Excerpt from Significance by Jo Mazelis (Seren Books - September 2014)
Creatures of Habit
For the third night in a row Lucy is drawn to La Coquille Bleue. There she is, smiling at her old friend Madame Gallo as she seats herself at a table near the bar. And while she looks at the menu, she’s sipping milky-white Pastis and remembering the bullet-hard aniseed balls she sometimes ate as a kid.
Tonight she orders steak with salad, refuses potatoes when asked. Nods thoughtlessly when the waitress asks if she wants the steak bleu. Nods vigorously when she asked if she wants vin rouge.
Saying ‘yes’ she finds, has a sort of sweet madness about. Yes, yes, yes. Oui, oui, oui. She likes the sound of the words – in either language the effect is soft and welcoming.
The steak when it comes, when she stabs it with her knife, bleeds. Red wine and red blood.
She finishes her meal and lights a cigarette, then gets the new silver compact from her bag and applies a slick, bright coat of the red lipstick she bought five days ago. She smiles and nods at Madame Gallo and wonders what it is precisely that makes the woman look so utterly French. She imagines her into black and white photos by Lartigue, Brassai and Cartier-Bresson.
It’s the sculptural quality of the woman’s black hair, Lucy decides, and the fact that French women don’t opt to go frizzy blonde as they age, instead remaining as they were when young. She will try to do the same she thinks. I’ll stay here, never go back, never say a word to anyone – not Thom nor anyone at the college nor Mum and Dad. She feels mildly guilty when she considers her parents’ reactions to such a mysterious disappearance, remembering as if through a fog their reactions to her younger escapades, but pushes it aside to concentrate instead on this delicious dream of transformation. She’d be known as ‘the English woman’. Her accent, mild as it now was, would not reveal her Celtic roots, not here where the only thing to notice was her – so far – very poor French.
She picks up her glass and downs the last mouthful of wine, stubs out her cigarette.
Pays at the bar, leaving a generous tip. ‘Merci! Merci. Bon nuit, Madame Gallo.’
She leaves the restaurant waving gaily and calling, ‘Au revoir!’ and wondering if all the damn foreign tourists sitting in the glass-fronted atrium think she is a native.
It’s earlier now than on the previous two nights. The sky is a darkening violet watercolour streaked with scarlet. There’s no sign of the young man or his brother. She scans the street, looking up and down. She studies the house opposite, the one with acid-yellow shutters. Most of the upstairs windows are flung open; some, where they catch the light from the setting sky, glow rosy pink.
She crosses the street diagonally towards a pay phone. Once there she lifts the handset and holds it to her ear. Pretends to dial, pretends to feed coins into the slot, pretends to speak, to listen and nod, all the time gazing over at the house with yellow shutters.
During this charade, she thinks about where she’s come from; the small rented flat in Hammersmith that has been her home for nearly two years. During her first months in London the light was, or seemed to be, grey – grey and thin and unforgiving. The western coast where she’d grown up was hardly known for its sunshine and achingly blue skies, but London had somehow registered its presence on her consciousness during that first rainy October, and now that image of London was fixed in her mind.
She was meant to be back at her job as a part-time lecturer just over a week from now and she was also meant to have finished the final draft of her PhD dissertation. There were other things she was meant to be doing too. Her life was full of loose ends; it was frayed, unravelling, irredeemable. Her sense of dread about work was beginning to seep into where she was now. Freedom and happiness, the trip itself had been dying as soon as it had begun.
Even here in France, she had taken up another routine, as if coming to La Coquille Bleue night after night might give her a sense of security and permanence.
She continued to nod occasionally as she held the telephone to her ear. She imagined she was listening to some distant speaker who spoke such wisdom and sense that she could only absorb it in silence.
She should perhaps not play these games – what begins as a perfectly normal flight of fancy could harden into madness. She’d had a breakdown at the age of eighteen when she was an art student. Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s ladder-backed chairs still gave her the horrors. She’d been trying to write an essay about form and function in design. There was something about those chairs, their Presbyterian starkness and the unnecessary height of the back rest had made her flip. That and the way she was living: the starvation diet, the drink, the vampiric men and the unwise experiments with drugs. Poor Charles Rennie would have had a fit if he’d known that somehow his chairs reminded her of swastikas and horror films and that she’d had to tear their pictures from the library book and burn them.
Maybe it was happening again. Now. Here in Northern France. A Somme madness, where there was too much spilled blood in the soil.
A light came on in the downstairs room of the house with yellow shutters. A warmer orange light that seemed to both welcome and repel her.
She saw a human shape move like a shadow across the window. A man who moved with a confident stride. Not the younger brother then as his gait was hesitant, weighed down by a tangle inside his head, the permanent physical knot of brain damage.
She found herself thinking about the rabbits she’d watched in the fields behind her parents’ bungalow last time she’d been home, the way they’d take short runs then suddenly freeze. The busy activity of foraging, then what? Sudden fear and the compulsion to be still. The dream of invisibility?
The front door of the house opened. It was painted yellow like the shutters; it caught the last of the light as it swung open and flashed briefly before it was closed again. A tall figure hesitated by the door. She could not see his face. He was pulling on a light-coloured jacket, buttoning it, checking the pockets. Then he moved down to the front gate and into the pooled light of a streetlamp.
She nodded at her imaginary friend on the other end of the phone, mouthed meaningless words.
The man, and indeed it was the older brother, walked towards the telephone box. His pace was neither hurried nor was it quite an aimless amble. She was certain he had not seen or recognised her. He passed within a yard of the phone booth.
She replaced the receiver, left the booth and, after a moment’s hesitation, began to follow him.
She followed him without quite knowing why. Perhaps because she wanted to talk to someone in English. Maybe, she thought, this is a Babel trait – a sudden inexplicable need for someone whose language you speak, whose tribe you belong to.
Or is it the desire for adventure? Or curiosity which, as she knows, killed the cat.
He walks down a wide road, crosses another, then cuts down a narrow cobblestoned alley and into a broad tree-lined street of residential houses. Lucy is momentarily distracted when an old man steps from one of the houses as she passes. He is bent double with age and his gaunt face is distinguished by extravagant wild black eyebrows that give him a surprised, even electrified expression. At the end of his outstretched arm is a domed pewter-coloured birdcage. Inside the cage is a gleaming blue-black creature with a vivid orange beak. The sight is so improbable that Lucy feels more than ever that she inhabits a surreal dream. Her step slows, then she recovers herself. She catches sight of her prey near the end of the street and picks up her pace.
He turns into a wide boulevard where there are a number of bars. People are sitting outside at tables, eating and drinking. A perfect evening. Couples and families promenade. A pretty girl wheels her bike along and when she stops to chat with a group of young men three of them rise and exchange kisses with her. They talk animatedly for a minute or so, then the girl moves on, steering her bike confidently amongst the meandering crowds until she crosses the road and goes out of sight.
Up ahead the man is still walking along at an unhurried pace. Sometimes Lucy loses sight of him when he is absorbed by small crowds or her view is obscured by slight turns in the road. She decides to follow him just to the end of this street. Her game is beginning to lose its edge and there was no purpose to it in the beginning, only the mischievous idea of acting on impulse.
She slows, decides to walk a little further and then perhaps to stop at one of the little cafés for a coffee and a cigarette. She begins to pay more attention to the tables and chairs on the terraces outside the bars. All of them seem to be occupied and she doesn’t want to share a table, wants to be entirely alone. Unmistakably alone. The English woman, mysterious, self- reliant and confident. Needing no one.
Further back, the cafés had been emptier and there were plenty of places to sit. She changes her plan. Walk another thirty yards or so, then turn around. She marks out the spot where she plans to give up; there, where a Plane tree’s branches and leaves have embraced a lamppost, so that its ornately shaded light seems to sprout from it like a glowing amber flower.
She is so busy thinking about this, projecting the future of her next half-hour, that she fails to see that the man she has been following for the last twenty minutes has disappeared into the very café where she plans to abandon her game.
As she nears the tree, she realises that she has finally lost him. She stops walking and scans her surroundings. Trains her eye further down the road, then looks at the other side of the street – nothing. She searches the faces at the tables outside the cafés. He isn’t there, or anywhere to be seen. It is as if he has evaporated.
She is still a few yards from the tree. A question remains. Should she continue as planned or give up now? She hesitates, suddenly aware of how strange and lost she must look. How crazy.
This, she has always thought, must be the borderline between utter madness and a milder form of disturbance. Self awareness. Embarrassment at the thought of being perceived as crazy.
As if to prove she isn’t insane, to show she has somewhere to go, something important to do, she looks at her watch. Looks without actually registering the time. She walks on, then stops under the tree. She gets her guidebook from her bag, pretends to study it as she leans a shoulder on the tree, assuming artificial casualness.
She looks about her, then again at her watch. She gives a moue of disappointment, closes the book and returns it to her bag. Looking up she sees that there is now a small table free and decides that this is fate – that this is where she was meant to come, and that now something will happen.
A waiter offers Lucy the menu, which she waves away, asking instead for a black coffee.
It is a pleasant night, there is a slight breeze, but it’s balmy and she enjoys the sensation of the warm air on her bare legs, the soft movement of it over her face and hair. She could happily sit here for an hour or two.
The coffee comes promptly, an espresso, thick and oily in a very small cup. She adds four cubes of sugar. She’ll be awake all night after drinking that. Maybe it’s a mistake. She’s agitated enough already, without sending a poisoned chalice of caffeine and processed white demon carbs careering through her system. She should have something else; something that soothes her and will knock her out enough to sleep when she gets back to the hotel. Insomnia has stalked her all her life, lying dormant for months and even years at a time, only to return again and again, as it had a month ago – nudging her awake at ten to four in the morning with her mind in the grave.
The outside seating area is arranged in an apron of tables bordered on two sides by low wooden troughs filled with glossy-leaved plants. Her table, at the furthest edge of the terrace is next to one of these planters. She tips the coffee into the planter, amazed by how it soaks in quickly, leaving only a dark stain on the surface of the earth. Coffee probably isn’t very good for it. She hopes no one saw her. But even if they did, what does it matter? She’ll never see them again. They’ll never see her. And maybe the explanation will be, Oh, she’s English? Well, that explains it.
She replaces the empty cup in the saucer, catches the waiter’s eye. ‘More coffee?’ he asks.
‘No,’ she says and orders a half litre of the house red.
‘Anything else, bread, olives, cheese?’ he offers, smiling.
No, just the wine. Merci beaucoup.
He smiles, though his eyes remain cold. He doesn’t like me, she thinks.
He retreats to the interior of the building. Inside she can see a small semi-circular bar where a number of men are gathered on high stools. A slot machine blinks gaudily in the background showing a cascade of playing cards that are illuminated one by one to give the effect of movement.
He does not like me, she thinks again, and gets her mirror and lipstick from her bag. Studies her face, applies more lipstick. She sees nothing to dislike in her reflection, only the slightly surprised, slightly disappointed look of a lonely young woman who nobody loves, not really. Not even Thom – who just pretends.
The waiter returns and puts the carafe and a glass on the table. She thanks him without catching his eye, without smiling. She drinks the first glass of wine quickly, then pours another. Wellbeing seems to flow through her and she smiles wryly at the thought of her own silliness. She is amused by her little spy game and forgives herself the absurdity of it. She is even at the stage of composing this escapade into a story to tell friends. ‘Oh hey, and one night I got so bored I followed this guy – this uptight Canadian. What was I planning? God knows! Maybe I’d just have said “hi.” Maybe – oh well – it didn’t happen.’
Her friends would laugh and gaze at her wide-eyed. They wouldn’t choose to holiday alone, not unless they had to for some reason. Maybe she’d add a few adventures – sexual liaisons, romantic interludes, complications with jealous wives, intrigue. Why not? It would keep them on their toes. Keep them in awe of her. No one would dare challenge her or call her a liar.
But then it might get back to Thom and he might not see the funny side. Might object to looking like a cuckold, even if he knew it wasn’t true. But then again, she and Thom were finished. Over. And no, he didn’t love her. Never had.
She’d picked up her glass and raised it to her lips ready to drink, when a shadow fell over her.
‘Did you follow me here?’
He was standing with the light behind him so at first all she saw was a dark silhouette, his blond hair haloed in the light.
‘You heard me.’ He shifted his weight onto one foot, cocked his head to one side so that now he was illuminated by the light instead of obscured by it.
‘Oh, hello,’ she said, and smiled at him.
‘Did you follow me?’
She stared at him, feeling caught out, but also to no small degree, entirely innocent. She hadn’t known he was here precisely. She’d followed him, but given up when she lost sight of him. The finer point of the matter was debatable and she resented his accusation and particularly the unfortunate loudness of his voice. Her smile fell away.
‘Quite honestly...’ she began to say, then stopped and shook her head. She shrugged her shoulders as if shaking him off. She would not deign to even speak to him, leave alone utter a denial. She sipped her wine and without looking at him took a cigarette from her bag and lit it, using the matches he’d given her the day before.
Silence is a useful tool, she had often found, no one could ever accuse her of protesting too much.
Roughly, he pulled out the chair opposite, scraping it noisily over the concrete slabs. He sat down.
‘Do sit down,’ she said, meaning to convey sarcasm, but somehow failing. He leant back in the chair, put his elbows on the armrests and laced his fingers together, then stared at her.
‘Look,’ she said at last. ‘I’m sorry about your brother. I’m sorry if I upset him in some way…’
‘He’s not upset…’
‘Well, then I’m sorry if you think…’ She stopped herself as she was about to say, I’m sorry if you think that I look down on him, on you because he’s… She didn’t want to vocalise that. Somehow mentioning any form of social judgment seemed to expose the truth of her feelings.
He waited, then turned his head, signalled the waiter and ordered a beer.
‘Why did you say I was angry?’ she asked.
‘Because you were.’
‘I wasn’t. Why would I be angry?’
‘That’s not true.’
He made a quick snort of contempt.
‘Maybe you’re the one who is angry and so you view the world that way. You imagine everyone thinks like you,’ she said.
‘I know what I see.’
‘Why did you follow me?’
‘I didn’t. I’ve already told you I didn’t.’
‘I saw you. You were in the phone box near our house spying on us. Do you think I’m stupid?’
‘I didn’t know you were here,’ she said and with this small truth, found that she was able to meet his eye.
They gazed at each other for almost a minute, then he unlaced his fingers, reached for his beer and took three big gulps. She didn’t know why men drank in that way, pouring liquid – it could be water or milk as much as beer – down their throats while their Adam’s apples worked up and down like slow pistons. Maybe it was a form of sexual display. Or alternatively it was a show of power – drawing attention to a vulnerable part of the body – the throat – and saying in some oblique way – you dare!
Or he was just thirsty. Then again, displaying his needs, his wilfulness in satisfying these needs, was a way of signalling to her that he might, if he chose, consume her.
There was, despite his accusations and insults and anger, an indisputable sexual charge in the air between them – had been since the start. She was emboldened by this idea, it galvanised her into playing the role of the minx. ‘So what if I did follow you?’ she said. ‘I mean, why would I do that, do you suppose?’
He raised one eyebrow; an enviable trick
She had finished the last of her wine. Had drunk enough to be feeling wired up and full of energy. Time to go dancing, time to laugh with just a soupçon of too much gaiety. The devil-may-care adrenaline pulsing in her temples, invading her brain with elaborate dreams and schemes.
Why, if she offended him so much, had he chosen (however gruffly) to sit with her? He was as much drawn to her as she was to him.
But she kept her head.
‘Do you want another drink?’ he asked her.
The waiter was hovering by the table. Here was a debatable situation – was he merely alerting her to the waiter’s presence or was he asking if he could buy her a drink? The money – who paid for what – had nothing to do with it really – it was more a question of whether they would continue with this – whatever this was exactly.
‘I should have a coffee I suppose,’ she said, addressing him rather than the waiter.
‘Another of those,’ he said, nodding at the empty carafe. ‘And a beer for me.’
The waiter turned on his heel and was gone.
‘I said I’d have a coffee.’
‘No, you didn’t. You said you ought to have coffee, which suggests that you really wanted wine.’
‘God! – What are you – a psychologist?’
‘How did you guess?’
‘Very funny,’ she said, though it occurred to her that he wasn’t joking and was indeed a psychologist. The last thing she needed.
A second carafe of wine was placed before her. She half-filled her glass, determined to take it easy. She should have had coffee, but he was right, she wanted wine.
‘What’s your name?’ she asked him, twisting the stem of her wine glass slowly, watching how the dense ruby-coloured liquid moved and caught the light.
He didn’t reciprocate by asking her name, which made her momentarily angry at the oversight, but then she took to the idea of being without a name, the mystery of it.
‘So, Scott,’ she said, unable to resist trying out his name on her tongue. ‘What do you do for fun around here?’
‘I let strange women follow me, then I fuck them.’
Then before she had a chance to really absorb this remark, let alone respond, he stood up and crossed quickly to a nearby table where he picked up a discarded newspaper.
He’d left his last remark hanging in the air. Had abandoned it like a lost balloon, ‘I let strange women follow me, then I fuck them…’
He came back, sat down and carefully opened, then refolded the newspaper so that the front page was uppermost. It was a copy of The Guardian, a day or so old, with a brown ring marking the word ‘Guantanamo’ in the headlines.
She frowned, watching disbelievingly as he fussily smoothed the newspaper’s cover page with the flat of his hand. She could not now say ‘Pardon?’ or give him some coquettish riposte, but neither could she forget what he’d said. Nor what it implied.
He was, she supposed, a not very nice human being.
Why did that come to mind? The phrase ‘not very nice’? It was the sort of thing her mother would say, had said about Lucy’s best friend, Tracy. ‘That girl’s not very nice. I don’t like her.’ Whereas for Lucy that was the very essence of her friend’s appeal. Tracy smoked and drank and read the NME and did things with boys that she described to Lucy in graphic terms afterwards. So when Lucy’s mother said that Tracy wasn’t very nice, it almost acted as a recommendation, a character reference. Who wanted nice when not nice was so exciting and dangerous?
‘So why did you come here?’ he asked, shaking Lucy out of a reverie in which she was thirteen again and wearing Converse baseball boots and ripped jeans, with an old plaid flannel shirt tied permanently around her waist as she cried extravagantly over a newspaper photograph of Kurt Cobain.
‘I just wanted a drink.’
‘No,’ he said. ‘I meant why did you come to France?’
He shrugged back, then turned to gaze down the street as if she bored him.
Why had she not just answered him? He was perhaps only making conversation, attempting to be friendly, to undo the aggression that had marked the start of this acquaintance.
‘I’m sorry,’ she said – why was she apologising – she hated saying sorry. ‘I didn’t understand what you meant.’
He turned slowly to face her, his gaze seemed to track her features, moving between her eyes and mouth, only once dropping down to glance at her breasts. A beat of time passed, then he spoke.
‘I meant what I said. The question was clear enough, surely?’
‘Yes, but the answer is so simple. Why does anyone come to France? Or go anywhere for that matter? Dull as it may seem I’m here for a holiday. To get away. To relax. To have some fun.’
‘Ah, fun,’ he said and he might as well have made that clichéd hand sign which marks two inverted commas in the air around the word. She felt belittled – which must have been his intention.
‘Well, you asked the question,’ she said.
What had made her say that damn cliché about fun? Momentarily she pictured herself throwing her glass of wine in his face.
But her glass (she had automatically, as if she were really about to pick it up and throw it, looked at it) was empty. Empty and she couldn’t remember drinking it – a worrying sign.
‘Who are you here with?’ he asked then.
‘Ah.’ He raised that one eyebrow again as if to show that some assumption he’d had about her had been confirmed.
‘I prefer it that way.’
‘You don’t like people?’
‘No, that’s not it.’ Why was he making her feel so defensive, so exposed?
‘You just like your own company?’
‘Hmm.’ He absorbed this. Maybe he was, as he had claimed, a psychologist.
She emptied the carafe into her glass, filling it to the brim. To hell in a handcart, she thought, then not caring how it looked, she bent her head to her glass and drank a quarter of an inch of the liquid without lifting it from the table.
He stood up.
‘Are you off, then?’ she said.
‘Yeah,’ he stretched himself, sighed, shrugged.
A rapid succession of signs which were contradictory and unreadable. Except that leaving was in and of itself the most uncomplicated sign of all.
He disappeared inside the bar. She watched as he stood there chatting for a few minutes with the man behind the counter. He looked more relaxed, threw his head back and laughed at something the other man had said. Then the man on the stool next to Scott leaned towards him – evidently in order to say something private – and as he spoke he flicked his eyes in her direction. Scott turned and glanced at her. She looked away quickly. She heard laughter again, but had no way of knowing if it was about her.
She gazed up at the large plane tree on the pavement outside the café, noticed for the first time that curling up its trunk and hung about its branches were unlit fairy lights. It would look so pretty if they were switched on, she thought. She took it personally that no one had made the effort – it was as if the world had conspired to always deal her the third-rate experience, the uninspired. The unadorned.
She glanced once more into the bar, Scott was now half-sitting on a bar stool, one foot on the rung, his knee sharply bent, the other leg straight, foot planted firmly on the floor with the toe pointed towards the exit. A waitress was standing next to him smoking a cigarette.
Lucy looked at the wine in her glass and realising that she had already drunk too much, she picked it up and added it to the coffee in the planter. It was swallowed up quickly; the plant was as thirsty, as empty as she was.