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#28 The Girl From Rouen (2/2)
Good morning everyone! This week, we finish The Girl From Rouen, which we started two weeks ago. Here, we pick up the tale two friends regale in Florence, of Marie-Anne, who meets Michael, her childhood romance, after many years apart.
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#28 The Girl From Rouen (2/2)
‘After suffering the consequences of Michael’s foolish, capricious behaviour and setting her sights on ambitions for the future, she was thrust into the inevitable position of having to face the bane of her youth. That faint wet film was beginning to cover her irises in anticipation of tears.
‘‘Marie-Anne. It’s Michael from school. Do you remember me? I thought I recognised that hair and those eyes. I had to know if it was you.’
‘Poor Marie-Anne! She was void of words for fear of relieving only a tempestuous cry. Her little lips trembled and she pulled a face that said, ‘Yes, it is me. Yes, I remember!’
‘She studied his face and she was astonished by the degree of youth he had retained. She knows those soft cheeks! The cheeks that had been with her since the first moment and somehow they still existed on this Earth.
‘‘How are you? How have you been? What are you doing here?’ The questions drew her back into reality. She remembered then why she feared him, why she had run to her husband when she saw him, why she had detested him for so long.
‘‘I’m here with my husband,’ she said dismissively, as to make a point. It required all the courage she could gather and she was proud of her effort.
‘‘Your husband? Oh, I see. You’re married, congratulations!’ he said.
‘‘Goodness,’ he started, ‘you’re still as beautiful as I remember. I hope you don’t mind my saying so.’
‘‘Thank you,’ she replied. Then she looked around anxiously and said to Michael, ‘I have to go, Michael. So good to see you.’
‘‘You do?’ he asked. ‘Where are you going? The evening only just started.’
‘‘I can’t hang around. There are many other exhibitions to visit, you see.’
‘‘That’s a shame.’ Marie-Anne saw his honesty, it was the same way he used to speak down at the beach of Broadstairs, ‘Listen, how long are you in town for? Can we meet? I would really like to see you.’
‘‘I don’t know.’ little Marie-Anne was drowning there, unknowing of what to say.
‘‘Listen, I understand. I understand everything. I’m staying at the Savoy. I’ll be there from twelve till two tomorrow in the lobby. Come and meet me, we’ll talk, have a coffee, that’s all!’
‘Marie-Anne did not know what to say, she was flustered and feverish and had to get away. She did so without saying a word. Michael watched her walk away. Marie-Anne, to her luck, found her husband rather quickly after that. She told him that she was not feeling well and ought to head back to the hotel. He did not question her for she really did look ill. Her husband, however, was not done at all that evening. It was quite important that he stayed there because some of these paintings, he was sure, would be worth a lot of money down the road. They agreed that she would go back to their hotel alone and he would meet her there later if she was not already asleep.
‘Marie-Anne left Somerset House and, stepping out into the wintry night, she began to cry soft, unknowing, tears. She made it back to the hotel and threw herself down on her bed exactly as she did at fifteen. She punched and kissed and wept into the pillow with all the vigour of the girl half her age once had. She lamented the cruel confusion of the world and supplicated to the darkness asking why she had been chosen to be tortured in this way. She ran the scene through her head many times, the poor girl, asking what his sonorous voice might have meant by, ‘I understand. I understand everything.’ She saw his face and it was the face of the eight year old Michael in the schoolyard, then the face of the fifteen year old on the sands of Broadstairs, and then his face that night. She was utterly lost.
‘The following morning Marie-Anne and her husband breakfasted together. She sat quietly buttering bread and taking small, uncertain nibbles from it.
‘‘Are you feeling better this morning?’ asked her husband.
‘’Yes, thank you,’ she said.
‘‘So you’ll come to the show this afternoon?’
‘Marie-Anne looked at him for a moment, as if making up her mind there and then, she looked down at her bread and said, ‘Yes, of course I will.’
‘Minutes passed and Marie-Anne’s husband was telling her about the paintings that he bought the previous night. She watched his lips moving up and down, in and out, watched his moustache twitch and his eyebrows wriggle. She nodded obligingly and silently sighed. Then she said, out of the blue, ‘Actually, dear, I totally forgot. I’ve been invited to lunch with some old school friends this afternoon. You don’t mind do you?’
‘‘Mind? Of course not. It’s good to remain acquaintances with one’s schoolfellows. You never know when they might come to good use.’ Marie-Anne said not a word more. She smiled at him and look down at her bread. ‘‘I will see you later then. What time will you be done?’
‘‘Oh, I won’t still be lunching at three.’
‘‘Quite right. We’ll reconvene afterwards.’
‘Marie-Anne waited nervously in their room all morning, looking out of the window at the people in the street. People, as blurs and shadows, wandered by one way and the other. Eventually the time came to leave and she went over to the Savoy. She told herself that she was only going to find out what happened to him, why he avoided her, why he left school. After all, she was a married woman, not unhappily so as I have already told you, and she would be proudly so in Michael’s company.
‘As she entered the lobby, Michael saw her straight away. He stood up and looked at her. She stood still and looked at him. He was taller than she remembered. Handsomer too. He wore a long navy trench-coat and a suit and his black hair was combed over one side, sharply, like a blackbird’s wing. She felt it a long walk across the black and white chequered chess board of a floor and she felt as though every step was a step that cannot be undone, much like a real game of chess.
‘When she finally stood in front of him he smiled at her and said, ‘Hello Marie-Anne.’ She returned the greeting.
‘Neither person knew how to begin. Naturally, Michael took the lead.
‘‘How have you come to be in London?’
‘‘My husband is a very successful art curator,’ she said deceitfully. ‘We are building a private collection.’
‘‘How interesting…,’ he remarked.
‘‘How about yourself?’ She asked politely. She looked around her, racked with guilt, beginning to think that the whole thing might have been a ruse and her husband would emerge from any corner and declare her a cheater and a slut.
‘‘I work in the City, a client of mine is staying here,’ he said, trying, and failing, not to sound pretentious.
‘‘Uh huh.’ she mumbled.
‘‘Listen…,’ he said, as if to broach some personal topic. Before he was given the opportunity to extend his sentence, however, Marie-Anne sharply asked, ‘Why did you leave school?’
‘Michael started as if he had been gravely accused of something, looked at her vexed. ‘You mean to say you didn’t know…, don’t know?’
‘‘Of course not, nobody knew,’ she declared impatiently.
‘‘What? Somebody must’ve known. Broadstairs is a small town. People know everything.’
‘‘Well…, my father died,’ he said.
‘‘What?’ She replied, ‘That was why you left?’
‘‘My mother did not want to stay there. We moved in with my Aunt and Uncle for a while.’
‘‘Oh,’ she said. Marie-Anne thought herself a damned fool. She almost felt like laughing. Years of torment and hatred piled on this poor boy’s soul because he grieved his father’s death. She felt like hugging him and kissing him and apologising for all the years of hatred. Of course, however, he knew nothing of that. And her memory of their great kiss turned bitter by the years of manipulation and sour thoughts. ‘And me? That’s why you stopped talking to me?’
‘‘Not just you, dear. Everyone. God, I was in quite a state. I became aggressive, I became my own worst enemy. I kept all my feelings in me and let it out through sport. I was removed from the football team and from all the other teams. I suppose, looking back, maybe I needed you more than I knew and instead I pushed you away. I am sorry for that.’
‘‘Goodness, don’t be!’ She let out almost uncontrollably. How sorry she felt for the little boy of fifteen.
‘After this conversation they began to enjoy each other’s company more. She recalled the reddish walks on the beaches of Broadstairs, the way he called her Little One at parting, and so on. They laughed together and lamented together and recalled the life stories of old friends and teachers. Only as Marie-Anne thought she had completed the end of the beginning of the conversation did she glance at her watch and exclaim, ‘God, Michael. It’s half past three! I have to go. I am sorry.’
‘‘Oh, yes, I suppose you are right. I really ought to do some work today! How long are you here for?’
‘‘Three more weeks,’ she returned.
‘‘Can I see you again?’
‘‘Would you like to go for dinner? I would like to meet your husband.’
‘‘Oh, yes,’ she said. She thought of her husband’s schedule and knowing that he had to go to a show the following Friday, suggested that day.
‘‘Oh, next Friday is perfect,’ he replied.
‘‘And will your wife be coming?’ Marie-Anne asked curiously.
‘‘My wife? What are you talking about? I am not married.’
‘‘Oh, my mistake,’ she said apologetically.
‘‘I’ll meet you at your hotel at half past seven,’ he suggested.
‘‘Make it half past eight,’ she returned with a sweet smile, ‘My stomach is never ready for food till a little later.’
‘The following Friday arrived. Marie-Anne’s husband left at seven thirty to be at his show for eight. At eight thirty, she walked down to the lobby of her hotel and found Michael waiting for her there. To be sure, she did not deceive her husband on the matter with any intention. Rather, she felt transported by Michael’s company back to the frivolous, lofty, moments of her youth. She wanted to live that without worries or consequences, without cares. She felt that she deserved that after her long days at the café and her constant suffering when she was fifteen.
‘They went to dinner.
‘‘It’s a shame your husband could not join us,’ remarked Michael.
‘‘Yes, unfortunately business called on him. That happens a lot as we are here only under special circumstances.’
‘‘I would like to meet him some day.’
‘‘Perhaps later he will join us,’ she said.
‘The dinner passed before her eyes like those memories of their teen years. As she ate, she felt as though she might have been walking on the sands at Broadstairs with him, walking hand in hand, laughing and kissing. She was so weak for a memory. And when he walked her back to her hotel and she invited him up to meet her husband, even his gracious acceptance made her smile and tremble with glee.
‘As they entered the room Michael noticed that nobody was there. Marie-Anne knew nobody was there for it was not even eleven and her husband never returned before twelve.
‘‘What a shame! He must still be on his business call,’ she said.
‘‘That is a shame,’ Michael concurred.
‘Marie-Anne walked over to the window and looked out onto the half-dark of the streets only timidly lit by silvery street lights like the street lights she used to be kissed under. She thought of that kiss they used to share, like a special pact, a toothsome bond, that nobody but them could know. It was that kiss, she thought, more than anything else, that made Michael hold such a weight in her heart. It was that kiss, she concluded, that she wanted more than anything else on Earth.
‘She turned around to Michael and stepped toward him with intent. With a feeling of discomfort at the quiet Michael whispered, ‘I suppose I better be off. It is getting, a little bit, sort of, late.’
‘Marie-Anne, for her part, did not listen to his words. She took one step at a time toward him, growing more and more intent on her actions. What a kiss it would be! Years and years apart to collide once more in that dark, amorphous kiss. What poetic, ethereal beauty would carry her from there! How could she not now when her appetite was so taunted. And nobody would know a thing! She threw her dark hair over her shoulders in one swift movement and set her dark eyes, as dark as the shadows of the room only lit by the moon and the street, on him and flung her sopping wet lips onto his! Long gone, fleeting moments from her youth, the schoolyard and the smell of the dinner in the kitchen when she told her mother of her first kiss and the sea-air and the wavelets and the seagulls and the white of the footballs and the Little Ones, they all melted around her brain and her heart. Her fingers and nails clawed at his head with animal zeal. And then she felt him kissing back. She felt herself traversing the wet stepping stones to the unknown on the other bank of the river!
‘Michael sank his arms around her waist and she pulled him, or he pulled her, up into the curtains beside the window. The couple, with their dark interlocking hair and dark eyes fell into the deep shadows untouched by the slantwise moon-gaze. There they melted into the darkness. Michael, astonished by his counterpart’s actions, recalled their status as King and Queen of the school and how they’d be King and Queen again.
‘As their lips intertwined at one angle and another he let his hands climb up her nimble spine to relieve her from her dress. In the clamour he began to tug at the zip at her back and, god willing, it relented and succumbed to his wish!
‘Marie-Anne knew nothing of this action because she was drunk and dumb in the moment of the kiss. When she felt a sharp, icy cold hand clasp at her back she was so overcome with shock and pure horror that she gave the most dissident squeal. The kiss! It was all for the kiss! She had no forethought for the consequences of the kiss! In her youth no forethought was necessary. In her youth she did not think twice! But like everything else in her youth, the kiss did not have consequences then.
‘In youth a kiss was free! Adults are prone to consequences and that, we can be sure, is their greatest weakness.
‘Her eruption gave Michael a grave start. He jumped back away from her and thought that he had caused her harm. Marie-Anne trembled violently and screamed for him to get out. Michael, ashen-faced, erected himself from the floor and straightened himself up. He mumbled a few words of apology that were fermented with confusion, the last of which were probably ‘Little One’. He quickly opened the door and was gone.
‘Marie-Anne was left half-naked in the dark with her tears.’
The Ponte Vecchio was far in the past now. The sun had long ago reclined beneath the fluted Florentine rooftops and Joseph Garcia and I were hungry. We walked all the way to the Piazza Santa Spirito and stopped there for dinner.
Join me next time for a brand new story of a man who remembers a moment from his childhood, about his father, that he had never thought of until he is standing in front of a painting in a Tokyo Museum.