We have no knowledge of anything but Phænomena; and our knowledge of phænomena is relative, not absolute. We know not the essence, nor the real mode of production, of any fact, but only its relations to other facts in the way of succession or of similitude. These relations are constant; that is, always the same in the same circumstances. The constant resemblances which link phænomena together, and the constant sequences which unite them as antecedent and consequent, are termed their laws. The laws of phænomena are all we know respecting them. Their essential nature, and their ultimate causes, either efficient or final, are unknown and inscrutable to us.
—John Stuart Mill describing Auguste Comte’s philosophy
I came upon you examining a huge, expensive-looking photocopier that was sitting on the footpath. The city centre is full of corners of interesting objects awaiting the dump truck.
You studied me carefully. You reminded me distinctly of the third head from the left in Rubens’ study for the head of a man.
"Help me push it around the corner," you said, shaking hands. The photocopier had been abandoned after an office moved out. You’d watched them go. Your French was good but your accent wasn’t French. You were probably noticing the same thing about me. I thought you might be from sub-Saharan Africa. I call you Afer, a Berber name for Africa.
"There’s an association up here could use it," you said.
We set off. Every surface bump and pavement joint was an obstacle. I helped push as you occasionally manhandled the big machine to its new destination. The winter sun shone hotly. We headed around the corner, across double tram lines and into the narrow streets of the old town. We pushed it up a bit of a hill. The machine looked so new that I reckoned an expert could make it work.
The association turned out to be a bookshop smacking of self-help and anarchism. It was closed. This didn’t worry you, who rang the next-door bell. While we waited, you instructed me to put a note on the machine saying it wasn’t to be moved.
After a while a man came to the door. Of uncertain age with long hair, he seemed perfectly matched to the bookshop next door. He knew you—this was your neighbourhood—and called out another, similar, man. All three of you gazed at the machine. The association men told you it would be a pain in the neck and probably expensive to repair. You asked if you could leave it there till you found a solution for it. They agreed and you and I parked it carefully against the wall between shop and house, with my notice attached.
"Let me buy you a coffee, by way of thanks," you said.
We walked to a lovely square with a church and outdoor cafes. After seating me at a table, you disappeared into an Irish bar. I was beginning to wonder if you would reappear at all, when you shot out bearing a tray and our coffees. "Took a while—they know me in there," you explained. We sat in the late afternoon sun, still wearing our coats, and exchanged life stories.
You had arrived in Paris as a baby, with your parents, from North Africa. After some schooling you got a job with a builder where you’d worked until recent retirement when the company went bust. The owner had had a huge barbecue for all the workers at the depot, sold or gave away most of the material and vehicles, and divided the proceeds between his men. They all loved him.
"So how did you wind up in the south?" I asked.
"Me and the boss came down on our last job, delivering machinery to Spain. Shared the driving. Stayed in a small hotel."
You laughed. "The boss went off to do something and left me there on my own for a night."
Your laugh exposed a full set of teeth that were black around the roots.
"There was no toilet in the room and when I went to look for it I realised nobody could understand me." You laughed heartily.
"You probably speak Arabic?" I enquired.
"Never learned it. French only," you said.
I imagined variations of "Toilet" in an accent that wasn’t French. Twaleta.
"Nope" (you have one now—you showed me—and a pension to boot).
The hotel called the police, of course.
"I explained to them, again. By the time they understood, the whole neighbourhood thought there was a dangerous terrorist loose!"
You laughed again and looked around you, celebrating the sun, the coffee, the company. I would get used to your laugh, your good humour.
"Since the job in Paris was finished, I set up house here."
We both agreed it was cheaper to heat oneself in winter.
You explained where you lived—you laughed again: "Next door to Auguste Comte’s place"—and told me to drop in anytime and you’d make me a stew.
MMARY BYRNE grew up in Ireland and now lives in France. Short fiction published/broadcast, anthologised in Europe, North America, and Australia. Prizes include the Kore Press Short Story Award, Fiction International Short Fiction Award, and Hennessy Literary Award. Currently working on collections of short fiction set in Morocco and Ireland. Plugging The Causal Breach, debut collection set in France, upcoming from Regal House in 2019. Loves philosophy, art, and anything baroque. Tweets @BrigitteLOignon.