Read My Hundred Lovers Online

Authors: Susan Johnson

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My Hundred Lovers (23 page)

BOOK: My Hundred Lovers
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‘
Pourrais-tu nous apporter un café, s'il te plaît
, Celestine?' he said.

‘Thank you so much for seeing me, Bertrand,' the Suspicious Wanderer said when Celestine had left the room. ‘I know how busy you are. I know you must have a million and one more urgent things to do. I really appreciate you taking the time to see me. How do you do it? How do you keep yourself sane? All the horrible stories you must come across, dealing with the sick and the dying every day, with the very worst things that can happen. A friend of mine has a brother who's just been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis and another person I know—'

‘
Arrêt!
Enough!'

She took a breath. ‘Sorry.'

‘Don't keep saying sorry. It's— how do you say it?—
irritating
.'

She let out an undignified sound. ‘Sorry,' she said, sobbing. ‘I'm sorry, I'm sorry.'

Bertrand was very kind. He asked a colleague to join them, a specialist in SIDA. How did she come to be so lucky as to have an expert advising her? Her whole life was a fluke, a chance, preposterously fortunate, as well as clumsy, ruined, made up of failures and blind compulsions.

‘Everybody's got one fate,' said Bertrand at one point during that kind hour, as if he was a woman at the village well and not a leading Parisian neurologist. Did neurologists really believe in fate? Did dealing with tragedy every day cause you to throw up your hands, as humbled as the rest?

She left the Pitié-Salpêtrière more composed than when she went in. While she did not entirely believe that she would live, she was willing to entertain the possibility that she might. In her pocket was a note from Celestine. It read:
Au fil des années, les grosses
grossissent, les maigres maigrissent, les vieilles vieillissent et meurent. Vous n'êtes pas
encore vieux.
As years go by, the fat get fatter, the thin get thinner, the old get older and die. You are not yet old.

Wasn't it a breach of protocol or procedure or privacy for secretaries to slip private messages to patients?

Was she even a patient? She would never, ever work the French out, not even if she lived in France the rest of her life.

SEVENTY-ONE
Roses

BLACK BACCARA, AS DARK AS
shiraz, gothic, almost sinister under moonlight. The flower that a witch might chose to give to the beauty.

Albertine, opening out from the curled pink bud into riotous girlishness. Flowering but once a year, a rose that does not behave itself, climbing walls, fences, window frames, its abundant petals dropping carelessly in pink profusion.

Tea roses, yellow, creamy or ivory, barely brushed with colour, hardly perfumed, loved equally by Victorian cottage gardens and by stout matrons and ageing men in sandals and socks.

White, white roses running all around the bower in Sissinghurst's White Garden, as fragrant as spring, spilling above your head, drowning you in perfume. Intoxicating, going straight to the head, making you drunk.

SEVENTY-TWO
The bird lover

HOW SMALL THE WORLD GROWS
as the long day closes, how the map shrinks to birds in flight outside the window, to the rush of wind in the trees, to the push of the single bulb through the soil.

The swoop of birds in flight, singing on the wing, a chatter of bells. Rushing by the window, chimes in the wind.

Measuring the days by the poetry of birds, by the bells from the church on the hill. This small world, intimate, domestic. This crowded world, infinite, immense, bounded by the walls of this house, by the unfurling of leaves, by the customary walk to the café by the fountain, where I sit, recalling the days. Everything connected with this body, my personal memories, cancelled with the end of my corporeal existence. My hand on the cup, my feet in their shoes, my breathing heart, remembering.

SEVENTY-THREE
Marché aux puces

SLOWLY THE SUSPICIOUS WANDERER'S IRRATIONAL
fears became more rational. Slowly, on the scale between madness and sanity, the hands came to rest at a balanced point, that point recognised by therapists and counsellors and other practitioners of the mind and heart as being a reasonable one from which to practise living. In truth, this accepted scale is often disregarded by the minds and hearts of men and women living according to unwitting impulses. In truth, the mind and heart is often off the scale and only murder, suicide or unlawful acts bring this truth to our attention.

On weekends the Suspicious Wanderer frequented the
marché aux
puces
. She noted the detritus of life, the remains, the favourite vases, the baby boots, the photographs. The vanished person captured in the frame, the photograph all that is left after the vanished person and everyone who knew her have left the earth.

She wasn't lonely. There was this world, and the next. There was this world of physical objects and people she loved, croissants and houses and wine and her own feet to hold her up, and a long line of women preceding her, stretching back before disappearing into time's wondrous vanish. She was always accompanied.

Celestine rang her on a Sunday evening after she had been to a market. Her English was as clumsy as the Suspicious Wanderer's French but she managed to make it clear that she was inviting the Suspicious Wanderer to a soirée
.

She was going to attend, out of curiosity. She was going to attend, despite the fact that she still couldn't believe Celestine's breach of the rules. How did she get her phone number? And would Bertrand be there?

Celestine's apartment was in a curved building on a corner, so that all its rooms curved too. It was like being in the prow of a ship, except that the beautiful curved windows looked out over a square in an expensive
quartier
. She didn't know anyone in the handsome crowd, expensively attired. Waiters circulated with drinks, and she quickly downed two glasses of champagne. Bertrand and his lover Philippe were in a corner and she waved. Bertrand lifted his glass.

Two women standing nearby were speaking English.

‘Are you friends of Celestine's?' she asked when they smiled at her.

‘I am,' one of them said. ‘Andrea. Pleased to meet you.' The woman held out a hand. She was in her mid-fifties, rich-looking. The Suspicious Wanderer introduced herself; the woman explained that she lived in the apartment directly below Celestine's and introduced her friend, who was visiting from London.

‘Amazing building,' said the Suspicious Wanderer.

‘Owned by Celestine's father,' said Andrea. ‘He owns half of Paris.'

She knew it would be rude to ask why Celestine was working as a secretary. Maybe she wasn't a secretary. Maybe she was a doctor who also happened to serve coffee.

‘Where is our hostess?' asked the Suspicious Wanderer.

‘Over there,' said Andrea. ‘She's just come in.'

Celestine was standing by the door, smoking a cigarette. She looked cross, as if she would rather be somewhere else. She was in a knot of people which included Bertrand and Philippe. The Suspicious Wanderer could not detect any boss–employee body language.

The Suspicious Wanderer was coming out of the bathroom when she ran into Celestine.

‘
Vous n'êtes pas mort
,' Celestine said. ‘You are not dead.'

‘
Évidemment
,' the Suspicious Wanderer replied.

‘
Bon
—good.' Celestine smiled and walked off.

The Suspicious Wanderer could not have explained how she found herself in Celestine's bed later that night. It might have been the champagne or the fact that she was in Paris, detached from her former shape, that outline drawn in by her family, her friends, by everything that had previously described her. It might have been the same impulse that caused her to climb into Claudette, that car she loved, with a dissolute lover who had just placed a tab of acid on her tongue. It may even have been a buried longing to close the space between her mother and herself.

Whatever it was, the Suspicious Wanderer felt a little scared and a little embarrassed, but also fabulously brave.

SEVENTY-FOUR
Song of Songs

THE SWOOP OF MY VOICE
rising up from my lungs, swelling with song. The ‘O' formed by the open mouth, the body opening into joy, making music with the breath, the tongue, the palate, the reeds made of flesh in the throat. Anyone who can speak can sing, anyone with a tongue in their mouth and a heart in their chest.

Singing my heart out in Claudette, the windows wound down, with Steph in the back seat playing her guitar. We sang duets, her soprano dipping in and around my contralto, seamless, unpractised, effortlessly beautiful.

Singing with Steph on a summer's day on the Pont Marie, the song and the bridge and the beauty of the day marrying above our heads, rising to the sky.

The old man singing at the concert in the nursing home just before my mother died. Too frail to stand, sitting collapsed in a chair, balancing on his walking stick. In the history of the world, ‘Some Enchanted Evening' never sounded lovelier.

The church choir, soaring, in the sacred dome of the White Chapel in the Tower of London, where a queen went to pray before she lost her head. Was it silent that cold morning or were there remnants of songs caught in the bricks as she prayed?

SEVENTY-FIVE
Celestine

BOOK: My Hundred Lovers
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