Without any warning the intruder had broken into my life some eighteen months earlier. I had found him at the back of my garden, on a beautiful spring afternoon. He was a young man about twenty years old with a childish face and a thick blond fringe over his brow. He was busy trimming my hedge, so concentrated on his task that he had not heard me coming up.
‘Who are you?’ I asked bluntly.
He gave a start and turned towards me. At that moment an expression like relief appeared on his face, as though he and I had known each other for a long time.
‘The hedge needed a good cut,’ he said, without answering my question. ‘I felt I shouldn’t leave it to next week.’
He stretched out his hand to me with an absent-minded air. Bewildered by his confidence, I shook it, before pulling myself together.
‘It’s very kind of you, but you’ve done enough. Take your things and go now.’
He seemed both surprised and disappointed. One might have thought that I was changing my instructions or spoiling some long-expected joy.
‘Are you sure?’ He insisted, pointing at the untrimmed section of the hedge. ‘I should be finished this evening.’
‘Positive. Go away now.’
He lowered his eyes as though admitting to some fault. Then, looking up and overwhelming me with the infinite sadness of his eyes, he dared one last request to be forgiven:
‘Shall I carry the branches to the compost heap before I go?’
I became threatening and he dashed away. As I cast an eye at the hedge, I realised, not without some astonishment, that the cut was as good as a professional one. I went back to the house and closed the door, turning the key twice in the lock.
The following morning, when I left, the rest of the hedge had been trimmed and the branches had been cleared. The result was perfect.
A week later, I found the front gate freshly painted. A piece of paper had been attached to the handle: ‘I hope you like the colour. I will be back soon for the second coat.’ It was signed with a scribble. It took me some time to calm down and admit to myself that the generosity of my strange benefactor, however incongruous, was not worth getting so upset about. This lad was probably a lonely half-wit who was good with his hands. He was trying to buy my friendship with small services and would get tired when he realised that I wasn’t going to play ball. I remained concerned, however, and decided that if things were to continue, I would have to tell the police.
When I woke up the following day, as I looked through my kitchen window, I saw him again. He was standing in the garden, with a brush in his hand and his fingers full of paint. His smile was disarming.
‘I have painted the shutters!’ he shouted with great pride.
I felt a sudden rush of anxiety. I got out of the room and hid behind the door. He knocked gently at the window.
‘Sir? Are you there?’
With my back flat against the wall, and my temples throbbing, I screamed at him to go away. Silence returned. I remained still for a moment before mustering the courage to go out, after arming myself with a knife. He had painted the shutters of the twelve windows of the house, including those of the first floor. Again, the quality of the work was excellent.
That same day I went to the police. The officials whom I met recorded my statement with a casualness that was nearly offensive: they didn’t take me very seriously. It was not the end of the world, they said, in an attempt to dissuade me from lodging a complaint. I insisted nonetheless and was assured that the security in my area would be reinforced.
The lawn was entirely mown when I returned to the house. A note had been pinned to the front door informing me that the plants had also been sprayed with pesticides. Over the next few days, the intruder pruned the cherry tree, eradicated the moles, hoed the flowerbeds, installed a new letterbox, leveled the gravel in the yard and grouted a step that was cracked. He always did the work in my absence, most of the time during my working hours. Whenever I was out, even for a couple of minutes, he found some way of making himself useful. If I went to get the newspaper, I was certain to find that my flowers had been watered when I got back. His arrogant swiftness was a puzzle. I tried several times to catch him red-handed, and kept watch at the corner of my street, using binoculars—to no avail. He undid all my stratagems, managed his time with diabolic skill and systematically achieved his purpose. Whether he was an Invisible Man or a brilliant diviner, there was something supernatural about him.
I carefully kept track of all the small notes like a sly signature that the intruder left behind after committing his deeds: ‘I brought the rubble to the dump. The back of the garden is clear now. How would you like to have a new flower bush there?’ ‘I picked the gooseberries before they went off. The four buckets are in the shade, near the garage’. ‘There’s a nest of wasps in the roof. Next time, I’ll bring what’s needed and get rid of that for you.’ After collecting about fifteen notes of this kind, I went to the police to convince them to deal with the matter promptly. I provided them with a description of the intruder who had turned my life upside down. I tried to be as detailed as possible but I could clearly see how baffled they were by my insistence on having him put out of harm’s way.
Annoyed by their laid-back attitude, I decided to take care of my own protection, and set up a high barrier of barbed wire all around the garden. Inexplicably, this didn’t stop him from getting in. He grew ever more daring and even came into the house. (‘The garage door wasn’t closing properly, I fixed it. While I was at it, I cleaned out the basement and the ground-floor corridor. Your interior is tastefully decorated.’)
I got all the locks changed. I put bits of broken glass over the entrance and bars on the ground-floor windows. All to no avail. I stretched nylon fishing threads across the lawn to make him trip, dug a trench behind the hedge, scattered twenty or so mantraps across my property, set up an elaborate alarm system with CCTV cameras in the house—nothing worked. He never appeared on any of the surveillance footage. Two or three times a week, he managed to get into my home, and without a qualm indulged in his petty little games: he dusted, hung the laundry out to dry, cleaned the bathroom and watered the plants. One day, he thought of filling the fridge with food. Not content with being my handyman, he had decided to become the butler as well. Now I found some dishes already prepared on the kitchen table when I got home from work. They were always hot, and accompanied by a bottle of wine, at the perfect temperature. It was both extraordinary and terrifying.
The police came four times to my place, but couldn’t find any fingerprints or sign of a break-in. As they were leaving, one of them congratulated me on how lovely my garden was. I thought more and more seriously of moving house. The intruder had been tormenting me for too long, he knew more about my life than anybody else. No doubt he went through my papers when he tidied my desk; he knew my bank balance and the amount of my salary, he knew who my friends were thanks to my phone bills, read my mail and checked the hard drive of my computer. To protect my privacy, I bought two safes, which I had built into one of the cellar walls. He noticed, and three days later, he left a message on the sitting-room table, after hoovering: ‘These look like very sturdy safes. Your belongings will be secure there.’
The holidays came. I was on the verge of a nervous breakdown and gave up all thought of going away. I could not accept the idea of abandoning my house to the intruder who would surely seize this opportunity to invade the place. On my return, my name would no longer be on my letterbox nor my smell on my clothes. The intruder would have lived on me as a parasite, quite simply substituting himself for me, leaving me no other option but to live as his dependent, begging him to provide for my needs and occasionally letting me have back what used to be mine.
And it went on and on. He and I became some sort of paradoxical couple, each with our story, our secrets, and our routine. He did all he could to help me, I did all I could to obstruct him. Sometimes I found streaks of blood near the razor blades that I had stuck on the windowsills or near the knives that I had concealed in the hedge. He never complained, but continued silently to devote himself to helping me. In vain, I deployed all the power of my imagination to putting him off his chosen vocation. Despite my best efforts to dirty the house deliberately, everything was always impeccable when I came home. I made great show of throwing out the dishes that he had prepared for me and, in return, I received others still more tasty. Sometimes he gave me small presents, nothing expensive—he clearly didn’t have much money—but always well chosen. I ended up fearing that I might have to put up with him for the rest of my life and that perhaps we were going to die together. His dead body would follow mine into the coffin, which he would keep clean forever, while I would gradually decay.
In the end, I didn’t have to rid myself of him. He did that himself, stupidly, by trying too hard. One rainy evening, I heard some sort of explosion at the back of the garden. The power went out. I got a flash lamp, armed myself with one of the pistols, which I had bought to shoot the intruder, and went out. I could see a figure lying on the ground, near to the hedge, in front of the brand new electrified fence that I had just got installed. It was he: I recognised his blond hair and the fine features of his face. He had wire cutters in one hand and an enormous screwdriver in the other. I realised that he had tried to sabotage the system and had got electrocuted. His body shook with spasms. He was whispering. I approached cautiously, with the pistol in my hand, and heard him say: ‘The electrified barrier… I thought it would give you better protection against thieves if the voltage were increased… All I’ve left to do is change the settings to…’ He looked at the transformer with painful intensity but couldn’t complete his sentence.
I have often thought of him since and I imagine him as a volunteer, busy polishing the floors in heaven. Would I have got used to his invisible presence, if he had not gone a step too far? Lost in my big silent house, now rid of its unnecessary alarms, I cock my ear, both worried and impatient. I no longer have anyone to chase away. I miss him. Every evening, before going to sleep, I unlock my front door and leave it ajar, in case his ghost decides to come and haunt the house.
Translated from the French by Sandrine Brisset