By Jean-Baptiste Del Amo
It was here that we would congregate, from the first days of spring, just outside the little town of Aniane, at the foot of the Pont du Diable, the ancient bridge that spanned the smooth limestone banks of the river Hérault. Our parents knew all too well that there would come a day when we would be tempted to jump off—especially the boys, whose fathers often boasted of having done so in their youth—and each of us had been given a stern warning about the risks.
But they were empty words. Jumping off Pont du Diable was practically a rite of passage, an urge that, as we approached adolescence, tormented those of us who had long watched older boys perform the feat, like a spinetingling snatch of music inside our heads that gave us no peace.
I was fourteen the summer that Fraco died.
He was not a local, having grown up in the northern Cevennes, some sixty kilometres away. He had shown up abruptly halfway through the school year when his father got a job as a heavy plant driver at Pic Saint-Loup quarry. The parents and their four children moved into a house on the main road outside Viols-le-Fort, a ramshackle old building that his father set about renovating. In no time at all, surrounding land was littered with rusty cars, old washing machines, piles of concrete blocks, roof tiles, sheet metal and even a prefab, since Fraco’s brothers salvaged everything they could lay their hands on, but could not always manage to sell.
Fraco was by far the most reckless boy in our gang. He owned a 50cc Piaggio NTT with a souped-up engine and a sawn-off exhaust that he rode hell for leather on the steep, hairpin bends of the Causses, trailing a plume of acrid smoke in his wake. He only ever wore his helmet in the crook of his elbow; he would gun the engine to a deafening roar and jerk the handlebars to perform wheelies. He had already crashed two or three times and, under his left eye, there was a scar that cut clean across his cheek, but he didn’t give a damn; there was nothing in the world that could have persuaded him to reduce his speed or wear his helmet.
Fraco had twice been held back a grade, so he was two years older than the rest of us middle schoolers. He wasn’t particularly tall, but his shoulders had broadened, his voice had broken and he had already started to shave. Fraco enthralled us by his mere presence. There was something about him that meant he could hold his own even among high school guys, the palpable tension he radiated, the way he clenched his cigarette between his teeth, took deep drags and half-closed his eyes as he exhaled, or the way he constantly tapped his foot as though he was teed off with the world and ready to plant his fist in the face of anyone who bugged him. But, actually, Fraco was a cheerful boy, pulsing with a powerful lust of life, mercurial, quick to take offence.
Fraco had the swarthy complexion of a Gypsy, and eyes that were strangely green, that same liquid green of the river Hérault, thick raven-black hair that he wore shoulder length and slicked back with Pento. He bit his nails compulsively, though they were gnawed to the quick. It was as though he’d decided to slowly eat his fingers; his thumbnails were already reduced to ugly little slivers surrounded by red, swollen flesh. He often bit until he bled, and then he’d suck dreamily on the wound, staining his teeth crimson. He had amazing teeth.
At an age when most of us had palms so sweaty we hardly dared shake hands, Fraco’s hands were thick and his palms dry and calloused from weekends working on building sites with one of his uncles to earn the pocket money that paid for petrol for the moped and illicit cartons of Marlboro smuggled back from Andorra.
We didn’t go to the same middle school, and I didn’t really get to meet Fraco until the summer after his family moved to the area. He’d made friends with a boy in our gang whose father owned a breaker’s yard and sometimes gave him spare parts to fix up his Piaggio. We would gather at the foot of the bridge, spread bath towels over the rocks and spend whole afternoons swimming, basking in the sun, smoking cigarettes and swigging Canada Dry ginger ale that quickly became hot as piss, which we handed around and chugged straight from the bottle.
We had no idea that we were living the most beautiful moments of our lives. We thought that this was ours by right, that our adolescent bodies in this doorway into summer were eternal. And, in a sense, they were, because the image of us in that moment, in those moments, lives on somewhere inside me, and probably in all of us, raw as a wound, blended, fused, consecrated by the sleight of hand that is memory. And maybe Fraco’s death is responsible for this lingering after-image; maybe his death, by virtue of its stark contrast, forever fixed in our memories this image of ourselves, glorious and exultant in our singular youth.
There were six boys in our gang, though sometimes we were joined by a few girls who were, or had been, classmates, and a maybe a couple of tourists—girls who had chosen one or another of us to be their holiday boyfriend. Various groups instinctively divided up the limestone banks of the Hérault according to age and affinities; each group had its own stretch of shore, its rock, though from time to time we briefly shared the same space or welcomed a defector from another group. These social dynamics operated according to mysterious laws that were impervious to the shifting flow of tourists whose existence we considered fleeting, incidental, insignificant.
Fraco was our magnetic north, he commanded respect by his presence, his swagger and his silver tongue. He always had some a story to tell in that gravelly southern accent you could cut with a knife: smutty jokes, improbable tales, stories of his brothers’ hare-brained schemes; ‘Gypsy scams’, as he called them.
I can still see him, lying there in his swimming shorts, propped up on one elbow, a cigarette clenched between his teeth, the ridges of muscle along his abdomen and under his arms, the flat, taut stomach with a single crease at the navel where the trail of hair that sprouted from the elastic waistband of his shorts ended.
I think, in our own way, each of us envied Fraco’s body, his vitality, his compact mass of muscle, his feline grace, the sinuous tracery of veins on his forearms. He was attractive in spite of himself, he never flaunted. Girls and boys turned when he passed, his presence was enough to suffuse our little gang with an unusual euphoria. We all did our best to please him or to be on the same wavelength as the vibrations that radiated from him.
And then there was the bridge. From the moment Fraco first discovered its existence, jumping from the bridge became his obsession. For him, there was no greater thrill than leaping from the sixty-foot parapet and cleaving the surface of the water.
We had watched lots of boys dive. Some of our gang had already jumped a bunch of times. The most important thing was to keep your body perfectly straight, arms pressed against your sides or raised above your head, so that you were absolutely vertical when you hit the water. A belly flop could be dangerous, even fatal: over the years there had been numerous accidents: dislocated shoulders, broken arms and legs, fractured skulls.
Some said that people had died, though certainly not within the memory of our generation. Rumours circulated, some more plausible than others. Some people said the bridge got its name because the devil himself had hurled himself off; that in distant, more barbaric times the corpses of condemned men were thrown from it; that the place was cursed and, on moonless nights, someone leaning over the parapet would see the ghosts of those who had drowned and those who had taken their lives, palely shimmering beneath the inky waters, unable to break the surface.
We never tired of watching people diving from the bridge, because the worst might always happen: it was this that held us spellbound, spurred us to jump, or to watch others do so in our stead, this prospect of tragedy; this taste for blood.
But when Fraco jumped, it was different. Although he did not dive as often as some, he spent more time planning every dive. We would catch him glancing surreptitiously at the colossal arch, at the blinding white stone whose glare forced us to shield our eyes or look away. Fraco was prepared to burn his retinas.
When he had finished his internal struggle, or tired of staring the bridge down, he would show up one day and, with his habitual nonchalance, kick off his flip-flops, peel off his Tshirt, take a swig of Canada Dry and announce that he was going to dive. Like a spark along a powder trail, news would spread across the banks: ‘Fraco’s gonna jump, Fraco’s gonna jump!’
We would watch Fraco ascend, sometimes accompanied by one or more of us, watch as he reached the bridge and climbed onto the parapet. Some of us held our breath, others screamed his name, urging him on. Occasionally he would perform acrobatics, some extraordinary stunt that left us flabbergasted—a pike or a somersault—but Fraco had no interest in showing off, he dived only for himself.
Now and then he would dive head first—a plain, simple dive that some boys claimed was easy—but that didn’t matter, if Fraco was diving, nothing else could compare. To us, there was nothing more spectacular than his body, standing stock-still on the parapet of the Pont du Diable, arms outstretched, framed against the white-hot sky; nothing more extraordinary than Fraco’s radiant body, knowing it could be crushed or dislocated a moment later, as he towered over the river gorge as he might have towered over the universe, and our collective hearts.
We would watch as he plunged, almost in slow motion, momentarily held aloft by an invisible thread that would snap, and he could split the air, merge with the shadow cast by the bridge for a second only to reappear in the span of the arch, haloed in light, and finally cut the water with the precision of a scalpel, never raising more than a fine spray.
We would rush to the edge of the rocks and stare at the river until Fraco reappeared, vigorously shaking his hair to deafening cheers and whistles. He would swim to the bank, always backstroke, so that he could gaze up at the bridge with a smile that revealed the gap between his incisors. Eventually, he would rejoin us, spark up a Marlboro, lie back on his towel or on the bare rock and let the water streaming from his body dry in the sun. Once, after a dive, as I inadvertently allowed my gaze to linger on him a little too long, I noticed Fraco gazing back; he simply flashed me that same ambiguous smile he often addressed to the bridge. I felt a rush of blood prickle my cheeks and turned away.
Fraco and I never really talked. We were both part of the same gang, but the two years between us were an impassable chasm. Looking back, I don’t think he was particularly close to anyone. He was genial and friendly with everyone, but oddly detached, disinterested; he had happened to find himself in our gang but could just as easily have blended in with any group of boys his age. He was self-contained.
Or so I thought for a long time, until one late afternoon in mid-August. My father had been supposed to collect me from the riverbank but didn’t show for some reason I can’t remember now. So, I set off on foot and I was walking along the road when, behind me, I heard the unmistakable sound of Fraco’s moped as he slowed down next to me.
‘What the fuck you doing?’ he asked, tossing his cigarette butt and grinding it into the asphalt with the sole of his flip-flop.
‘Heading home. My father was supposed to pick me up, but he didn’t show.’
We had to shout so as not to be drowned out by the backfire from his exhaust.
‘I can drop you off, if you like.’
‘Yeah, sure… But I don’t have a helmet. If we run into my folks, they’ll kill me.’
‘Who gives a shit? Anyway, you can just wear mine.’
Fraco gave me his helmet and I put it on, embarrassed that I was being a good little boy and he might think me a coward. But he didn’t seem to notice, he simply scooted forward on the saddle and I climbed on behind.
‘Hold tight,’ he said.
I put my hands on his hips and he took off at full throttle, sending up a spray of dust and gravel.
I’d never imagined that one day I would ride pillion on Fraco’s Piaggio. We hurtled down the road and, through the helmet’s open visor I could smell Pento hair cream and his Scorpio aftershave. I had never been so physically close to him. When he turned his head to shout at me—never quite taking his eyes off the road—I could even smell his sweet, acrid breath laced with tobacco and Canada Dry. All mingled with the whiff of petrol from the moped and the cars zooming past, and the smells of the scrubland: clumps of wild thyme, boxwood and juniper scorched by the sun.
I could feel the density of Fraco’s body between my hands as I held him gingerly, clumsily, devotedly, the way you might cradle a bird, the narrow hips, the ridge of bone, the warmth of his soft, damp skin beneath the cotton vest. He literally radiated energy, and it surged through my arms and triggered nuclear fission in the base of my throat and the pit of my stomach.
Inside me, a fault line had opened up from which erupted a long-sensed, long-repressed, long-silenced desire, that Fraco’s body had just violently laid bare. Nothing mattered anymore, not even the possibility that we might be mown down by a passing truck, or might plow into one of the great oaks that lined the road.
I had the impulsive, inexpressible feeling of having grasped a fragment of the very essence of life, of the best it would ever have to offer me; that fugitive happiness that appears only in flashes, in fleeting epiphanies, just as, for the space of a heartbeat, a thunderbolt reveals a whole landscape that is instantly returned to shadows.
When Fraco dropped me off outside my house, my legs were shaking. I took off the helmet
while he turned off the engine and lit a cigarette.
‘Why d’you never jump?’ he asked, point-blank, hooking the helmet onto the handlebars of the Piaggio.
He was gazing at me intently.
‘From the bridge, you mean?’
‘Yeah, from the bridge. I’ve never seen you jump. You ever done it?’ I shook my head.
‘You could give it a try.’
He took a drag on his cigarette, turned his face to exhale the smoke, then once again fixed his river-green eyes on mine.
‘We could jump together. I can tell you want to.’
‘I’m not sure,’ I said.
My heart was about to leap from my mouth.
‘Don’t matter if you freak out. It’s pretty normal, actually. We can go together some morning, in a week or two. The tourists will be gone pretty soon, we’ll go when there’s no one around. If it don’t feel right, don’t jump, won’t be no one there to rag on you.’
‘I don’t care what the others think,’ I lied.
‘Yeah, sure,’ Fraco nodded, gnawing at his left thumb. ‘We don’t give a flying fuck, do we? But you could do it for yourself, just to prove to yourself that you can. And maybe you could do it for me. What d’you think?’
‘Okay, why not,’ I heard myself say. ‘Yeah, that would be cool, I’d like to do it, I’d like to jump with you.’
‘Cool, cool,’ Fraco nodded.
He hawked a jet of saliva through the gap between his teeth, then started up the moped, jerked his chin by way of goodbye and I watched him ride away until he disappeared. His spit had left a dark trail in the dust. As I walked up the path to my house, I still felt my legs might give way beneath me.
After that, I couldn’t stop thinking about Fraco and the jump from the Pont du Diable. I thought about it at night before I went to sleep, tossing and turning in bed. I imagined what it would be like to meet Fraco there. Maybe he’d come pick me up, and we’d ride to the bridge together, in silence this time, our stomachs in knots at the prospect of the jump? Maybe I’d dare to slide my hands around his waist and lay my cheek against his back?
The bridge appeared to me in dreams. Always the same. I was alone, standing on the parapet and, looking down, I could see no water, only a dizzying, bottomless hole, a fissure in the earth between the river banks. Suddenly, Fraco would appear behind me. I never quite saw him, but I could sense his presence and hear his soft voice as he said, Go on, jump. Don’t be afraid. I’m here. I’d protest that the bridge was much higher than I remembered, that I’d rather climb down. And then Fraco would place his hands on the small of my back and push me into the void. I’d wake with a start, bathed in sweat, feeling as though I was falling; my dick rock hard under the sheets, my belly sticky with semen that I’d guiltily wipe away.
I never did jump from the bridge. The rest of that summer passed in an instant. Would Fraco have kept his promise? He seemed to have forgotten. He went back to treating me with the same detached attention he did the other members of the gang, as though we hadn’t shared anything particularly special that day he gave me a ride home. He was his usual self; everpresent yet distant, inaccessible.
Then, a couple of days before school term started, he vanished. Worried when he didn’t come home one night, his brothers launched a search the following morning and found his Piaggio where he usually parked it, near the Pont du Diable. They talked to all the guys in the gang, but none of us had seen him.
The gendarmes were called in, rescue teams were dispatched to conduct a fingertip search of the area. Fraco’s reputation preceded him, and the search quickly focused on the river gorges. Three days later, his body was recovered some way downstream, snagged on a tree lying on the riverbed. They said one of the branches pierced his side and when the rescue team found him he was bobbing gently, impaled on the dead tree, his handsome face and river-green eyes turned to face the sky.
Fraco had done a reverse dive and attempted a somersault to right himself; according to the post mortem, he cracked his skull on the stone bridge as he fell and died instantly. No one knew why he’d gone to dive alone, especially after dark. Maybe it was a challenge he’d set himself, or an act of defiance against the Pont du Diable. I remember the day of his funeral, his mother howling in grief, jumping into the grave and clasping the coffin, leaving a glistening streak of snot or saliva, before her three other sons pulled her out.
How was it possible for Fraco’s body to be lying in that box? The body I had held in my hands for an instant, experiencing its radiant power? How was it possible for death to triumph over him? Would Fraco’s body light the darkness of his grave?
After that, we rarely went back to the river, and never to the foot of the bridge. When we went to high school, the gang broke up. We were all at the same school, sometimes in the same classes, but the memory of Fraco had irrevocably come between us; we dimly realised that it was time for us to go our separate ways, that Fraco’s death had been the touchstone of our friendship. He had taken something of us with him when he fell, some part of our adolescence, some sliver of the magic in the world, a fragment of what was possible.
Fifteen years have passed and I still dream of the Pont du Diable. I left the area to pursue my studies in Toulouse before settling in Paris. Two or three times a year, I head south to visit my parents. Fraco’s family no longer lives in the area. I walked past their place once; the house was bulldozed six years after the accident, the plot was bought by a property investor who built a housing development on the site.
On a summer night so sweltering that I couldn’t get to sleep, I climbed in my car and drove to Aniane. It was a thundery, moonless night. The river gorge was bathed in an eerie blueish glow. I parked nearby and walked to the middle of the bridge. I remembered the stories we told each other as kids, about the ghosts of condemned men and suicide victims that could be glimpsed beneath the surface of the water. I stepped up to the parapet and laid my hands on the warm stone to lean over.
Translated from the French by Frank Wynne.
Jean-Baptiste Del Amo is a French writer and winner of Prix Goncourt du Premier Roman. He is a laureate of Fénéon Prize, Prix Sade, Prix du Livre Inter, Prix du roman Fnac, a.o. He is the author of the novel Ne rien faire et autres nouvelles (2006), Une éducation libertine (2008), Le Sel (2010), Pornographia (2013), Règne animal (2016), L214, une voix pour les animaux (2017) and Le Fils de l’homme (2021). The last novel will be published soon in English by Fitzcarraldo Editions under the title “The Son of Man”, exceptionally translated by Frank Wynne.
Frank Wynne is an Irish literary translator and writer. He has translated many authors, including Michel Houellebecq, Boualem Sansal, Frédéric Beigbeder, Ahmadou Kourouma and Jean-Baptiste Del Amo. He has twice jointly won the International Dublin Literary Award: with Houellebecq for Atomised (his translation of Les Particules élémentaires); and with Alice Zeniter for The Art of Losing (his translation of L’Art de Perdre). In 2021 was the Chair of the judging panel of the 2022 International Booker Prize – the first time a translator has chaired the panel.
We are grateful to our friend and long-time supporter Jean-Baptiste Del Amo and for all the help in bringing this to our readers to Frank Wynne and Laurence Laluyaux + Katharina Volckmer from Rcw Literary Agency London.
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