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Good for Nothing

Already high, the sun shone obliquely into the street, lit it confusedly, projecting shadows from the roofs on to the walls of houses opposite, kindling fancy shop windows in dazzling gleams, popping out from unsuspected cracks to strike the faces of people bustling past each other on the crowded pavements.

I first saw the man with the light-coloured eyes at a crossroads, standing or walking, I can't rightly recall: he was getting nearer and nearer to me, that's for sure, so either I was walking towards him or vice versa. He was tall and thin, wore a light-coloured raincoat, and carried a tightly rolled umbrella hanging neatly from one arm. On his head he had a felt hat, once again light-coloured and with a wide round brim; immediately beneath were the eyes, large, cold, liquid, with a strange flicker at the corners. Thin as he was, with close-cropped hair, it was hard to tell how old he might be. In one hand he held a book, closed, but with a finger inside, as if to keep his place.

Immediately, I had the impression that his eyes were upon me, motionless eyes that took me in from head to toe, that didn't spare my back either, nor my insides. I looked away at once, but every few steps as I walked, I felt the urge to dart a glance at him, and each time I would find him nearer, and looking at me. In the end he was standing in front of me, an almost lipless mouth on the point of creasing into a smile. The man pulled a finger from his pocket, slowly, and used it to point downwards to my feet; it was then that he spoke, with a thin, rather humble voice.

'I beg your pardon,' he said, 'your shoelace is undone.'

It was true. Trodden and bedraggled, the two ends of the lace dangled at the sides of my shoe. I blushed a little, mumbled a 'Thank you', bent down.

Stopping in the street to tie up a shoe is annoying: especially when you stop as I did in the middle of the pavement, without a step or wall to put my foot on, kneeling on the ground, with people knocking against me. The man with the light-coloured eyes muttered a vague goodbye and went off at once.

But it was destiny that I should meet him again: not a quarter of an hour had passed before once again I found him standing in front of me, looking in a shop window. As soon as I saw him I was seized by an inexplicable urge to turn round and retreat, or better still to pass by as quick as I could, while he was intent on the window, in the hope he wouldn't notice. But no: already it was too late, the stranger had turned, had seen me, was looking at me, had something else he wanted to say to me. I stopped in front of him, afraid. The stranger had an even humbler tone.

'Look,' he said, 'it's undone again.'

I wanted to vanish into thin air. Without answering, I bent down to tie the lace with angry diligence. My ears were singing and I somehow felt the people passing by and knocking against me were the same people as had knocked against me and noticed me the first time, and that they were muttering ironic remarks to themselves.

But the shoe was tied good and tight now and I was walking along with a light sure step. Indeed, with a sort of unconscious pride, I was even hoping I'd run into the stranger again now, to recover my reputation as it were.

Yet no sooner had I taken a turn around the square to find myself a few yards away from him again, on the same pavement, than quite suddenly the pride that had been urging me on was replaced by dismay. For as he looked at me the stranger had an expression of regret on his face, and he came towards me gently shaking his head, as one pained by some natural fact beyond human control.

As I stepped forward, I squinted with apprehension at the guilty shoe; it was still as tightly tied as before. Yet to my dismay the stranger went on shaking his head for a while, then said:

'Now the other is undone.'

I felt the way you do in nightmares when you want to scrub the whole thing out, to wake up. I forced a grimace of rebellion, biting a lip as though to hold back a curse, then started yanking frantically at my laces again, crouched down in the middle of the street. I stood up, cheeks flushed beneath my eyes, and walked off head down, wanting nothing better than to escape the gaze of the crowd.

But the day's torture wasn't over yet: as I toiled home, hurrying, I could feel the loops of the bow slowly slipping over one another, the knot getting looser and looser, the laces very gradually coming undone. At first I slowed down, as though a little care would be enough to sustain the tangle's uncertain equilibrium. But I was still far from home and already the tips of the laces were trailing on the pavement, flopping this way and that. Then my walking became breathless, I was fleeing, as though from a wild terror: the terror that I would yet again come upon that man's inexorable gaze.

It was a small compact town where one went endlessly up and down the same few streets. Walking round it, you'd meet the same faces three or even four times in half an hour. Now I was marching across it as though in a nightmare, torn between the shame of being seen about with my shoelace yet again untied, and the shame of being seen bending down yet again to tie it. Eyes seemed to thicken and throng around me, like branches in a wood. I dived into the first doorway I found, to hide.

But at the back of the porch, in the half-light, hands resting on the handle of his tightly rolled umbrella, stood the man with the light-coloured eyes, and it was as though he were waiting for me.

At first I gaped in amazement, then hazarded something like a smile and pointed to my untied shoe, to stop him.

The stranger nodded with that sadly understanding expression he had.

'That's right,' he said, 'they're both undone.'

If nothing else the doorway was a quieter place to do up a shoelace, and, with a step to rest my foot on, more comfortable too, though standing behind and above me I had the man with the light-coloured eyes watching, missing not one move of my fingers, and I sensed his gaze in amongst them, muddling them up. But after all I'd been through, it didn't bother me any more now; I was even whistling as I tied those damned knots for the nth time, but tying them better now, being relaxed.

All would have been well had the man kept quiet, had he not started first to clear his throat, a little uncertainly, then to say all in a rush, with decision:

'I beg your pardon, but you still haven't learnt how to tie your laces.'

I turned to him, red in the face, still crouching down. I ran my tongue between my lips.

'You know,' I said, 'I'm hopeless at tying knots. You wouldn't believe it. As a child I never wanted to make the effort to learn. I take my shoes off and put them on again without untying them. I use a bootjack. I'm hopeless at knots, I get muddled. You wouldn't believe it.'

Then the stranger said something odd, the last thing you would have thought he might want to say.

'So,' he said, 'how will you teach your children, if you have any, to tie their shoes?'

But the strangest part was that I thought this over a moment and then answered, as if I'd already considered the question before and settled it and stored the answer away, somehow expecting that sooner or later someone would ask me.

'My children,' I said, 'will learn from others how to tie their shoes.'

Ever more absurd, the stranger came back:

'And if, for example, the great flood should come and the whole of humanity were to perish and you were the one chosen, you and your children, to continue the human race. How would you manage, have you ever thought about that? How would you teach them their knots? Because if you don't, heaven knows how many centuries might go by before humanity manages to tie a knot, to invent it over again!'

I couldn't make head or tail of this now, the knot or the conversation.

'But,' I tried to object, 'why should I of all people be the chosen one, as you put it, why me when I don't even know how to tie a knot?'

The man with the light-coloured eyes was against the light on the threshold of the door: there was something frighteningly angelic in his expression.

'Why me?' he said. 'That's how all men answer. And all men have a knot on their shoes, something they don't know how to do; an inability that binds them to others. Society depends on this asymmetry between people these days: a dovetailing of skills and incompetence. But the Flood? If the Flood came and one needed a Noah? Not so much a just man as a man able to bring along the few things it would take to start again. You see, you don't know to tie your shoes, somebody else doesn't know how to plane wood, someone else again has never read Tolstoy, someone else doesn't know how to sow grain and so on. I've been looking for him for years, and, believe me, it's hard, really hard; it seems people have to hold each other by the hand like the blind man and the lame who can't go anywhere without each other, but argue just the same. It means if the Flood comes we'll all die together.'

So saying he turned and disappeared in the street. I never saw him again and I still wonder whether he wasn't some strange maniac or an angel, for years roving the earth in vain in search of a second Noah.