By Marie Lebert, 21 December 2017.
Translated from French by Jane Golding.
Drawings by Denis Renard.
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
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.
It was New Years Eve. To amaze his colleagues, Frondex decided to show them some real catapulting, meaning exceptional catapulting on an exceptional day.
He picked up a marble that was lying around at the bottom of a tooth mug in Coffee’s office. Unusually for him, he was feeling a bit nervous, and didn’t take the time to notice if it was a common marble or a special one. He adjusted his brand new catapult – designed and made yesterday evening – and, as usual, launched the marble through an air vent in the bubble office. The only difference with this shot, compared to all his usual shots, was that this time he used all his strength. The problem was that Frondex was unusually strong.
Dumbfounded, Frondex didn’t see the marble fall down a few metres away with the characteristic spark showing that it had reached its point of impact. This time, there was no spark; it had simply disappeared into the galaxy. Frondex was a little bothered, and his colleagues, who had been watching the operation, were really amazed.
Coffee returned a few minutes later after a stop to the toilet. Frondex waved his catapult about under Coffee’s nose and, looking him right in the eyes, 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.”
Illustrating his explanation with a gesture, he drew a huge arch in the air with his left hand, his right hand still holding his new catapult.
Coffee suddenly sank into the armchair in his office, which is not at all like him. He went white, then blue, then green, which for him is a sign that he is very distressed. His colleagues shouted,
“Quick! Bring a strong coffee!”
If Bub had been there at that moment, he would have given Coffee a handful of peanuts, an infallible tonic. Coffee held his head in his hands, and turned from white to blue again, then from blue to green. The others watched him attentively. If he turned yellow, that would be then end of him.
The strong coffee arrived on the flying tray. Coffee took it, completely prostrated, his hands trembling. He spilt half of it on his desk and drank the rest in little nervous sips. Once he had drunk it, he perked up again. “Perked up” is an Earthly expression; it means that he felt better.
If it had been anyone else in the department, they would have shouted the worst possible insults in Frondex’s face. But Coffee was not like that, so he said very calmly, because he never gets annoyed,
“The marble is a ‘SI’ marble (‘SI’ means ‘super important’). 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,
“May I have another coffee with a drop of milk?”
The tray flew straight back to the cafeteria, and returned even more quickly with a cup of coffee, 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 an elementary precaution.”
“Bad luck,” he replied. “I was just taking the marble out of the hyper-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, there are no pockets in my flowery Bermuda shorts. 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 hysterical, hiccupping laughter, Chief arrived, with his famous pipe in his mouth. He didn’t hurl abuse at everyone. With his customary politeness, he simply asked,
“Would you please explain what has happened?”
Frondex pointed to his new 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 enormous effort to hold back a violent desire 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 super-important marble in Coffee’s tooth mug, or why Frondex was testing his catapult during working hours. He was practical, and knew that this kind of discussion is useless.
Chief immediately asked 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 in the sea.”
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 have to have it delivered this evening. We need a stock in advance, 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 a little 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, was accused of gross professional misconduct and was transferred to a little scientific department in a provincial town. And then Frondex would have to be there to show Chief how to handle the apparatus and correct his first few shots.
Frondex took a marble from Coffee’s marble box. This time, as usual, he checked carefully that the marble was not marked with a tiny “SI”. Under the beady-eyed stare of his colleagues, who were watching attentively, Frondex tucked the marble into the catapult, aimed at the air vent again, and fired, but this time without using all his strength.
Frondex had mastered his art perfectly, and like all the others, this shot was a real work of art. Despite that, no one dared to applaud, as it didn’t seem very appropriate, especially when they saw the look on Coffee’s face.
During the few seconds that the operation took, Mouse calculated the positions of the catapult and the air vent with the greatest precision. Then she entered the two parameters in her computer with the aid of the rainbow-coloured keyboard – the famous keyboard that gave her a boost – and started making calculations on the far end of the trajectory. It was a question of a few fractions of a second.
The numbers were aligned on the screen. She read them out one by one 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. Subregion: Channel Coast. Sub-subregion: Mother of Pearl Coast. Sub-sub-subregion: Between Hermanville-sur-Mer and Lion-sur-Mer. Exact place: The beach.”
When Mouse read the word “Earth,” she felt relieved. Her colleagues also sighed with relief. Chief started sucking on his 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 good diplomatic relations with Earth. No need for a visa. With other planets we would have come up against administrative problems. They make you wait weeks for the visa and wretched official stamp!”
And then there was a meeting of the whole team. Coffee ordered again, in a quavering voice,
“A coffee with a drop of milk!”
The flying tray hurried to the cafeteria with its usual promptness and came back with the coffee topped with a drop of milk.
“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, luckily for the researchers, as all this emotion had made them hungry, but the colours were very realistic.
The bubble office team ate the cakes and Coffee drank his coffee with a drop of milk. Usually, he liked marble cakes, but today he had no appetite. He wanted the meeting to be over quickly so he could go home and find his dear girlfriend and cry in her arms while drinking coffee.
When he had eaten a few marble cakes, Chief wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and filled his pipe, which had enjoyed a few moments’ respite in his left pocket. That was the sign that things were getting serious.
He started to speak and 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.”
In fact, Chief could have asked an Earthly European French correspondent to recover the marble, but wasn’t the sort of person to palm off his department’s problems onto someone else. You never know who you might get, and anyway it was an internal matter, so it was up to the researchers to take responsibility for it.
Another point was that they would have to find an official explanation for the mission, something out of the ordinary. The fact that it was a problem of a lost marble must not go beyond the department. This was purely the bubble office’s 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, both at the same time. They were both good 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 and for her plastic.
After this brief internal monologue, and surprised how unusually silent his colleagues were, Chief reiterated his question.
“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 rainbow-coloured keyboard and sent the following tweet:
“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 another colleague. 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 given him.
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 exercice. The taxi made the journey in a few seconds and dropped him right in front of the door.
Six people looked up when he arrived. However, it wasn’t his birthday. Bub pinched a marble cake, gobbled it up in a flash and sat down next to Boubou.
Chief gave him a rapid explanation of the situation. Bub held back a strong urge to laugh; this story was really stupid. He managed to keep it in because Chief looked like death warmed up. This Earthly expression, imported by Bub, had quickly become part of the bubble office’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.”
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 person responsible, you are also partly responsible for this business. 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 Normandy clothes, which we would purchase immediately online.”
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 have enough clothes – a brown corduroy suit and a matching cap. It’s a souvenir from my last visit there. 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 expression, before eating a third and last marble cake, which gave him a few more seconds to think. Then he announced his thoughts to the assembled company. Every pair of eyes was out on stalks, and looking straight into his – a sign that they were really paying attention.
Bub looked at Coffee.
“Of course, I agree to go on mission, first thing tomorrow morning if I have to, since it involves Coffee’s marble.”
Then he turned to Boubou.
“As for Boubou, I will ask her to come with me, but I already know the answer. She hates travelling.”
Boubou nodded, smiling.
“In reality, 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? All the kids 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 could conceive of ever giving marbles to a child; even the most imaginative researcher would never have done that.
“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 we’ll just have to get used to it.”
After a short silence, which allowed him to gather a few ideas together, 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 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, 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 on the Pearl Coast?”
Mouse consulted her computer screen
“A few thousands.”
“Out of a few thousand inhabitants, there must be quite a few children. Not counting adults who play marbles, and people who keep marbles in jars on a shelf because they think it looks pretty.”
His colleagues were stunned; they couldn’t get over it. They helped themselves to more cakes to help them recover and 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 an Earthly European French Normandy suit.”
“At what time?” Chief asked him.
“It’s not worth leaving at three in the morning. On the Pearl Coast, on the first of January, it doesn’t get light very early, and it’s not worth looking for a marble in the dark. It’s small enough as it is, and there’s no point complicating things even more. Let’s say eight o’clock.”
As we can see, although Bub liked work, he hated useless work. He got up and said goodbye to the assembled company. Boubou and he moved further away, almost silenced by the prospect of the coming separation, however short it might be.
The five remaining 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 regain enough energy to organise the mission. He asked,
“Mouse, although tomorrow is a holiday, would you kindly agree to come into the office early in the morning to propel Bub into space as far as the Pearl Coast, at Hermanville-sur-Mer?”
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 as this business involves the mental health of one of our colleagues, it would be worth making a bit of an effort, very exceptionally, of course.”
Chief also asked the assembled company,
“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. Apart from Coffee, everyone thought it would be great fun. It would make a change from the daily television soap, which was really boring at the moment. As for that stupid Earthly idea of marbles being a children’s game, that would be the best story to tell on New Year’s Eve – everyone would roar with laughter.
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 Christmas trees and all their decorations.
Only Frondex had an uncomfortable feeling in the depths of his unconscious. Just as he was getting ready to leave, Chief finally asked him the question that had been on the tip of his tongue since the beginning of the whole affair.
“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 absolutely fascinated by this art. I didn’t realise 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!”
“OK, alright. First thing tomorrow afternoon, then,” Frondex replied. Although he was unusually strong, he wore his heart on his sleeve. “I’ll make you a catapult for tomorrow. That’ll be my New Year present to you.”
Chief was delighted. Apart from the business of the marble, the year was off to a good start.