New irish fiction
In the latest of an occasional series of stories, the Parisienne Madeleine notices similarities between her lover and a painting she likes.
IT WAS THE PORTRAIT that hung beside Mme Henri’s door that decreed the type of man I would fall in love with when I grew up. For a time, the man in the painting was the only man I knew. Madame kept an all-female house; my mother and I had a small apartment overlooking Rue Copernic. When I was a girl, and Maman stopped to gossip with Mme Henri about the other tenants, I would linger in front of the picture. I took in the man’s red cloak, the garland of thorns that made a blood ruby slide towards his long nose, and his eyes with the two points of light in their darkness. He charmed me, that man. I liked to look at him as he liked to look at me. His mournful face was framed by long hair; he held a stick that I thought might be for beating horses or his wife. He was the kind of man you could tell secrets to.
It was Maman who pointed out my uniform taste in men.
“Another seaweedy beard; more solemn eyes,” she said, after meeting Christophe for the first time. “Madeleine, all your beaux look the same.”
I laughed and kissed her face. “Yes, it is true, Maman.”
“Of course it’s true. Have I ever been wrong about anything?” She sipped her coffee. “Men are gullible creatures, Madeleine, but they own all the power. Remember that.”
I tidied away the cafetiere and cups. “I will be back tomorrow morning, Maman.”
She sighed. “At least I have the cat to talk to.”
“I’ll buy some chocolate fish for you in the patisserie,” I said. “You’ll like that.”
I went to hug her and she batted me away. “Leave, leave,” she said.
At the bottom of the stairs I stopped at Mme Henri’s door and looked at the portrait.
“Bonjour, mon roi,” I said. He stared back, pale and anxious, his knuckles white around the stick. “Did you know that Christophe troubles me? I give my all to him, body and soul, but, on his side, I know I have touched only the glass over the picture. So to speak.” I trailed one finger down the man’s nose. “Au revoir,” I called, and hurried out on to Rue Copernic.
Old Gustave in the patisserie knocked on the window and blew me a kiss; I waved and ran on. I had to hurry; Christophe was waiting, and he hated to wait. I scuttled down to Place Victor Hugo and took the metro.
Christophe’s room on Rue du Marché des Blancs Manteaux smelled, always, of the Seine; that clean, green, slow-moving river stench that is as welcome as air. His door was ajar so that I would know to come in without knocking, and he lay under the sheet like a gift ready to be unwrapped. But Christophe, being impatient, tossed back the cover to reveal his naked self with a sly, triumphant smile. I ran to him and kissed his mouth; his moustache itched my nose. Unpeeling me from my skirt and underwear, with a deftness I could never manage, he pulled my body under him and pushed inside me. The pain was ragged but welcome, and we moved fast together, his hair falling around my face.
Afterwards Christophe slept and I enjoyed the white light of his room, snug as a tomb. I watched him, his eyes closed, looking peaceful. He kept himself apart in the bed, cautious even in sleep; he never reached to touch me when we lay together, as if he was afraid I would turn out to be someone else – a wrong someone. He woke, blinking in the brightness.
“How is your maman?” he said.
“She likes to say she’s lonely, but half the neighbourhood visits her each day.”
“You will never have another mother; be kind to her,” he said.
“I love my maman; I am always kind to her.”
I turned my face from his. At 33, Christophe was 12 years older than me, but I hated when he wedged the fact between us with unasked-for advice.
“Madeleine, stop pouting,” he said, and popped my lips with one finger. I pushed his hand away.
“What about your mother?” I said. “Are you a good son to her? What’s she like?”