It was on page thirteen of Le Figaro, among items of national interest: an appeal by Monseigneur Jérôme Vallon on behalf of the Carmelite nuns of Nîmes for information relating to one of their community. After twenty- eight years of contemplative life, Soeur Agathe had disappeared. The order wanted to know that she was safe and well.
On the stairs, I pass Mme Perrault brandishing a polish-encrusted cloth and intent on delaying all comers. I engage without stopping: most of the con- cierges I know are mentally unhinged and ours is no exception.
Out in the bitter January morning, something between a wind and a gale, armed with invisible nails, is travelling down the street. I fix my scarf around my mouth and nose. I try to see what Soeur Agathe would see on her first day in the world after three decades of devotion to a higher cause. She shadows me on my usual route: past Sabbia Rosa’s delectable lingerie, the antique map shop, the art boutiques, Cartier, Sonia Rykiel, the book- stores, the bars and restaurants made famous in the fifties. We arrive at the square where traffic is already building and exhaust fumes dance in the air. Women of our age and older, impeccable even in extremes of temperature, make their solitary way along the pavements.
She won’t have shopped for a while so I take her on a tour of the food aisles in Monoprix on rue de Rennes. My life, as I choose my fruit and inhale the perfume of fresh bread, seems sweet. Already, in my head, a letter is composing itself:
Dear Soeur Agathe,
I have read about you in Le Figaro and I would like to invite you to Paris. Come for a week or a month. We will shop and stroll and sit in the Café de Flore (a small extravagance), drinking coffee and eating hard-boiled eggs with toasted brioche. We will talk about your life, and about mine. I have hundreds of books and an extensive music collection. I especially like jazz, the bluesy kind. I can offer you a sofa bed which is really very comfortable. The Sixth, where I live, is quiet and safe.
But quiet and safe is what she has just fled from, and hardly without deep and painful consideration. It is noisy where I live, and increasingly dangerous, but one gets used to it…? No. It wouldn’t do to begin with lies.
It’s been a long time since anyone stayed with me. I fill the trolley with the usual things, adding a tub of tabbouleh, just to see. I wheel my purchases around to Dispatch, give my details for the afternoon delivery and take with me enough food for lunch. At the snack bar, I place my coat and scarf on a neighbouring stool and plan to defend it with the expected arrival of my imaginary friend, should anyone enquire. I order a pain aux raisins with an espresso. I don’t usually take a pastry because I am not much given to physical exercise and so I have to be careful about what I eat.
How long before she tells me everything? I will, of course, want to know how she closed the door on twenty-eight years, and why. How long had she been preparing? Where did the seed come from that grew into a ladder of escape? Did it come by invitation or by accident? Or did she step, heed- lessly, through an open garden gate into the pale January street to be swept along on the hypnotic pulse of a town bent in perpetual adoration of slick, forgiving, more comfortable gods? And was she then unable to return?
‘So,’ she will turn her brand new eyes on me. ‘Tell me about you.’
Where to start? Will I say that I was born into a household in the grip of rules and penalties and random affection? That my sister was five years younger and we were never friends? That the garden around the house boasted perfect lawns and flowerbeds and a lily pond where unwanted kit- tens met their end? That outside my bedroom window was a tree bearing apples the same heroic red as Maman’s lipstick? Those apples clung to their branches up to the feasts of saints and spirits when most of the trees were bare. After falling, they lay a long time on the ground seemingly in- tact while the underside was devoured by fat, white maggots. My spine retains a memory of the shock I felt when I saw that. Sometimes it’s best – Papa told me – not to turn things over. I will expect her to understand why I would not have questioned his wisdom.
As for the rest, she may not approve. But approval is, I think, generally overrated.
I wander back to the apartment. Mme Perrault pokes her head out as I cross the vestibule.
‘Monsieur is already above,’ she says reverently. ‘Monsieur?’
It’s Tuesday: I’m not expecting Bertrand. Her eyebrows rise at least two centimetres. (He gives her a box of chocolates at Christmas.)
‘Ah, yes,’ I say. ‘Thank you, Madame.’
And indeed, there he is, seated on the blue brocade chair by the window
where the light is good, folding Le Figaro as I enter.
‘Why is your mobile turned off?’ he says.
‘It’s in the bedroom, charging.’
‘Why don’t you charge it at night, like everyone else? I was on the point of leaving.’
‘Did we have an arrangement for today?’
He comes over to where I’m standing and puts a pouting face against mine. The appearance of woe comes naturally to him.
‘Bertrand, it’s Tuesday.’
‘But Estelle has gone to the country to spoil our son while his Sarah Bern- hardt of a wife is in hospital. So, here I am, with you. Tell me you’re over- joyed to see me.’
‘How is the little drama queen?’
I should explain that a part of my life – too big a part – is lived in the an- teroom of a family, behind a wall of one-way glass. I see them all, know them all, and only Bertrand sees me. Central Paris holds two million souls: once we are discreet, there is little danger of exposure. I know what the menopause is doing to Estelle and that she suffers from in-growing toe- nails. I know that their son Hugues was a child given to stealing from his mother’s purse, and biting. I know things about Bertrand that only Estelle should know. Once or twice, I have suspected that behind yet another wall of one-way glass there may be another woman, younger perhaps and with a bolder gaze, who sees what I see but who also sees me.
‘Ah! I’m sure it’s nothing more than anxiety. Once the baby arrives, she’ll have to pull herself together.’ His expression softens. ‘I can’t believe it. You know, I look in the mirror and say to myself: Bertrand, you are too young to be a grandfather. And I am. I am too young, aren’t I?’
More than a smile, a golden ray of anticipation illuminates his face: until this birth he has been only a husband and a father. I would have liked chil- dren of my own, a regular family, but the time has passed.
The baby, as we already know, is a girl. Her name will be Aude. Weekend visits will produce an endless stream of descriptions. On the flat, dull surface of my life he will construct images of her loveliness. There will be photographs, DVDs, anecdotes in abundance. I will never set my eyes on her but I will come to know her face, her endearing ways, as well as any mother. Hugues was sixteen when I met Bertrand but Aude will be new: she will inhabit by right our time together and I will be unable to keep her out.
‘What did you bring?’ He teases open the side of the shopping bag. ‘Ham and olives – good. But what on earth is tabbouleh? What were you thinking, Marianne?’
‘So, food is what you came for?’ I say, swatting away his hand. ‘You know you are my food, my nourishment.’
It amazes me that he can still say these things.
There is a link, of course, between sex and food. In the early stage of our relationship, sex was like a portion of foie gras: if it slipped off a plate in the kitchen to be accidentally trodden on by an over-worked sous-chef, it would still be delicious. With foie gras, what you get is seldom less than you expect. But, over time, sex comes to resemble foie gras less and onion soup more. Onion soup is a dish that can be spoilt by any one of a num- ber of minor things: too much salt, too much bread (or the wrong sort), an excess or a shortage of liquid, poor quality cheese transformed into an impenetrable lid. At its best, it is the most satisfying food; at its worst, it is indigestible and potentially life-threatening.
He must, like me, be disappointed sometimes, bored by the routine, frus- trated by the dead-end nature of it. But he never says. Our compensations have been modest: an occasional weekend in the country, a few days mid- week in another city on the pretext of work. Time stolen from his company, intimacy stolen from his wife: the thief is Bertrand. And I? An accomplice, maybe, often the beneficiary, but not the primary guilty party. I no longer think too much about that aspect of it. I have had to accept that he means more to me than I to him, though I have no one to betray.
He kisses the sensitive spot on the nape of my neck. I would like to be strong but, when all is said and done, I too have my needs.
Almost an hour later we are becalmed, our limbs mingled in familiar disar- ray. It is that bittersweet moment between the glow of union and the chill of imminent separation.
‘Did you read about the nun?’ I ask. ‘What nun?’
‘In Le Figaro. She absconded from an enclosed order after twenty-eight years. Can you imagine?’
‘I must have skipped over it.’
‘They’re appealing for information.’
‘Alzheimer’s,’ he says. ‘She’ll be wandering around some shopping arcade.’
‘She can’t be much older than me.’
‘Depression. They should be dragging the river.’
‘Marianne! After half a lifetime of virtual imprisonment, there’s no chance she’ll survive out there.’
I have not considered such possibilities. I want to know where she is. Has she gone to a seaside town in the south or west, trading her limited skills? She will have no mobile phone, no computer literacy, no sense of how the world has changed in three decades. But she can garden, I’m sure, and sew and cook and clean. She may even know how to keep accounts. She is capable, certainly, of caring for the sick, of comforting the dying. She is patient and clever and keeps her counsel to herself. She is outstandingly brave. I think I have never admired anyone in quite the way I admire her.
‘If I disappeared, Bertrand, would you look for me?’
‘So, this is your plan?’
‘Would you put a notice in the paper?’
‘Sometimes, I suspect that you are just a little bit crazy. But I love you, even so.’
After a light salad accompanied by wine, it is time for him to leave. He stands in the doorway, his navy wool coat turned up at the collar. I rest my fingertips on the wiry hair below his temples and my thumbs smooth back the wild line of his brows.
‘Bertrand, I have loved you too well.’
‘Be honest, now. You don’t do badly.’
‘No, but my life doesn’t really feel like my own.’
‘Sweet Marianne! Love is love. You know there’s no such thing as loving too well.’
And so he goes, descending the stairs while I lean over the banister and wait until he is in the vestibule where, when the coast is clear, he turns to blow me a kiss. Today, Mme Perrault is polishing; they exchange polite greetings but he does not look up. The click of the entrance door resounds in the gleaming hall.
The rooms to which I return are warm and airless. Often I lie on the bed after he leaves, aware of a hollow bud in my solar plexus attempting to unfurl. Today, I am restless and roam around. On our plates, each of us
has left a mound of olive stones, his neater than mine. A shower of golden breadcrumbs is already hardening on the table. In the base of our glasses is a dark stain of wine. On the countertop, plastic salad tubs lie gaping beside shells of avocado pear.
Although I am not at all hungry, I open the tabbouleh and dip a fork in. The taste is pleasant: dry and spicy and sweet. I take it with me to the window, continuing to eat. Below, people are making their way muffled in scarves and overcoats. For a week, there has been talk of snow.
Seeing Bertrand without warning always unsettles me. Once – it was a Saturday morning, quite early, the sun powering up along the river and pat- terning the wooden planks of the Pont des Arts with a trellis of shadows – I saw him a little distance ahead, going in the direction of the right bank. I was on my way to La Samaritaine which, unfortunately, has since closed down. I smiled to myself, not thinking it was he but someone who resem- bled him. Getting closer, I saw that it was in fact Bertrand. A combination of shock and caution slowed me down. Early morning roller-bladers wound in and out between us, making the wooden boards rumble. I felt unsafe, as though I could easily be knocked over or lose my footing. I wanted him to turn round and see me. And then I wanted him not to. The idea of an earthquake came into my mind: the way bridges rear up and split and yawn apart. He would make it to the other bank while I would hit the water or tumble back to where I came from. He had no business that I knew of on my side of town.
I have made attempts to end it. ‘This is not good for me, Bertrand,’ I have said. ‘We should part.’ This would be a useful ploy if I were an acquisitive person, because such statements result in gifts, treats, renewed protesta- tions of love and need, beside which a frail bid for freedom is easily thwart- ed. I am not resolute. I am too used to my security, too fond of my comforts.
She must, like me, have thought about leaving, and fought off thinking about it, until it came to occupy the whole space of her will. Even so, how did she steel herself to forsake the simple safety of her cell with its narrow bed and the crucifix overhead, the silent companionship of the refectory, the lullaby of litanies? She must have feared the lingering echo of hymns chanted by her sisters, glimpsed how the slow, lavish Tantum Ergo might disturb her serenity across unknown tracts of space and time. She must have wondered how long it would take for those familiar harmonies to fade.
But still, the day came when she folded her robes and her veil, when she slipped the ring from her finger, her dream of eternal salvation surrendered, the husband of her soul abandoned. The day came. It would not have come in a single rush. No, it would have approached her imperceptibly, with mi- niscule shifts in the weight of words, gestures, moments of labour and repose.
I would like to be sure, before I choose it, that freedom is what I want. But how can I be sure, when it has no colour, no resonance or scent, no sweet- ness, no tender touch? To choose without knowing is a hard thing, yet, I am afraid that if I wait until I am certain, it will already be too late. Even though there is a chance that freedom is not what I want, somehow, for me too, the time has come. I must be strong. I must be resolute, like her.
He will wonder where I have gone but he will place no advertisements to assure himself of my safety. He will not file a missing persons report. He will judge me to be callous, selfish, ungrateful. He will find consolation in the smile of his grandchild, in the laughter of family Sundays, in the simple joys. He will lean a little more on Estelle and keep an eye open over her shoulder for someone who reminds him in a particular way of me.
As for Soeur Agathe: I see her in my mind’s eye on a tree-lined street far from her place of bondage, turning the key in her own front door. I see her mounting a narrow stairway, entering an apartment, setting down a bag of inexpensive food. There is a mirror where she checks the growth of her hair, where she notes again with some surprise the colour of her eyes, the true shape of her head and face, a mirror where she dares to cloud the glass
with a whisper of her old, lost name. What could it be? Lorette? Mathilde? Geneviève?
It is winter there too. The weather is breathtakingly cold but the world is new, glinting with beauty and danger.
This story was awarded second place in The London Magazine’s Short Story Competition 2012 which was judged by Edna O’Brien, Alison MacLeod and Cathy Galvin.