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?”
“She’s a saint.”
Christophe rolled over me and off the bed. He stood and stretched his arms high, making his joints crack. His lean body was pale as a cadaver – blue in its whiteness – and dark hair nestled above his legs and the long stem of his cock.
“When will you take me to meet your mother? You’ve met mine,” I said, reaching to stroke his thigh.
“There may not be time.”
“What do you mean, Christophe?”
“Nothing, Madeleine. Nothing at all. Of course you will meet her. Come, let’s walk up to Montmartre to see what we can see.”
I dressed quickly, but still Christophe was ready before me, standing by the door twitching his beard and watching every button I closed; my fingers jammed and fumbled. When I was done he helped me into my coat and we ran down the stairs on to Rue du Marché des Blancs Manteaux and turned into the Marais.
Sacré-Coeur went in and out of the fog as we climbed towards it; its bells were stilled for Maundy Thursday.
“The chimes have flown to Rome to see the pope. Isn’t that what you Parisians say?” Christophe said.
He laughed and kissed me. “My poor girl.” He gripped my hand and we marched up the steep laneway; I had to skip to keep pace. At the Lapin Agile he paused and turned to me. “I have to meet someone in here. I’m owed money. Will you wait outside?”
I nodded and stood by the window while Christophe went in. He stopped at a table where a red-haired man was eating. They spoke but Christophe didn’t sit; he put his hand on the man’s shoulder but the man shrugged him off and continued to fork food into his mouth. The man stopped eating and leered at Christophe; he took a pouch from his inside pocket and tossed it on to the table. Christophe folded his fingers around it and offered the man a handshake, but he ignored it. I saw Christophe wince as he turned to leave.
“Who was that man?”
“That was Jude, an old friend. An ex-friend.” He shook the pouch. “Now we can eat.”
The fog had closed down over Rue Lepic like a swathe of linen; the globes of the gaslights burned through it in a way that comforted me. I have always loved how heavy fog removes some of the city’s fussiness. Christophe rushed us down the cobbles and into a bistro; he ordered red wine, bread and roast lamb. He blushed after swallowing the first mouthful of wine, as if blood ran through his veins anew, and his muscles untensed. Flocculent light seemed to hover around his body; I blinked to settle my eyes, but the blurred aura remained. When the food arrived he bent his head to the plate and muttered a prayer. I lowered my head too, pretending to do the same. When I looked up Christophe was grinning at me.
“What?” I said.
“It pleases me that you want to please me. That’s all.”
“Perhaps I am pleasing myself.”
Christophe kept his eyes on me while unfolding his cutlery from its napkin. “Promise me you will always be good, Madeleine. You are so good.”
“You speak as if we are parting.”
“Live well, ma petite; I just want to say that.”
I placed my knife and fork on the table. “Christophe, are you going somewhere? Do you not like Paris after all?”
“I don’t dislike Paris. I care about it, but it doesn’t care about me. One way or another I must be in a place that cares. A safe place.”
“But where are you going, Christophe? I don’t want you to go.”
“Life is, for me, no more than a problematic waiting room, Madeleine. I feel that I will be leaving soon, no matter what.”
“Life? What are you talking about, Christophe? You’re frightening me.”
He laughed. “I apologise. Think nothing of it. My mood is off.” He cut into a piece of lamb and popped it in his mouth.
I stared at him. “Something nests in you, Christophe. Something I can’t get at.”
He shook his head and pointed to my plate. “Eat, eat!”
I broke my bread and ate it. When we both had our fill we returned to his room and loved each other as if we had never touched before. Christophe rose up before me and I bowed to him; he entered every open part of me and I took in his hard heat until he gasped. We lay in each other’s salt for a long time, kissing and whispering our love.
The bells of Notre-Dame des Blancs Manteaux woke me in the morning; they were answered by the clang from St-Louis-en-l’Île, St-Séverin and, soon, the ring of St-Sulpice. The churches clanged and pealed their offbeat chorus to each other while the sun fingered through the window and stole across the bed. I looked around the bright room, so sparse and empty; Christophe was not a man for possessions. He slept, his hair like a dark halo on the bolster. I put my head on his chest and he lifted his hand to caress me; a rush of blood, deep as claret, flowed from his palm on to my breast.
Mme Henri was at her door when I arrived home. Christophe had come with me; he stopped to look at the portrait of the man on the wall and frowned.
“I won’t stay long, Madeleine,” he said. “I need to be somewhere.”
I took his bandaged hands in mine. “I know, Christophe.”
Mme Henri coughed. “Bonjour, monsieur,” she said to Christophe, then turned to me. “Madeleine, your maman is not well.”
“What’s the matter with her?”
Madame tapped her temple. “She seems confused; she came downstairs in her nightclothes this morning.”
“Again? Ai, ai, I don’t know what is wrong with that woman.”
Christophe took my hand and we rushed up the stairs. I let us in and called out to Maman.
She emerged from her room, holding her head. “You had no business staying out all night, Madeleine; it was wrong of you.”
“But, Maman, you knew I would be away last night. I told you I was staying with Christophe.”
“Did I? I don’t recall.”
I placed a packet of silver-wrapped fish in her hands. “See, I’ve bought your favourites: chocolate sardines.”
Maman looked at the poissons d’Avril. “My brain is a sardine today.” She toppled a little and grabbed on to the table. “My head hurts.”
“Sit, sit,” Christophe said, and he guided Maman back into her room and on to the slipper chair. He sat on Maman’s bed and unwound the bandages covering his hands. The cloths were rusted with his blood, but when he threw them to the floor and rubbed his thumbs into his palms I saw that his wounds were gone. I gasped.
“How can this be, Christophe?”
“Shush,” he said, gently, then he stood in front of Maman and laid one hand on her head and the other on his chest. Christophe closed his eyes. “I am swollen like a wineskin with the love of God,” he said. “Be well, woman.”
Maman sat in her low chair and swayed a little. She blinked and smiled.
“Madeleine,” she said. “I feel quite well.”
She laughed and reached for the chocolate sardines I had brought her; unpeeling one after the other from their silver paper, she stuffed them into her mouth like a starving child.
Like everyone else, I suppose, I have always found the change in the seasons wrenching. I had just gotten used to the architecture of the bare trees when the buds came. Suddenly they were more welcome than the stark branches, and I marvelled at how they unfolded their tight green hearts and became leaves.
I went into Notre-Dame des Blancs Manteaux and lit three candles. Always three, since Christophe told me that to light two was bad luck. I watched their guttering flames: one each for Maman, for Christophe and for me. I thanked God for the spring, then left the church and stood under the tree that flanked Christophe’s building. I could almost hear the awakening in its limbs. Looking through the grille from the outside door, I saw light flowing down the stairs. I went in and up; the door to Christophe’s room was ajar. I pushed it but could tell before I stepped in that he was not there. I stood just inside the doorway. Everything was as it had always been except Christophe’s bed was empty and the air no longer smelled of the Seine.
Nuala Ní Chonchúir’s new collection of short stories, Mother America, is published by New Island