page 178 and further
Along the footpath at the end of the street a young man approached. He was quietly walking in our direction, apparently hardly aware of us. As he came closer, I could sense Benoit next to me and Alex ahead becoming tense. The boy was younger than I expected, fourteen at the most, and the curly hair sticking out from his head gave him a friendly look. He was still more than five metres away from us when Alex started talking.
`Here comes something walking along our footpath,' he said. The boy didn't seem to realise it was aimed at him. Without taking any notice he stepped off the footpath to let us pass. He didn't look at us. His thoughts were obviously somewhere else. But Alex wouldn't let him pass. He jumped sideways and deliberately knocked into him. The boy was frightened and stopped.
`Wouldn't it have been better to stay with your friends?' Alex said.
`My friends?' I recognised his way of mechanically repeating what the other said. It was a way of gaining time. It gave you the chance to think and find a better reply. But usually, by the time the right reply occurred to you, there was a new question to confuse you even more.
`Yes, your friends. Don't you think it's dangerous here all by yourself? Take my advice. It would be better to stay with them. It's not clever to allow yourself to be separated.'
`I have no friends around here. I'm only here by chance.'
`Hear the cock crow,' Benoit said sharply. Of course the boy didn't get the allusion, and looked around, listening.
`So what are you doing here, out in the street at this hour of the night?'
`Walking in the dark is dangerous, don't you know that? Hasn't anybody ever told you that walking in the dark is dangerous? You never know what other people are up to, do you?'
`No,' he said. All this time he had a friendly smile on his face. He must have thought we were joking, or had had a few too many.
`This is a bad neighbourhood, you must have heard that. Old people get robbed here, and women raped. Animals are sacrificed here. You must have heard about that.'
`Eh, yes.' He wanted to walk on. He had to get away, and thought we were a minor obstacle. He thought we were just playing games because we were bored. He had no idea how angry Benoit had become. He couldn't very well know: Benoit had a friendly expression on his face, and his voice was calm, almost soothing.
`The police are here, too, or at least they should be. They could ask you questions. They could ask for your residence permit, for instance, and see if you're actually legal.'
`Yes,' said the boy. I was pretty sure he had no idea what Benoit was driving at. I stood and watched, my arms by my side. I wasn't much older than the boy, I could see. I had lied about my age, and had started to feel older since then. But as the dark haired boy stood awkwardly before us, I realised how misleading that feeling was. I knew I would have been exactly as awkward. I was no longer interested in what else was going to happen, but couldn't see a chance to disappear.
I took a couple of steps back. But Benoit signalled with his finger and Alex put his arms around my shoulders and pushed my head towards the young Arab.
`You see that lip?' asked Benoit. Alex had me in a kind of head lock, and I couldn't get myself free. `You see how ugly and damaged and swollen it is? You see that scar? You know how that happened? That happened because he walked through the Cercle by himself. In broad daylight! You'd think it was safe in daylight!' The boy looked at me for a fraction of a second, but he wasn't interested. He wanted to walk on. Alex let go of me abruptly and stood a few centimetres in front of the boy. The boy turned his head away. He was about as tall as Alex. He tried to step sideways to get past him but Alex moved with him. I could hear him snorting.
It went on for too long. The distance between their bodies was too small; something had to happen. The boy must have felt so threatened he did something stupid: he moved his elbows forward and pushed Alex. That was very stupid.
`What's this?' said Alex. `Hitting me?' He made the same movement and pushed back, harder, and the boy had to take a couple of steps backward. It was as if they were linked together. As soon as the boy moved away, Alex followed. Every push he gave, he got back. Alex was wearing boots with reinforced toe-caps. The Arab boy was wearing moccasins with leather soles. He lost his balance on the cobblestones which were probably a bit slippery with oil or grease from cars. It was an awkward fall: he tried to grab hold of the only thing near him, which was Alex, who kicked him in the ribs as he hit the ground. The kick made almost no noise at all, at the most the sound of a small leather ball bouncing. The boy didn't groan, but grasped the spot where he had been hit with both hands. Alex pulled his leg back and kicked again. The boy tried to parry the kick with his arms, but he was too late and the tip of Alex' boot hit him in the small of the back. This time a sound came from his throat, like a suppressed burp. The boy writhed in pain and made a crooked unco-ordinated attempt at getting up. Alex gave him time. I saw him look at Benoit. Benoit stood off to one side, turned to me, rather than them, looking as if he had nothing to do with what was happening. He watched the scene with a cool glance. He gave Alex an almost imperceptible nod. Alex lashed out again and kicked.
The polyester shirt came out of the boy's jeansjeans of the same brand Moumouche swears by, and against the exposed dark skin of his lower back I could see a strangely shaped birthmark, slightly raised, dark red. It was the size of a hand, the shape of a heart. As I stood looking, I became conscious of a thought that has not left my mind since that day: that life is intolerable. It hurts on all sides, and no matter how you wriggle, you can't escape the blows. You have to make choices, and every choice is the wrong one. I stood in the Cercle, and could not choose. So I stood, waiting till it was over.
`You know what makes me more angry than anything else?' said Benoit when the boy had stopped moving. `It's the fact that they always force you to use violence. I hate violence. I never use violence unless I am provoked. Some people ask for it. He asked for it. That makes me furious: that they can drive you so far. They deserve a beating just for that.'
`He is bleeding,' I said weakly.
`That's nothing,' said Benoit, guiding me away from the place. `A split lip and a bit groggy. It's no more than what they did to you that time.' We walked out of the street. Behind us we heard the boy calling out one word which he repeated over and over. I assumed it was a term of abuse. Only much later did I learn that he was calling, in Arabic, for his mother.