First impressions can be deceptive. Take the building in which I’d rented an apartment, for example. The rather elegant façade belied the sorry state of the common areas inside, with paint peeling from the mouldy walls and the wooden stairs rotting in places. Then there was the concierge. Madame Fournier seemed sullen but it turned out that she was essentially a kind-hearted soul, if overly interested in the lives of others.
As for my neighbours on the third floor, though, impression was all I had to go on. I rarely saw them, and when I did, our conversation never went much beyond a “Bonjour/Bonsoir.”
I’d meet Monsieur Moreau during the day, stumbling up or down the dusty stairs. As far as I could tell, he didn’t work, so his drinking money must have come from his wife. By the uniform she wore to work, I guessed she was a nurse. She had a round, pleasant face and could always manage a smile, although I sensed it was often forced. She seemed a little timid.
In the late evenings I’d sometimes hear them arguing through the paper-thin walls. If I saw Madame Moreau the day after the rows, the bruises would be obvious, even in the gloom of the stairs or landing.
Then one day I heard the dog next door. It wasn’t a loud or yappy dog, but it whined for most of the day and night and kept me awake.
If I’d been on more familiar terms with the couple, I might have gone there and complained. The next morning, Madame Fournier was leaning on her window sill, observing passers-by.
“So the Moreaus have a dog?” I half asked, half stated in my broken French.
“Not them, her,” she declared under her breath, glancing theatrically up and down the street before imparting the secret. “He’s left her, apparently. Gone to live with a cousin in Toulouse.”
“Ah,” I said. “And the dog?”
“For security”, she said. “And company, of course.”
I nodded. I like animals, and I know what a comfort they can be. I asked what breed it was. She told me that she didn’t know, that she hadn’t seen it yet.
“But the …” I didn’t know the French word for ‘whining’, so I attempted to replicate the sound.
Madame Fournier laughed. “That’s because the apartment is strange, I expect. It’ll be okay in a couple of days, you’ll see.”
I left it at that. I thought that pets weren’t allowed in the apartments, but I didn’t want to be the one to report the dog to the landlord. And in fact, as Madame Fournier had predicted, the whining soon died down. I’d catch snuffling and occasionally a piece of furniture being knocked over, but I wasn’t losing sleep any more.
One morning a couple of weeks later I bumped into Madame Moreau in the entrance hall, on her way to work. She smiled at me, and this time it seemed to be a genuinely contented smile. I watched as she skipped across the road between the traffic. I imagined she was pleased to be rid of her abusive husband, and I felt happy for her.
Later that same day I was in my room, smoking at the open window and watching the world go by in the bustling street below. I spotted Madame Moreau approaching on the other side. She looked up, saw me and waved. Then she stepped out into the road.
The taxi hit her full on with a sickening crunch, projecting her several yards. Someone screamed. Madame Moreau lay still on the tarmac, her head resting in a slowly spreading puddle of red.
By the time I got down to the street, there was a gendarme and a ring of people around her. A siren sounded in the distance, getting closer. Madame Fournier was in animated conversation with the concierge from the next building. She saw me and came over.
“What a terrible thing, monsieur!” she said. “Madame Moreau was just beginning to live again, then this! The poor, poor — ”
“What’s going to happen to her dog?” I interrupted, keen to avoid any mawkishness.
“Ah yes, the dog!” She scratched her head. “Well, I saw what happened, so the police may want to speak to me. Would you be so kind as to look in on it?”
She removed a key from the bunch she carried — she had spare keys to all the apartments — and handed it to me. I excused myself and entered the building, relieved to be away from what was becoming quite a hysterical scene.
The lock was stiff, but after some wiggling of the key I managed to open the door of the apartment. I stepped inside, surprised that the dog didn’t come to see who the interloper was. I went from room to room looking for it until I came to the last unopened door, which by a process of elimination I assumed to be the bedroom.
What I found there wasn’t a dog. In fact it wasn’t an animal at all, but nor was it entirely human — at least not any more.
On all fours and chained to a radiator, what was left of Monsieur Moreau was shaking his head and staring at me with crazed eyes.
The first thing I noticed was that he had no lips; his teeth were bared in a fixed, yellow snarl, framed by raggedly stitched flesh. I could plainly see that his tongue had been removed. And the same rough stitching closed a gash across his throat.
Then he tried to totter towards me and I saw the other thing: his arms and legs were mere stumps now, ending at his elbows and knees and also stitched untidily, like his mouth and throat.
The events that had brought him to this — or what I imagined them to be — flashed through my mind: his wife, who I’d taken to be a rather meek person, pushed beyond reason … the drugs stolen from work to put her husband out … the instruments borrowed to perform the clumsy operations, half-learned from observation … his coming round to find … what he had become.
Monsieur Moreau started to whine — a deep, keening sound that was familiar to me. I knew what he wanted, of course. It was the humane thing to do.
And so I did it. With a cord from the curtains.
Back in the street, the crowd of onlookers had grown in number around the body of the nurse. I found Madame Fournier.
“I couldn’t get the door open,” I said, hoping she wouldn’t notice the tremor in my voice or my hand shaking as I passed her the key. “Perhaps you should look in on him yourself later, madame.”
I left her in search of a quiet café. And a very large cognac.