2012-19 Marie Lebert (text) & Jane Golding (translation)

Written by marielebert

2012-11-22 at 17:33

Posted in Uncategorized