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#27 The Girl From Rouen (1/2)
Morning all, welcome to another edition of Story Press. To jump right in, this is the first full short story I ever wrote, inspired by a painting by Edvard Munch. I wrote it when I was really enjoying the Russian writers, Turgenev, Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Gogol etc. Perhaps you can tell…
Marie-Anne is a girl living in England, who, having grown older, meets someone from her youth who threatens everything.
The Girl From Rouen (1/2)
A young, dark couple kissed handsomely on the Ponte Vecchio. I smiled and said something like: ‘They’re a delightful pair’. Noticing my comment and the smile that accompanied it, my friend Joseph Garcia looked at me gravely and said: ‘The kiss can be deceiving, my friend. That couple reminds me of a story I’m going to tell you that I will never forget. Here it is.’ And we sat on a bench nearby, and Joseph talked as the couple walked off along the bridge and out of sight. The evening sun wavered.
‘Little Marie-Anne Bresson,’ he started with his usual flourishes, ‘moved to Broadstairs in England from Rouen, in the years after the war, when she was two-and-a-half years old. Her father’s lucrative trade business required it. Her mother scolded the move but their situation, on the whole, improved. The cooperation of the family returned financial benefits from the company and their fair home was warm and enviable.
‘The family’s English was poor at first, but because Marie-Anne’s habits were mostly unformed, she quickly became the leading English linguist in the house. By the time she was six her father was asking her, while lounging bespectacled on a deckchair, beneath a blanket-blue sky with a paper in his hand, ‘Marie-Anne, come here to Papa. What is,’ then studying closely the paper through his thick frames, ‘hill-arry-oos’?’
‘‘Hilarious, Papa. Mrs. Benton says it all the time and then laughs like a crazy person. Like this.’ Little Marie-Anne put both hands on her stomach and leaned back, imitating Mrs Benton, and let out, ‘A-ha-ha-ha-ha! Just like that, Papa. So I think hilarious is funny.’
‘‘Ahh yes, funny. Why not just say funny?’ He smiled back at her.
‘‘People are silly.’
‘Despite Marie-Anne’s lively nature, one day when she was eight she came home from school notably jovial. She ran around the house, often stopping to ask her mother odd questions like: ‘Do you like my hair today, Mama?’ And she made open-ended declarations like: ‘The air has never been so fresh, Mama!’
Noticing her daughter’s buoyancy Mrs Bresson asked with a laugh, ‘And how was your day Marie-Anne?’
‘‘My day was splendid, Mama. We played the kissing game and I kissed Michael.’
‘‘You did, did you?’
‘‘It was only on the cheek, Mama. But I’ll never forget it. His cheeks are so soft! Have you ever had a kiss like that, Mama?’
‘‘Oh, yes, my dear. Your father’s cheeks used to be soft.’
‘‘Ugh, I can’t imagine Papa’s cheeks soft. Especially with that beard!’
‘‘Would you like to have Michael over for dinner some time?’
‘‘Oh no, Mama. I don’t know him very well.’
‘‘Well, you’ll have to get to know him.’ Her mother spoke softly as she patted Marie-Anne on her dark hair, and Marie-Anne ran away to her room to dream of Michael. Marie-Anne’s mother laid the table for dinner and they all sat down and ate.
‘When Marie-Anne was fourteen she fast became a young woman. Her cheeks were not so round, nor her stomach, and her legs were thin and reminded her father of her mother’s. Her cheeks were always flushed, and her loveliness was in her simplicity. All and sundry silently remarked that she attained that sort of grace that belonged among the tall grass and the daisies and the sun.
‘At school she was ‘Little Miss Popular’ because of her honest charm, her generosity, and her sporting prowess. Her being captain of all the girls’ teams and her unwillingness to say a bad word about anybody meant that she had many friends. Michael - the very same - was her precise counterpart. He was fair and fine for a boy of fourteen, he was elected Head Boy two years before he was due because of the rogue electorate, a testament to his popularity, and he had a natural aptitude for words and won all the spelling competitions by a landslide. Playing football during their lunch break, when that white ball flung about the schoolyard to bellows and beats in low winter mists, Michael was always in the thick of things wearing his green jersey and white shorts commanding respect for his skill and finesse.
‘As per school traditions, the most popular boy and most popular girl were pushed, if not naturally swayed, to be a collective item. Marie-Anne, with her dark French hair and dark French eyes, and Michael, the princely sportsman, were only too willing to oblige for the sake of social status if for nothing else. The social circles of the school all gravitated around the King and Queen and their childhoods were adorned with obsequious servants and privilege throughout these years, as only a King and Queen could compare.
‘Naturally, they spent much of this period of their youth together. They would go down to the sands of Broadstairs after school and wander along the shallow edge of the sea, pointing at rogue breakers and laughing at the seagulls sitting atop thin wavelets as they capered one way and the other. When the sun receded, the darkness loomed and the wind chilled, pushing Marie-Anne’s hair all over, Michael stole a dark coastal kiss in which the coldness of their lips and cheeks and the salty, dry air made Marie-Anne feverish. Michael would walk her home in time for dinner and they would stand around the corner of the next road under the paternal gaze of the streetlight and kiss further. He would whisper to her, ‘Goodbye Little One,’ and she would say, ‘Goodbye’. They would share a last cool kiss and Marie-Anne would think of all the people in Broadstairs settling down for dinner in the cottage-warmth of their little homes and that nobody was as warm as she was and nobody was sharing as sacred a kiss as she was in that moment. Marie-Anne knew she could forget about all else in the world so long as she had those to warm her at night and to wake her in the mornings.
‘As things happened, life was not so permitting. When little Marie-Anne was fifteen, when she and all fifteen-year olds perched on the precipice of the rest of their lives, a turn to reality was taken. One day, it seemed out of nowhere, Michael gave Marie-Anne nothing but the whisking air of his wake as he passed her in the schoolyard, just as one passes any old nobody on the street.
‘The very first night of the very first blow, Marie-Anne ran all the way home strangled by her tears. She tossed herself face first into her pillow and heaved, wept, and howled. Every now and again, when she thought her turmoil was ceasing, she would feel the entire moment again. She felt repeatedly the coldness and indifference in his eyes, the emptiness he left her in behind him, the swallowing of her tears that choked in her neck. She pummelled her pillow with a fist as though it were his face and wept all over again. When she was tired, she flung her face into the pillow to kiss it as though it were his.
‘The severing of the relationship dominated schoolyard gossip. Marie-Anne, lacking the tact and tenacity that only age can teach, drenched the fire of this sardonic chatter in fuel by resigning from public life. She no longer stood with her entourage at the football games to cheer on the boys, no longer entertained crowds of kids with her charm and wit, nor did she participate in any of her clubs and teams. Instead, she sulked and surrendered into obscurity in the school’s library. She crouched like a kitten, camouflaged with her dark hair in the shadows between the book stands in the back corner where nobody would see her reading Dickens.
‘Michael, for his part, continued to kick that white ball all over the place, only with more grit and less gaiety than he used to. He pushed and shoved his way to the ball and once he had it, he had no intention of giving it up. The jeers and sneers at his new playing style never made it into his comprehension. It was as if his senses had been numbed.
‘Perhaps two months later Michael stopped going to school. It took much longer than everybody else for Marie-Anne to notice Michael’s absence. Word spread across the school as quick as nits, but Marie-Anne’s abdication left her out of the loop. The news had surprisingly little effect on her. It was the case that, as in many things, one’s solitude often becomes one’s biggest enemy. Her private ruminations fermented and fumed like a witch’s cauldron. She developed a hatred for Michael that she had never known of anything before. Her affable personality left her weak against the temptation to hate, never before having been put to such a test.
‘She loathed Michael.
‘Marie-Anne’s attention was then diverted. She held on to that abhorrence, but the preoccupation of her final exams left her less lifeless than she had been earlier. Her results were, across the board, substandard. Her parents excused the results because they attributed her academic record to a nationwide chauvinism in which French people all over England were treated as second-rate citizens. This proclivity came from a colleague of Marie-Anne’s father whose son dropped out of school and the father blamed ‘the system’. Nonetheless, Marie-Anne did not pursue further education and her melancholy deprived her of the drive to correct the situation. She resigned to taking a job at the waterfront café where she worked every day from six in the morning till six at night. The morning was her favourite time of the day in one part because when she woke up she had not yet recalled the anchors that weighed her life down, and in the other part due to the walk along the coast that reminded her of books and paintings she had known that tricked her into living the life of someone else for a short while.
‘When Marie-Anne was twenty-two she had risen to a managing role at the café. Mr. Boyd, the owner, a letch with a taste for younger girls schemed after Marie-Anne passively. One way was by making her acting manager while he romped and rollicked around the establishment doing nothing at all. Whether it was the work, the sea-air, or another thing, something had worn her down so that she lacked the grace of her youth. Her eyes were dark but no longer contrasted finely with the brightness of her overall face – it was all dark. Her wan skin no longer gleamed with her bright blushed cheeks, those very cheeks that were once so charming and elegant now made her look overworked. Nevertheless, she was still recognised, wistfully with a sigh, as the vivacious ‘Little Miss Popular’ who led the social revolutions of yesteryear.
‘At twenty-four she accepted the first proposition made to her of marriage. The man was neither wealthy nor straitened. He ran an art gallery in a neighbouring town and lived primarily off of a modest but effective inheritance from his uncle. He was two years older than her and was neither good-looking nor unsightly.
‘The couple lived together in the town of Whitstable where the gallery was. While he was working, Marie-Anne befriended the locals and entertained their whims and fancies much as she had in the schoolyard of her youth. She had not an unhappy life in Whitstable. She even met some of her compatriots there who had moved to England from Le Havre, Fécamp, and Dieppe.
‘When she was thirty her husband returned home with some delightful news for her. The gallery had commissioned him to tour London and to start a foundation for the gallery’s own private collection. They would be going to London together, expenses paid, for a month.
‘They travelled up by train and were welcomed with magnanimity at a hotel just south of St. James’s Park. Marie-Anne had been to London a few times before but only when she was very young, when it all passed before her eyes like a dizzying kaleidoscope. For the first five days they went all over London to the most popular galleries and auction-houses. Her husband bought up several paintings and a sculpture to be sent back to Whitstable for the private collection.
‘On the sixth day, a Friday evening, they were in attendance at a private view in Somerset House. The artist was an unknown impressionist and his work was found by Marie-Anne to be highly amusing. There were perhaps one hundred and fifty people there and in the centre of it all Marie-Anne flourished as she entertained the curious minds of the artist and his friends. Her husband had disappeared with a member of the staff attaining a receipt of transaction for a painting.
‘The artist regaled them with a story of when he was painting a landscape and it had begun to rain and he had no cover for his easel and canvas.
‘‘All of a sudden the rain came tumbling down and down and down and I was standing under a pine tree hugging my canvas like a fool. Out of nowhere a group of girl scouts came marching out of the woods! They must have seen me standing there, trying to protect my art like a mad man, and they all stopped and laughed at me. I was so angry that, in the flash of the moment, I forgot about my art and I ran after these girls like a crazy person. In the end I tripped on a log. I got neither the girls nor the painting.’
‘‘So the moral is…?’ Marie-Anne asked.
‘‘Always bring an umbrella!’ The small crowd bellowed with laughter as did Marie-Anne. She looked beautiful that evening as she had lost all the turmoil of her disappointing adolescence, of her poor years at the café in Broadstairs, and of her plain marriage.
‘But in the middle of her hearty laugh she went deathly pale! In the fleeting ripple of an instant a long ingrained form passed before her eyes. The form passed seemingly leagues away but it was the indubitable face of fear itself amongst all the other faces there that night, and Marie-Anne, caught with her guard down in unrelenting happiness, began to tremble like a leaf in a mountain gust. The slightest presence of mind she retained helped her catch her glass from her own quivering hands but her legs seemed to liquefy beneath her.
‘She excused herself from her party and went in search of her husband. She passed through thick clouds of people, feeling disgusted by their indifference to her predicament. She mumbled, ‘Excuse me,’ delicately but before giving anybody a chance to move she had already barged them aside.
‘Lost in the crowd and too short to see above these towering Londoners she shoved and elbowed even more forcibly, determined to escape this waking pain. Just as she was about to give up, a firm hand caught her arm and she melted with joy at the knowing touch of her husband’s hand. She turned with a smile only to see the firm, handsome face from her childhood.
‘It was Michael.’