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Neighbourhood Watch

by Anaïs Barbeau-Lavalette

translated by Rhonda Mullins

Coach House Books, Toronto

Original French copyright © Anaïs Barbeau-Lavalette and Éditions Hurtubise, 2010 English translation © Rhonda Mullins, 2020

First English-language edition. Originally published as Je voudrais qu’on m’efface by Éditions Hurtubise Inc., 2010.

Coach House Books acknowledges the financial support of the Government of Canada. We are also grateful for generous assistance for our publishing program from the Canada Council for the Arts and the Ontario Arts Council. Coach House Books also acknowledges the support of the Government of Canada through the Canada Book Fund.


Title: Neighbourhood watch / by Anaïs Barbeau-Lavalette ; translated by Rhonda Mullins.

Other titles: Je voudrais qu’on m’efface. English

Names: Barbeau-Lavalette, Anaïs, author. | Mullins, Rhonda, translator.

Description: Translation of: Je voudrais qu’on m’efface.

Identifiers: Canadiana (print) 2020036457x | Canadiana (ebook) 20200364618 | ISBN 9781552454176 (softcover) | ISBN 9781770566538 (EPUB) | ISBN 9781770566545 (PDF)

Classification: LCC PS8603.A705 J413 2020 | DCC C843/.6—dc23

Neighbourhood Watch is available as an ebook: ISBN 978 1 77056 653 8 (EPUB); 978 1 77056 654 5 (PDF)

Purchase of the print version of this book entitles you to a free digital copy. To claim your ebook of this title, please email sales@chbooks.com with proof of purchase. (Coach House Books reserves the right to terminate the free digital download offer at any time.)

To Geneviève, my little sister.

To Gilles Julien.

Author’s Note

I first encountered the neighbourhood of Hochelaga-Maisonneuve through its children, thanks to its children.

After travelling around the world, a trip during which I trained my camera (I am a filmmaker) on some of the planet’s fault lines – from people dying of AIDS in Soweto to street children in São Paulo – I searched for somewhere to help closer to home.

This is where I went. Toward this neighbourhood in eastern Montreal, one of the poorest in the country. Through the social pediatrician Gilles Julien, I was lucky enough to meet the person who would become my sister: Geneviève. I was twenty-one, and she was twelve. Holding Geneviève’s hand, I got to know this neighbourhood and the people who live there. Going into their homes, in the midst of the collapse, I met little fighters, so full of life.

I had the good fortune to spend years working with them. Now they are adults, some still seem like an open wound, and others are miraculously full of light. This book is what I wanted to scream to draw attention so they would be heard.

To Geneviève, Kevin, and Eden, who inspired this book.

To Nathan, Geneviève’s young son. From your proud godmother.

To all the little fighters in Hochelaga-Maisonneuve, and all the others around the world.

– Anaïs Barbeau-Lavalette



It’s been dark in the stairway for a few lifetimes.

Light bulbs need changing, but everyone thinks someone else is going to do it. Eventually everyone just forgets that it’s dark.

You sort of remember, only in winter, when you’re tying your laces and trying not to fall.

Roxane has always had trouble with her laces. Two rabbit ears, that’s what they say. But rabbit ears don’t look like that.

Anyway, one day she’s going to have boots and then fuck you, rabbits.

Roxane yanks her toque down on her head.

The pigeons are cooing in the ceiling. Roxane stops to listen.

If she were taller, she could peek between the boards to look at them. They must be settled in nicely, huddled together so they don’t freeze. The dad, the mom, and the babies, all huddled up.


Kevin’s little voice. He’s the neighbour in 62. When he talks, he flings his words. It’s like they are going too fast for him, like they come out of his mouth and take off running. He’s like that too. Uncontained. Right now he’s trying to get his key in the lock, but he’s so jumpy that it goes every which way but in the keyhole. Roxane watches him. There, it’s in.


He tears down the stairs.

He must be going to a match. He’s been going to more ever since his mom took off. His father is Big, and Big always wins. Kevin wants to be like his father. He wants to win.

Roxane holds the handrail so she doesn’t fall. She goes down slowly, looking at her feet.

On the next floor down, Mélissa throws opens the door to 58. Her bangs hide her eyes. It’s as if she would rather stay hidden. The bangs are a compromise: I’m going, but you won’t see my face.

Today is judgment day.

* * *


A virtually empty hearing room. Beige walls, brown benches. Wordless whispers in the air. Background noise with no substance, no personality. It’s like everyone has worked hard to make it feel dead. Like they left life outside the door, waiting for this to pass: inside, it’s just too rough to take.

From behind her bangs, Mélissa’s eyes scan the few faces that have come to hear the decision. She doesn’t know them. She can’t grab on to any of them, even with just her eyes, even through her hair. There’s her mother. But she’s sitting at the other end.

Weathered. Even skinnier than last time. High as a kite.

She sits on the other side of the hearing room, hunched, shrunken. Her whole body says, ‘Don’t do this to me.’ But Mélissa is the only one who hears it. Even though she is far away. She hears it. Because even hunched, even fucked up to her core, Meg is her mother. That’s what the people here don’t understand. Meg is her mother, no matter what.

It’s probably just too simple.

Mélissa knows they put Meg at the other end on purpose so she can’t grab her, hold on to her with her eyes, hold her tight.

Mélissa at one end, Meg at the other. Daughter, mother.

A few weary faces that feed on the decisions like a bad soap opera.

A tired judge takes three sentences to say that

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