by Lynda Finn
It was a regular appointment, one he had been keeping for many years.
Always a meticulous man, he took extra pains on this occasion, dressing carefully in his finest linen shirt (he was not without means) and paying particular attention to the knot in the blue silk tie. After brushing back the increasing grey in his temples, lightly applying eau de cologne and making one final inspection of his person in the hall mirror, Manard pulled on his overcoat and let himself out of the house.
Even after all this time, he still experienced a small frisson of excitement as he strode down the boulevard des Capucines in the bright winter sun, towards the Café de la Paix, knowing she would be waiting.
The light was golden on the glossy pavement where rain had fallen an hour before, and the sentinel trees were fat with bud. Soon they would be bursting into blossom, proving that the worst of the winter weather was over. He allowed himself a smile as he strode down the boulevard, the silver-topped cane jaunty in his hand. Springtime in Paris always brought a great surge of optimism to his heart.
This had ever been his city, even though he’d been born elsewhere, and in all his moods and needs, she, like a constant woman, had offered him her love, vibrancy, comfort and forgiveness. He knew her intimately and could have walked her streets blindfolded. He had come to her in his deepest distress or when he had cause for rejoicing and she had accepted him and taken him to herself, always. There was nowhere he would rather be, in any season, but he sometimes wondered whether he would have had quite so perfect a relationship with the City of Light, had Martine still been with him. Perhaps not, for there are many things a wife can provide which a mistress cannot, and Martine had not enjoyed Paris.
Abrielle, radiant in a yellow wool dress and small hat, sat in her regular seat by the window, watching the world go by. Her coat was draped over a chair, she never hung it up, and she rose with a smile when he entered the café, kissing him warmly.
Always, there was this pleasant greeting, as if his presence was the highlight of her day and without taking her eyes from his face, she resumed her seat, folding her hands neatly on the table and waiting for him to order for them both.
After the food was arranged and the wine poured, he began, as he always did, by asking her about her week, listening attentively as she catalogued her visits to museums and stores, appointments with hairdressers and manicurists. With frequent and amusing asides, her hands fluttering like birds, Abrielle made a mundane life piquant in the telling. She gave him all the latest gossip, laughing enchantingly at the antics of the demi monde—making him feel he had been with her on these escapades, making him regret that he had not.
When Manard’s turn came, he set about the tale of how he had bought this painting or that, who had tried to cheat him, who had brought in a particularly fine watercolour, which artist was in the ascendant, which in decline. His gallery was small but significant and she listened with interest, dipping artichoke leaves in butter, her bright eyes adoring, her lips curved in a smile.
He had chosen her, many years ago, for her extreme resemblance to Martine and now, over a decade later, saw in her what his wife would have been, had she aged along with him. Abrielle was graceful in her roundness, her hips and thighs abundantly beautiful, her whole form voluptuous. Manard could not look at her regal shoulders without wanting to bury his face in the soft, warm flesh and drink in the sweet fragrance of her skin, though in fact, in all the years they had been together, he had never done so.
He paid the bill and as they left the café he gave her his arm, taking her neatly gloved hand into the crook of his elbow, inclining his head slightly to hers as they walked. In the previous ten years they had formed a strong bond, although that was a relative term. He was content, but for Abrielle, the relationship was not what she had hoped for, but far more than she had ever imagined it could be.
Once, on a bright summer’s day two years before, she asked him, casually and with a forced lightness, why, when they got on so well, they did not marry. It had taken her a long time to pluck up the courage to ask this question, not because he was in any way to be feared, but because she did not believe in herself as the woman he really wanted.
He had been all kindness, placing his hand against her face and looking into her eyes with such tenderness that she had thought she would simply melt away with longing for him. If she were to be with him all the time, he explained, things would change and he did not want that. What they had was perfect.
In Manard’s mind, were he to marry Abrielle, he would lose Martine anew but he could not tell her this. She knew nothing of Martine and he, being a man of sensitivity, would not tell her. It struck his conscience already that Abrielle was as a partial substitute for his dead wife. He could not dishonour her further.
On that night, alone in his bed, Manard had pondered both her question and his own answer. Should he marry Abrielle? Could he have a better partner than the complaisant woman who, with her impeccable taste and manners, gave him such joy? But he had built the relationship on the illusion of Martine and if he now took Abrielle to wife, he would no longer have the apparent presence of his lost love. At least this way, unfair though it was to the girl who clearly adored him, the chimera remained forever just ahead, a mirage of Martine, inescapable, but also itself unable to escape.
There were many times when he was tempted to change his mind, propose to Abrielle and bring her home. In the cold of a winter’s evening when the prospect of long, dark hours stretched ahead and he could so easily conjure up her laughter and merry voice. How welcome the sound would be in his empty house!
On summer mornings when the birds woke early, carolling in the lime trees around the square, what a delight it would be to see her, tumbled and sleepy in the bed beside him, her hair kissed and bright with sunshine. But to enjoy these pleasures, he must accept Abrielle totally as herself and not as the illusion of Martine. To replace the fantasy with reality. Manard had never quite been able to bring himself to do that.
They strolled in the park, stopping to listen to the travelling musicians who had set up in the rotunda and were playing polkas to amuse the passers-by. Manard bought a bunch of violets from a street vendor, touched them first to his lips then handed them to Abrielle. She was used to such gestures and they held little significance for her now, but she smiled charmingly and inhaled their fragrance.
Later, running from a sudden shower, they stumbled into a small private museum full of ancient clocks and for a good part of the afternoon revelled in the amazing craft of the horologist. Manard promised that on her next birthday, less than two months away, he would buy her a miniature replica of the beautifully carved and priceless cabinet clock which graced the entrance and which she had effusively admired.
Clapping her hands with pleasure, she beamed at him, then placed a soft kiss on his cheek. His hands went to her plump waist, transmitting to her the surge of pleasure he felt at her nearness and as they looked into each other’s eyes, for a brief moment her hope was renewed—but it passed without further remark.
The remainder of the afternoon was employed wandering around the Fifth Arrondissement, talking with old friends, sharing jokes and coffee and the occasional scandale. It was how they often spent their days. They were comfortable with such pastimes, it did not strain their relationship, they had become experts at frippery.
As the evening approached Manard asked her if she would prefer the theatre or opera, he always allowed her to choose, on other days he was master of his own fate and he loved to indulge her. She chose the theatre and, surprisingly, an avant-garde performance by a visiting troupe. Her taste was usually far more conventional and for a moment he looked at her with surprise, almost as if seeing her for the first time.
She had heard good reports, she said, and wished to step out of the pattern for the day, try something new. Humouring her, he bought tickets and they sat through an interesting but taxing performance which included much shouting and the firing of guns as well as hauntingly beautiful choral music.
Manard was diverted. Left to his own devices, it was not a production he would have chosen, but having been obliged to sit through it, found he became absorbed both in the message and its delivery. He could see why it had been recommended to Abrielle and it was his intention to instigate an interesting discussion over dinner.
As they left the theatre however, Abrielle burst into peals of laughter, shattering his serious mood, and clutching at his arm, apologised profusely for condemning them both to such unforgivable pretentiousness. From now on, she promised, she would choose only the familiar, or better still, leave the choice of entertainment to Manard who had discernment and who would never have taken her to such a catastrophe.
Manard did not contradict her and neither did he discuss the show over the evening meal, eaten in companionable silence at a restaurant near the Moulin Rouge.
After he had delivered her to her apartment and taken the one small brandy she always offered him, he kissed her lightly on the forehead and prepared to take his leave. Her hand tightened on his arm and for a brief second he thought she was about to ask him to stay, something she had never done in all the years they had been together. But she refrained, saying instead that she was already looking forward to their next appointment.
Manard took a cab home and asked the driver to drop him at the end of the road so that he could walk the length of it. He admired the window boxes and spoke with the few people who were still about. When he let himself into the house he was struck by its emptiness, he had never quite realised before just how large a place it was for a man alone.
Normally when he returned, he made a greeting to the portrait of Martine and her ethereal presence, just as he would, had she been alive and waiting in the hall. This evening however, as he lifted his head to speak, the words were arrested, the painting seemed flat, Martine was no longer here, the house was deserted.
Pensively he placed his cane in the brass vase which held umbrellas and Martine’s old parasol, removed his coat and hung it on a hanger in the garde-robe.
His housekeeper had made up the fire and pulled the curtains in the sitting room so all was cosiness. He poured himself a drink and drew his chair closer to the embers, thinking as he did so, that he could see the shade of Abrielle in the dancing blaze. It startled him, for usually Martine was the one present in this room. The day came back to him bringing a sharp longing for the presence of the woman he now knew he loved.
In her apartment, Abrielle, her thoughts also preoccupied by the day, pulled on a night-gown of white silk, it’s lace soft as a cloud. Manard had bought her this garment a few months before and she had wondered then if there was, perhaps, a subtle message in the gift but nothing further had been said. It was a mark of her great love for him that she continued to hope, even after all this time, even when he had rejected her proposal.
Abrielle had guessed long ago that she was a substitute but bore Manard no grudge, on the contrary, her mind and heart was filled with him and the joy he brought to the days they spent together. She was grateful for a place in any part of his life. Slipping into bed she pulled the covers around her and closed her eyes, from which warm tears slid softly onto the starched pillow.
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