94. Missing Persons

Part 2 of the 'Perfectionism' series. (Previously.)

SHE CALLED ME ON a Friday afternoon, on the Friday before the Pentecost long weekend, what's more, when a man's every second thought is of taking long walks in the woods with his wife and his dogs, enjoying the spring air. She began asking about the runaway girl from GĂ©nos, what progress had we made in our investigations, and so on and so forth. I can pretty much remember what I said to her word for word: I can assure you, Madame, a detective has better things to do than chase after every teenage girl who goes missing. After all, how many teenage girls do you think go missing every year in France alone, Madame? Or even simply in southwest France? More than enough to keep every single detective in the entire country fully occupied, and with some overtime as well, I can assure you. Not to mention the teenage boys who go missing every year as well. I can assure you they are not eloping to Italy, all these boys and girls. How many, do you think? Enough to fill a church? How about a cathedral? Try a sports stadium, Madame. Imagine a sports stadium built in the shape of a cathedral, or, if it helps, a cathedral built in the shape of a sports stadium. Imagine this stadium-cathedral floating upon an infinite ocean, perhaps with the assistance of an aircraft carrier, a French-built aircraft carrier, Madame, it goes without saying. This stadium-cathedral, Madame, is filled with all of France's missing teenage girls and boys, from this year, from every year, starting with the Children's Crusade all those centuries ago, are you aware of the story of the Children's Crusade? So much the better. Imagine them sitting in the stands of this stadium-cathedral, holding coloured cards above their heads, turning them over at preordained intervals, like the North Koreans do. What images do you think they make, Madame, these shipwrecked unfortunates? I hadn't finished making my point, far from it. I had intended to widen the scope of my metaphor to the rest of Western Europe, then to the rest of Europe - for if things are bad here, they are nothing compared with our cousins in the east - then proceeding to the Middle East and Central Asia, and so on and so forth, quite methodically, if you catch my drift, without even mentioning the countless adults who go missing every year. I mean, if you stop and think about it, what is happening to these people? The only answer I can offer is that it is very difficult to start over with a new identity in this age of computers, if you catch my drift. I was going to say all this to the woman at the other end of the telephone line (come to think of it, she never mentioned who she was and what business she had calling me about this or indeed any matter, and I never thought to ask until it was too late), all this was on the tip of my tongue waiting to tumble out, when she interrupted me. Normally I cannot abide being interrupted, but there was something about her manner of speaking, something distant and sad that made you listen if only because it didn't seem to need to be heard. She said, Go back to the video of the interview. Listen closely to what the girl is saying. But Madame, I said, our investigation was exhaustive: the girl is speaking an unknown dialect. You are more and less right than you could possibly know, replied the caller, she is speaking a dialect, but the dialect isn't unknown. In fact, it is currently spoken, only not on this particular form, the voice at the other end of the line pronounced, sounding increasingly oracular. Consult a linguist, Monsieur, a specialist in southwestern dialects in the Middle Ages - your reference to the Children's Crusade was perhaps more apt than you intended. Then she hung up. I need hardly tell you that the call totally ruined my long weekend. Instead of enjoying the birdsong of ducks flying north for the summer, all I heard was that oracular voice speaking of dialects and the Middle Ages, which isn't exactly my strong suit, historically speaking. Not to mention the nightmares, full of ships and cathedrals and oceans and North Korean dictators and children spouting gibberish and migrating birds losing all sense of direction. It was a relief to return to the office the following Tuesday and to hear, on my answering machine, a message from a professor in linguistics at the university in Toulouse, who'd been given my number by a Madame Something-or-Other.