‘Symptoms, in reality, are nothing more than the cry from suffering organs.’
I am late. Disorientated. Staring at the open wardrobe when I need socks from the drawer. Stirring salt into my coffee. Outside the arched entrance of Sâlpetrière my stomach groans as I anticipate the smell that overwhelms so many of my days: the stink of boiled cabbage mixed with ethanol.
Moving through the lobby, I bid Madame Lemont, the concierge, a good morning. As usual, her bonnet barely nods in reply. My footsteps echo on the stone floor. I’ve been told that prostitutes were once massacred here and if you listen carefully you can still hear their screams in the buzzing silence. I am barely past reception when the sight of Victorine Meurent accompanied by another female surprises me. They sit on a bench attached to the wall.
‘Victorine, what are you doing here?’ ‘Dr Gachet, Paul, we need to see you immediately!’ ‘I am already running late,’ I say, but the look on Victorine’s
face is a determined stare. ‘Come this way.’ Looking over my shoulder, Madame
Lemont’s countenance shrivels in disgust. I wonder if it is only here, in this wintery hallway, that she finds human compassion so difficult to abide.
Victorine holds the arm of her companion with both hands and follows me through to the atrium and up some stairs. I can hear the rustle of petticoats as we climb. We go into a ward that I know to be unoccupied. I perch on one of the beds. The women stand.
‘What’s going on?’ I ask.
Victorine’s friend has her head bowed. She has a skull full of thick, matted blonde curls. I look down at a pair of dirty pink shoes. When I raise my eyes Victorine meets my gaze and vigorously shakes her friend’s arm.
‘Tell him,’ she says. ‘Tell him what you told me.’
Her friend lifts her head. There is lightning in her glare. The girl tugs her arm away from Victorine’s grasp and hurls herself towards me. Her nails are talons directed at my face. I catch her wrists. She thrashes and tries to bite me.
‘You bloody men are all the same,’ she screams. ‘All you want to do is to cut off my head,’ and in seconds she’s a snake on the floor reaching for my ankles.
‘Go on, tell him who you are,’ Victorine calls loudly. ‘He knows who I am. It’s him. He betrayed me.’ ‘Tell him anyway,’ Victorine goads. ‘I am,’ she says, on all fours now, wobbling her head like a coquette, ‘Marie Antoinette.’ Silence.
I stand with my chin in my hand. Victorine’s eyes are questioning mine. This maniac is hardly out of childhood.
‘Wait here,’ I tell Victorine.
In the corridor I bump straight into a young nurse who I have never seen before.
‘We’re in the midst of an emergency, come with me.’
There are often screams reverberating in these halls. Hospital staff huddled together to contain a dangerous patient. But the girl is quiet now. It must appear to be a silent emergency, like a suicide.
Victorine paces as we enter the room. Her temporary ward rolls on the floor and moans.
‘Yes doctor.’ ‘Your name?’ ‘Morrisot. Catherine Morrisot.’ ‘Nurse Morrisot, this woman on the floor, her name is....’ ‘Bella,’ Victorine interjects. ‘This girl Bella, I have good reason to ask you to look after her for an hour or so. Please keep her here, in this room, and be kind. If anyone asks what you’re doing, tell them you’re acting on the orders of Doctor Paul Gachet. Do you understand?’
Nurse Morrisot nods. I gesture to Victorine, and to the sound of our footsteps we exit the building. When we reach the arched entrance to the courtyard, I thrust my hands in my trouser pockets, turn towards Victorine and ask her to explain.
‘Yesterday, I was at home about to begin painting. I’d set up an easel by the open window. I quite liked the feel of the dim light making a grey background for Notre Dame. It was damp. There was a horrible smell of manure and a mean wind blew the candle out.
‘I said “Merde!”, then someone called through the door, “Mademoiselle Victorine Meurent, I have a note for you from Bella Laffaire.” It was a very young male voice. “I’m sorry, I don’t know Bella Laffaire,” I said.’
Victorine paused and I pictured the scene. I had been to Victorine’s garret once when she had a sore throat. It was just one room with a bed and a chair, some clothes and cooking utensils, and a guitar.
‘He said, “You saw her a few days ago at La Pigalle. Mademoiselle Meurent, it was when Bella was arrested.”
‘You remember, Dr Gachet, Paul, you were there?’ I gave my assent. ‘Well naturally, I was reluctant to let the boy in. I remember swaying a little, trying to think of an alternative, but I could not think of a satisfactory reason to refute him. So, I drew back the bolt and threw open the door. He could not have been any older than nine or ten, wearing a double-breasted coat with silver buttons. His had pale and sickly skin and a rivulet of mucus ran out of his nose. “You have a note?” I asked, without inviting him in. He was like a little soldier handing me a message.’
Victorine takes a crumpled piece of paper from behind the ruffle at the neck of her blue velvet dress. She hands me the note.
Mademoiselle Victorine Meurent I am dreaming of your kindness and that you will come and get me because the policemen are animals who think that when a woman needs to sell her body she should give it away for free and that it is a game to beat her and whilst this goes on there is no hope of making enough money to pay for the keep of an invalid mother some snotty-nosed kids and a father who drinks spirits till he beats her Bella Laffaire
‘“I need to paint,” I told the boy, but he just stood there silently until I waved my arms in the air from the sheer frustration of being disturbed and said, “Where is she?”
‘He led me to the police station where they kept me waiting for half an hour. Then a gendarme with a fat stomach said that I could take her if I gave him twenty francs. Twenty francs! He thought I was her madam. I paid the money and believed that would be the end of it but she followed me home. She stood on the pavement for half an hour shouting up at me about the French court, many lovers and having her head cut off, and that’s where I found her this morning, trying to sleep off her madness under a tree.’
Mesmerised will be published by Indigo Dreams Publishing on the 14th of October.