Let me introduce myself: Marie-Constance G., thirty-four years old, one husband, no children, no profession. I listened to the sound of my own voice yesterday. It was in the little blue room in our apartment, the one we call the ‘echo chamber’. I recited some verses of Baudelaire I happened to remember. It struck me that my voice was really rather nice. But can we truly hear ourselves?

Funnily enough, when I met up with my friend Francoise last week, she said to me: You have a wonderful voice, it’s silly not to do something with it. A woman really needs an occupation these days… When we were at the Conservatoire you showed such talent… Why don’t you put an ad in the papers offering to read to people in their own homes? Francoise is lovely but she often has these outlandish ideas. As far as she herself is concerned, she has her feet pretty firmly on the ground – she’s a lawyer’s secretary – but that makes her all the more inclined to project a whiff of romance and quirkiness on to other people. And this was certainly a quirky idea: being a private reader – at a time when talking books are readily available – like in the days of duchesses, tsarinas and genteel companions. Oh no, retorted Francoise, not at all. It would be very different nowadays, totally practical and concrete: for people who’re ill, handicapped, old, single. A delightful prospect indeed. But I have to admit the thought of bachelors was entertaining. The idea grew on me.

 

*


Now I’m sitting facing the man at the agency who takes the copy for classified ads. He’s chewing on an extinguished cigarette butt beneath his toothbrush moustache, his eyes pinned on me. It’s difficult to put a spark into dead eyes, but he’s having a go. It’s not up to me to give you advice, he says, but if I were you… I wouldn’t run an ad like that… I really wouldn’t… specially not in a town like ours… So I ask him why. He nods his head, heaves a sigh, rereads my piece of paper, which he’s fingering helplessly: ‘Young woman available to read to you in your own home. Works of literature, non-fiction, any sort of book you like.’ Then comes my telephone number. You’ll have trouble… A typist sitting at a nearby table stops every now and then to squirt the contents of a pocket vaporizer into one of her nostrils. She takes these opportunities to watch us furtively, probably listening. He lowers his head and his voice: Believe me, I know my job… I reply tartly: I’m asking you to run the ad, not comment on it. He eyes me in silence, staring, then explains that a lot of newspapers, even the biggest ones, now publish somewhat dubious ads, and that mine could be… misconstrued. He goes back to his chewing and nodding. I tell him there’s nothing dubious about my ad. More squirting from the typist. In that case, he says, you should take out the words ‘Young woman’… And put what instead? He thinks about this, concentrates: And put ‘Person’. Now I’m the one who’s baffled: What do you mean, person? He still has my piece of paper in his hand, and he holds it further from his eyes, as if to get a clearer view of it, the cigarette stub quivering on his bottom lip. Yes, you should put: ‘Person predisposed to read to you in your own home, offers their services, etc.’ You see, ‘person’ is sexless! Slightly dazed, I reply that no one will understand what the ad is about with all that gobbledegook in it. He falls silent, piqued, then says brusquely: All right, if that’s what you want, we’ll run it as it is. After all, it’s up to you. But at least don’t give your telephone number, just have a box number at the newspaper if you want to limit the fallout… Believe me, these ads are my standard fare and there’s nothing standard about what you’re offering… He hands the piece of paper to the typist, not even glancing at her but looking vaguely disgusted, and asks her to type out the text three times for the three local newspapers. Then he picks up a calculator and works out my bill. I write a cheque, stand up and leave. Aware of his gaze lingering on my calves and my heels.