Probably judging that she had spoken enough nonsense, Marie next declared that it was my turn to tell a story.
Since I ate faster than the children, I have finished my croque-monsieur some time ago. Marie, who chews every mouthful slowly and carefully in between her lengthy speeches, doesn't seem anywhere near having finished her meal. I want to know what kind of story she wishes to hear. She says--that's definite--"a story of love and science fiction." So I begin:
"Here you go. A robot meets a young lady...."
My listener allows me to go no further.
"You don't know how to tell stories," she says. "A real story has to be in the past."
"As you wish. A robot, then, met a..."
"No, no, not that way. A story has to be told like a story. Or else nobody knows it's a story."
She is probably right. I think it over for a moment, unaccustomed to that manner of speech, and I start again:
"Once upon a time, in the long, long ago, in the fair Kingdom of France, a robot who was very intelligent, even though strictly metallic, met at a royal ball a young and lovely lady of the nobility. They danced together. He whispered sweet nothings in her ear. She blushed. He apologized.
"By and by, they danced again. She thought he was a bit rigid, but charming in his stiff manners, which gave him a great deal of distinction. They were married the very next day. They received sumptuous wedding presents and departed on their honey-moon....Is it okay this way?"
"It's no great shakes," says Marie, "but it will do. In any case you're telling it like a real story."
"Then, I'll go on. The bride, whose name was Blanche, as compensation, because she had raven black hair, the bride, I said, was naive, and she did not notice right away that her spouse was a product of cybernetics. Yet, she could see that he would always make the same gestures and that he would always say the same things. Well, she thought, here is a man who knows how to follow up on his ideas.
"But one fine morning, having risen earlier than was her custom, she saw him oiling the mechanism of his coxo-femoral articulations, in the bathroom, with the oil can from the sewing maching. Since she was well bred, she made no remark. From that day on, however, doubt invaded her heart.
"Small, unexplained details now came back to her mind: nocturnal creaking sounds, for example, which couldn't really come from the box spring, while her husband embraced her in the secrecy of their alcove; or else the curious ticktock that filled the air around him.
"Blanche had also discovered that his grey eyes, rather inexpressive, would sometimes light up and blink, to the left or to the right, like a car about to change direction. Other signs, as well, mechanical in nature, eventually increased her concern to the utmost.
"Finally, she became certain of even more disturbing peculiarities, and truly diabolical ones: her husband never forgot anything. His stupefying memory, concerning the slightest daily events, as well as the inexplicable rapidity of the mental calculations he effected at the end of each month, when they would check their household accounts together, gave Blanche a treacherous idea. She wanted to know more, and conceived then a Machiavellian plan...."
The children, meanwhile, have both emptied their plates. As for me, I am burning with impatience, anxious as I am to leave this cafe, and to know at last where we are going next. I rush my conclusion accordingly.
"Unfortunately," I say, "the Seventeenth Crusade broke out right at that moment, and the robot was drafted into the colonial infantry, third armored regiment. He embarked at the port of Marseilles and went to fight the war, in the Near East, against the Palestinians.
"Since all the knights wore articulated stainless steel armor, the physical peculiarities of the robot passed henceforth unnoticed. And he never returned to Sweet France, for he died absurdly, one summer night, without attracting anyone's attention, under the ramparts of Jerusalem. The poisoned arrow of an infidel had pierced his helmet and caused a short circuit inside his electronic brain."
"The ending is idiotic," she says. "You had a few good ideas, but you did not know how to exploit them intelligently. And, above all, you never succeeded, at any time, in giving life to your characters or in making them sympathetic. When the hero dies, at the end, the audience is not moved at all."
"When the hero expired, wast thou not moved?" I joke.
This time, I did win at least a pretty smile of amusement from my too demanding professor of narration. She answers in the same tone of parody:
"I had, nonetheless, a certain pleasure in listening to thee, my dear, when thou recounted the ball whereat they met and courted. When we had consumed our repast, Jean and I deplored it, for that curtailed thy story: We could divine thy sudden haste at that point...." Then, changing her tone: "Later, I want to study to become a heroine in novels. It is a good job, and it allows one to live in the literary style. Don't you think that's prettier?"