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Authors: Zillah Bethel

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‘And besides,' he muttered under his breath, touching the religious amulet on his forearm, ‘anyone so unafraid of death deserves to live!'

Alphonse walked into the heart of the city. Nobody saw his face. Nobody knew if his bright blue eyes were brighter than ever with grief, sorrow, despair, even joy. Nobody saw his expression at all as he passed like a ghost through the heart of the city, like a god traversing the desert of his kingdom. Heavy rain began to fall with the twilight, casting a misty glow over the carved suns of the Tuileries that had burnt red hot, cooling the smouldering ruins of the Hôtel de Ville, of a city that had fought and been defeated, loved and lost. There was nothing to hear but the sound of fire meeting water with the crackle and hiss of a serpent's kiss – the flames being put out once and for all.

Alphonse walked on. The rain kept falling.

Epilogue

It was a bright clear day after some showers. New dewdrops sparkled in old cobwebs, the Seine gleamed under the bridges and the boulevards were busy and bustling again as Laurie would have wished. A small crowd had gathered beside the Préfecture de Police to gawk at the Venus de Milo as she came out of hiding. Having lain dormant, as it were, in storage for the past twelve months in an ignominious little cell used for the temporary holding of petty criminals, drunkards and rabble rousers (many of whom having unwittingly sat upon her in their darkest hour, caroused, sobered up and mended their ways upon her) she was about to face the light of day once more. She had survived so much! The wrath of the Prussians, her own cell mates, the devastating flames of the Commune. She'd come out of it all intact along with the ex Chief of Police's beloved glass paperweight and a cigarette tin belonging to a previous occupant of the ignominious little cell. A burst water pipe had saved them all. A small miracle in the middle of the night, in the middle of the flames. A jammed stopcock, a burst water pipe.

Four burly men carried her out in her coffin-like box, staggering under the weight of her – which led someone to remark dolefully that all great beaut­ies were made of stone – and a thrill of excitement tore through the crowd.

There were oohs and aahs as the lid came off. Everyone craned their necks to peer at the statue, half naked and smiling that vague and tender smile, her lips slightly parted as if to breathe in new life, as if to breathe in the first breath of summer.

‘Green!' a voice burst out from the midst of the crowd. ‘Green she was and bloated when they fished her out. But they say the water saved her!' Mistigris, resplendent in a cornflower-blue jacket, his whiskers trimmed and a stonecutter's belt about his waist, was gesticulating wildly. ‘In the dead of night the water saved her! A pipe sprayed all over her!'

A great cheer went up at this and Madame Larousse, blushing a little, slipped her hand into his. ‘Now, now,' she warned him under her breath. ‘Now, now.'

‘She is risen like the phoenix from the ashes,' he went on in an awestruck voice, and his eyes shone with tears. ‘She is dead and is reborn. As we all are,' he wept. ‘As we all are!'

They filed past in pairs and alone, chattering excitedly or silent, reverential, getting their fill of the miracle, the phoenix, the
Venus de Milo
. There wasn't a scratch upon her. She glimmered up softly from the bottom of the box, symbol of new hope, new beginnings, like a rare and precious pearl found glowing in the mud. Everyone wanted a piece of her! Someone threw a marigold for luck, another a gold coin, one elderly gentleman even made a dive for her, cocking his leg to get in the box (much to Madame Larousse's disgust) and things might have got quite out of hand if one of the burly men hadn't quickly stepped forward.
There was to be no touching, no throwing, no kissing, only looking.

‘Always the way,' the jester crowed with a woebegone expression, ‘with the great beauties. More's the pity!'

In the end they went away, back to work, to play, drifting off over the bridges into the streets and the boulevards, evaporating like droplets of rain in the sunshine. There was so much to see, to taste, to smell. Ma Gorot's liver and onion stall whiffing out the Rue des Pommes as it always had; cafés offering sodas and sorbets half price, eager to get their custom back; old boutiques dusting off their shutters and parading a new line of clothing as bright as canaries. There were jugglers, mountebanks, conjurors and acrobats. And the artists! The artists were everywhere, sticking up their easels impromptu style in any old place on the parapets, dabbling in a strange new palette of ruin and renewal and taking inspiration from the sudden haphazard impression of things, from the beauty of the ordinary, the mundane, the unique.

‘Paris Herself Again!' sang the newspaper sellers from the top of the Pont des Arts to the top of Montmartre. ‘Paris Herself Again!'

And the crowds bustled and dawdled through the streets where already one or two dainty flowers and vigorous plants were thrusting their way up through the fire-cracked tarmac.

Dearest Sis,

Please let it be known at the balloon factory that all letters were delivered safely as well as top-secret guvvermental desk patches despite reservacions on account of my age and inexperience. It was a perilus flight. The Professor let out too much gas all at once and passed out, so I had to fly the balloon single handed for miles and miles over seas and continenz. They look very small from the sky, like stamps. We are in Gnaw Way now, studying the Gnaw-them lights and collecting air at different elevacions to test for density. It is a cold and beautiful country. I am to enrol at the Academy pon my return under the Professor to learn about milky ways and comics. Tell Papa that a great bear is waiting to pop out at him if he stares up on a clear night.

Your brother Jacques.

PS: Neptune is bringing this message so you will have to read it under magic lanten. Also, please tell Monsieur Pagini that we let the other birds go last month so they should be coming home any day now.

PPS: Fifi has six kittens. She is an extra-ordinary harlot.

Annotations

  1. Louis Napoleon III was elected President of the Second Republic in 1849. In 1852, after a bloody coup d'état, he transformed the fragile democracy into an Empire.
  2. A prostitute.
  3. The balloon in which the Minister of the Interior, Léon Gambetta, flew to Tours on 7
    th
    October to rally the provinces to the aid of the capital.
  4. A human alarm clock. Person employed to wake up factory/market employees in the early hours.
  5. General Trochu (President of the Government of National Defence) never came good with his ‘plan'. Publicly he supported the attempt by Paris to withstand the Prussian siege but privately he despaired of it, calling it ‘an heroic folly'. If he had any plan at all, it was known to his colleagues to be the capitulation of Paris.
  6. Prototype of the machine gun – 25 barrels turned by a handle with a range of 2000 yards and a capacity to fire 150 rounds a minute.
  7. Famous detective responsible for the conviction of Jean Baptiste Troppmann. Troppmann was guillotined in January 1870 for the murder of an entire family in 1869 at la Villette.
  8. The correct quotation by Racine is
    : malheureux l'homme qui fonde / Sur les hommes son appui
    . (Unhappy is the
    man
    who puts his faith in men.)
  9. Bourbaki commanded the Army of the North and the Second Army of the Loire, with which he operated in the East against the German communications. He was finally forced to lead his men into neutral Switzerland rather than surrender; and later attempted suicide.
  10. See note 7. Troppmann came to symbolise the working man in his most negative expression. Prosecution painted a picture of a proletarian inveigling his way into a good bourgeois family and killing the lot of them for money. Some people saw the case as a portent of revolution.
  11. The Prussian press and official propagandists made much of withholding bombardment until the correct ‘psychological moment'. The phrase became a great joke and catchphrase of the siege.
  12. The battle of Buzenval. First and only time the National Guard was used. A disastrous defeat.
  13. Famous Parisian racetrack.
  14. Fashionable ankle boots.
  15. Breech loading rifle with sword/bayonet attachment. Accurate over a range of about 600 yards.
  16. Notorious haunt of prostitutes.
  17. Foreign Minister for Government of National Defence. Secretly negotiated an armistice with Bismarck before Paris was forced into unconditional surrender, despite boasting in September that France would never cede ‘an inch of (her) territory, a stone of (her) fortresses'.
  18. Chief Executive of newly constituted (largely conservative) assembly. Known for his hard line on urban disruption and his lack of sentimentality. Spent siege in relative comfort of Tours and lacked the imagination to appreciate the effect those months of privation might have had on the capital.
  19. One of many nicknames for the diminutive Thiers.
  20. On March 18
    th
    General Lecomte and General Clément Thomas were killed on the Rue des Rosiers by National Guards, army deserters and local civilians. The attempt to seize the guns in Montmartre having failed, the government retreated to Versailles, and the Paris National Guard set up a provisional authority at the Hôtel de Ville. This was the beginning of the revolutionary Commune.
  21. The Commune's anti-clericalist stance (it proposed the separation of church and state, especially in education) led to many convents and churches being taken over as National Guard headquarters and looted for secret treasures.
  22. J'aimerai toujours le temps des cerises / Et le souvenir que je garde en coeur
    – ‘I will always love cherry blossom time and the memory that I hold in my heart.' Le Temps des Cerises was a popular song of the Commune.
  23. The Commune ordered the destruction of the Vendôme column – a war memorial commemorating the expansionist campaigns of the first Napoleon – and it was eventually brought down on May 16
    th
    .
  24. On May 21
    st
    the troops of Versailles entered Paris.
  25. It is not certain how many
    pétroleuses
    (female arsonists) actually existed. They set fire to buildings that were targeted as being BPB (
    Bon Pour Brûler
    – good for burning); and they carried milk cans containing kerosene or nitro glycerine which they dropped down chimneys, letter boxes, cellar grates etc.

Seren is the book imprint of

Poetry Wales Press Ltd

57 Nolton Street, Bridgend, Wales, CF31 3AE

www.serenbooks.com

© Zillah Bethell 2010

ISBN 978-1-78172-119-3

The right of Zillah Bethell to be identified as author of this work has been asserted in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act, 1988.

A CIP record for this title is available from the British Library.

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted at any time or by any means electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise without the prior permission of the copyright holder.

Cover design by Mark-Cavanagh.co.uk

from the painting ‘Le dépeceur de rats' by Narcisse Chaillou

(Saint-Denis – musée d'art et d'histoire, cliché: Irène Andréani)

The publisher works with the financial assistance of

the Welsh Books Council.

The author wishes to acknowledge the award of a Writer's Bursary from Academi for the purpose of completing this book.

BOOK: Le Temps des Cerises
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