Long shapes cast over the blue-tinged street. A window creaks shut close by. Curtains are drawn. A chill sweeps over her bare shoulders and prickles at the back of her neck. Somewhere a dog barks. Placing one hand on the car door she glances over her shoulder. He isn’t there. Her lips quiver somewhere between a smile and tears, she can’t tell which. The clenching around her heart grips a little tighter. She blinks. Curling eyelashes flutter like the evening breeze and she swallows hard. The clinging satin of her evening dress seems to stick to her legs as she turns her hips towards the car. Her driver speaks,
For a moment she doesn’t reply, she doesn’t know the answer. Her eyes linger on the empty chair where she had been sitting. The cafe is busy and the waitress is clearing away her coffee cup. She opens the car door and slides over the old leather seat, shivering as her back meets with the cold fabric. She picks up her wrap and slips it around her shoulders.
“I put the top up Mademoiselle; I think it’s going to rain.”
She catches the old man’s eyes in the mirror and smiles.
“That’s fine, thank you, Laroche. Just drive around for a while if you don’t mind.”
The driver nods at her through the mirror, watery blue eyes glinting in the fading light. She has known Laroche her whole life. His kindness towards her is unbending, even when she had been a sullen teenager, pouting and complaining or crying on his shoulder when she had argued with her father or a boy had broken her heart.
She tugs at her wrap and winds down the window. She tries to resist but the compulsion is too great. She peers back down the street at the cafe. Two women have taken her place, one is large with a bright red dress straining over her bust, and the other has an ominous twist of dark hair clasped on the back of her head with a single chopstick like a spike driven into her skull. The large woman is laughing at something as an extravagant pastry is being set before her. Collette turns away and rests her head back against the seat. Stabs of rain begin to patter through the window, pricking her face with cool water. She lets it run over her forehead and hot cheeks. It sinks into her hair and trickles over her nose.
They make their way through the back streets of the Montmartre. Seedy neon signs flashing pink and red, women in doorways wearing little more than underwear shelter from the shower. Collette kicks off her stilettos and wipes her hands over her face. As she winds the window back up she looks out at the Sacre Coeur, twinkling on its hillside perch like moral a lighthouse, warning those below of their sins. She reaches for her purse and draws out her compact. There is no powder in there, just a mirror and an empty space. She checks her mascara then touches up her lipstick.
She knows where she is going now. She tells Laroche and sits back. Headless bodies walk along the pavements beneath umbrellas. It’s the interval at the Opera House and people are milling in the doorway, smoke from their cigarettes curling into the evening air like a thin veil. Streets roll by. She checks her watch. It’s Friday, they’re not too late. She slips her feet back into her shoes as Laroche turns the car into the courtyard. She closes her eyes waiting for the right moment to open them again. In her mind, she sees his face. Dark bovine eyes, lips curled into a half-smile. Her throat tightens and she breathes slowly, forcing the tears away. The car stops. Laroche tells her they are here. She opens her eyes. Before her the glittering glass pyramid towers, the network of iron weaving through it like an architectural spider’s web. Her heart eases and she gets out of the car.
“Come for me in an hour,” she says. She smoothes down her dress and closes the door. Laroche smiles at her sadly. She tries not to notice the pity in his eyes.
She looks up at the threatening sky, inky black and heavy with rain. It has stopped weeping for a moment, pausing for her to walk across the courtyard. She feels the thump of her footsteps on cobbles and listens to each clip her heels make. The Louvre pyramid is lit brighter than a Christmas tree, doors open and welcoming. As she goes inside a figure catches in the corner of her eye. She turns to look but there is no one there. She fumbles in her purse then flashes her member’s card at the ticket booth window. The woman gives her a nod but doesn’t smile. Collette knows every inch of the museum, every painting viewed a hundred times and every sculpture admired. Once when she was a child she had run her fingers over psyches leg, the docent had come running over to chastise her. Her father had defended her, telling the woman that sculptures were tactile and ought to be touched. She had loved him for that. Now she walks along corridors without pausing. She is going only to one place tonight. It’s near impossible to get her alone but at this time of the evening, there is a slim chance. Then she stops and changes her mind. She takes minor a detour.
Standing before the Canova sculpture she wonders if she dares touch it again. Cupid and Psyche locked in their eternal passion. She reaches out, hand trembling, the tips of her fingers so close to the marble she can sense its cold smoothness, dead and hard, yet so alive. A man in a trilby tips his hat at her and for a moment her heart stops. She withdraws her hand and stares at him. The broadness of his shoulders, his gate, the way his hand took a hold of his hat. She could swear it is him. She watches him vanish around the corner then follows.
Shaking violently she goes up the stairs after him. She’s not going out of her way. They seem to be heading to the same place. She wants to call out to him but she dare not speak.
Heal slipping on the parquet floor she stumbles. A voice calling from behind her is comforting and familiar. She looks at the man in the trilby as he enters Salle Des Etats. She hesitates, wanting to go in after him. But a hand taps on her shoulder and she tries to smile.
“I thought it was you.” The man speaking is a dear friend. “Are you all right?” his cheery tone has turned to concern. Collette brushes a loose lock of hair away from her eyes and kisses him warmly on both cheeks.
“Jean, good to see you,” she evades his question with expert ease. The conversation is brief but distracting. She agrees to have dinner with Jean next week but all the while she is thinking of him. How she wishes he had come, met her at the cafe as he ought and not left her sitting there all alone. Jean is kissing her again, soft lips lightly brushing against her cheeks, warm hands gently holding her shoulders. As he steps back she looks up into his bright sea-blue eyes and is caught in his gaze. Another man whose love she longs for. For a moment she is lost, torn between one life and another.
“Tuesday then,” he is saying. She presses her hand to her throat and steadies her nerve. She gives him a wave and waits for him to leave.
Whispers from paint, shadows of artists and sitters peer out at the viewers. Footsteps reverberate around quiet hallways. The visitors are drifting away. Collette walks bravely into the Salle Des Etats and looks to the far end of the room. Tiny and dark the painting hangs from the great cream wall. From a distance, the heavy guilt frame stands out more than the portrait. It’s not even the best work in the gallery, but this face is the most famous in the world. Collette looks around the empty room and sighs, she is alone. She goes to stand before the inscrutable girl. The portrait looks back at her with her perpetually secretive smile. Collette is glad to see her. She has spent hours with her over the years, so often jostling with the crowds but of late she has only come at night when the streets are dark and the people have suppers to eat or opera’s to attend. As a child her father had enthused over the girl, passionately explaining her mysteries. There were other paintings that incited such enthusiasm but this was the one that puzzled Collette the most. How she wished she could go back in time and watch the artist at work. Ask the girl what she was thinking and why she was looking at the world that way. But right now all she wants to ask her was why she is here alone. Why he didn’t come to the cafe and where the man in the trilby has gone.
Time is ticking and Laroche will be waiting outside. Collette says goodbye to the painted girl and heads back out into the night. The car is parked where it left her. She is about to get in when she sees him, the man with the trilby. Smart suite perfectly pressed, shadows cast over his face, shoes polished like army boots. She knows it can’t be him but her curiosity is too great. He pauses and takes a packet of cigarettes from his jacket pocket. Silver lighter catches in the lamplight. Bright flame flickers.
“I’ll be back in a minute,” she says and shuts the car door.
The man in the trilby is heading towards the river. She tries to catch up but he is walking too fast. Under the arches, he glances back. She curses her shoes and follows him onto the bridge. He stops. He leans against the wall and waits for her, his back to the river. Dark ripples lap against stone. The murky scent of the Seine and rain dampened air clings to her throat. His head is down, hiding his face. A spiral of smoke rises from beneath the brim of his hat. She reaches him. He looks up. In the moonlight, she can see his eyes. Not dark and gentle like her father’s but sharp and pale like silver coins.
“Why are you following me?” he asks.
Collette tries to think of an excuse. Nothing comes to mind.
“Forgive me. I thought you were someone else.” She turns to go. His hand reaches out and gently grasps her wrist.
“Sorry to disappoint you,” he is saying. “Can I at least buy you coffee for your trouble, you seem a little upset.”
Collette realises she is crying. Silent tears are rolling down her cheeks and stinging her eyes. The man seems genuine enough but she declines anyway. She wipes the tears from her face and dabs her eyes with the corner of her wrap. The black satin feels soothing against her skin. The man offers her a cigarette.
“Thank you, but no. I should get back, my driver is waiting.” She steps away from him and he lets her go.
“Wait,” he says. She does. “You’re Collette St Germaine.” Collette examines his features but they are not familiar. “I knew your father, he was a good man.”
“He was,” she says, struggling to hold her voice steady. “Today was his birthday.”
The man tilts his head and draws on his cigarette. The end glows red and the paper crackles.
“It must be a hard day for you, I was very sorry to hear of his death.”
Collette smiles and nods,
“Thank you,” she says. “I went to the cafe as always, we’ve been going there on his birthday for as long as I can remember, but this year he didn’t come.”
The man rubs a hand over his face and stubs out the cigarette. Straightening up he offers her his arm.
“Allow me to walk you back to your car,” he says. Collette gratefully accepts. And for a moment, as her arm slips around his, she senses the comforting bulk of her father at her side once more.
(C) 2010 Liah S Thorley, all rights reserved