‘Non merci, j’attends l’autobus.’
Madame Sebaillon pricked her ears. There were no buses in Paris today - did the woman not know? But, after all, her accent was foreign. Why must the English always speak French in such an ugly way? Mme Sebaillon sighed. She had noticed the young woman leave the park and stand by the roadside; noticed a car pull up alongside. Now, hearing the exchange, Mme Sebaillon stopped and stared: black leggings, black smock, black ballet pumps, loose chestnut hair. An artist? Mme Sebaillon raised her eyebrows; she knew about artists. But she also knew this area. She decided that this girl-woman was a stranger here.
Before long she saw the young woman lean through the open window, the driver clearing the passenger seat. Mme Sebaillon was outraged. There may be a strike, but surely the woman should not talk in so familiar a way to someone who stopped his car for her. Mme Sebaillon still kept her promise, made long ago to Jean-Louis, to be cautious around the park by day, to avoid it altogether after dark. That young woman should watch out, Mme Sebaillon said to herself.
She resumed her slow walk. But the slamming of a door made her turn: the woman was now in the car. Does she not know his type? He must be sixty-five at least. Old enough to be her father, even her grandfather.... Old enough to be my husband.
She watched him, shadowy in the driver’s seat, a florid, fleshy face with a smile she would not trust, one hand on the wheel. He revved the car. The young woman began searching her bag; she looked anxious. She might well be. Stupid cow. Yet Mme Sebaillon could not repress the slither of excitement that ran through her. She watched the car drive off, and a ray from the autumn sun seemed to follow them.
Shaking her head she continued, turning left through the park gates. This was her shortcut to the Marché des Pauvres Filles. There were closer markets, she knew that, but the Marché des Pauvres Filles was where she would find the freshest vegetables for her cuisine, the finest flowers to place on Jean-Louis’s grave.
Something caught her eye under a bench. Litter. Why did everybody drop litter these days? Then she saw it was not rubbish. It was a small, pink mobile phone. Mme Sebaillon looked around. Apart from a distant crow, there was no sign of life. She stooped to the ground, her black coat falling about her, and quickly picked it up. It was smooth and cold. She turned it over, considered the keyboard, the screen. Suddenly it rang, making her start. Onto the screen came the words Dan calling: English. The young woman had come from the park. Maybe it belonged to her. On impulse she pressed the green button and raised the phone to her ear. Her heart was beating very fast.
‘Hi,’ said a man’s voice; then on getting no response, he added, ‘Julia?’
Mme Sebaillon held her breath, then with carefully enunciated words she said: ‘I am not Julia. She has left her phone.’
‘Who is this?’
‘I am Mme Vérité Sebaillon.’
‘Who? What are you doing with Julia’s phone?’
‘I tell you. She has left it in the park.’
‘What park? Where’s Julia?’
‘I am by the Bois de Boulogne. I do not know this Julia. Perhaps she is the woman who went with the old man.’
‘What old man? What are you talking about?’
‘I tell you everything I know.’ Mme Sebaillon hesitated. Although she could see his name was Dan, she said: ‘Who are you?’
‘Not sure it’s any of your business. But how is Julia going to get her phone back?’
‘I do not know.’
‘And who is this old man?’
‘I do not know.’
‘This is getting us nowhere.’ He paused.
Was this Dan the woman’s lover? Her husband? Mme Sebaillon longed to know more. He had a nice voice. Sympa. He continued:
‘I suppose you’re trying to help. I wonder, could I meet you and collect the phone?’
‘Oui.’ Mme Sebaillon said quickly. She tried to suppress her excitement. ‘Perhaps this is possible.’
‘The old man you mentioned - what did he look like?’
‘He was ugly. And very old. I do not think he had good intentions.’
‘But Julia wouldn’t get into just anyone’s car.... Are you sure that was Julia?’
Mme Sebaillon described the woman she’d seen.
‘Sounds like her.’ Dan paused, then said: ‘Where can we meet?’
‘I will be at Marché des Pauvres Filles, in the 16th. There is a café. I will be there within an hour. If you like.’
‘Yes I like, I mean that’s fine. And - thank you. I appreciate this.’
Mme Sebaillon considered the mobile then pressed a tiny red button and slipped it into her handbag. ‘Dan,’ she said aloud, tasting the word with her tongue. There was a lightness to her step as she continued. She had trod the same path through the park nearly every day for the past forty years. But today felt different.
Today she noticed the pattern of the leaves on the ground: red maple, yellow chestnut, green lime. Today she saw the fat pigeons drinking at the fountain. She saw a young boy tripped by his dog, his mother hurry to his aid.
Today Mme Sebaillon had a secret: she was to meet a man.
Perhaps today she would skip her visit to the cemetery. After all, it wasn’t as if Jean-Louis were in his grave. Maybe over coffee she would tell this Dan the strange story. She sighed. It was a tragedy. The fault of the beach authorities, she would explain. How careless that they could not find her husband’s body. Their holiday had started with such promise. Jean-Louis booked them on the night sleeper. St Jean de Luz had enchanted her. How romantic was the setting, the sandy bay he took her to for the picnic on that last day, thirty-five years ago. The beach to themselves: still she remembered the noise of the crashing waves from the Atlantic, the mewing of the gulls. If only he hadn’t plied her with wine. Wine always made her sleepy. (And she’d drunk more than she generally did.) Jean-Louis kept refilling her glass - he was in fine humour. He said he’d have his share after his swim. But when she woke up, he was nowhere. The beach was deserted.
She would not tell Dan the rest of the story. The preposterous suggestion made by the police that he was not dead but intended to go missing. There was no need to relate that. Nor about the authorities ransacking his studio as part of the process of unfreezing his assets, for which a declaration of his death was required. It was intolerable the way they had insinuated from a quick look around that he had run off with a model. Did they not understand artists? Nudes were his forte, she explained to the police, to the insurance company. He used many models. True, sometimes he had affairs. But they meant nothing. She, too, had been his model, in the days when she was a ballet dancer - she was an artist in her own way. Jean-Louis once called her his best model, his only wife. She tried to forget the amusement she’d seen in their expressions as she told them this.
Just because his last model had also vanished around the time that he died, the authorities tried to concoct a story. But that one was South American, Mme Sebaillon explained, and must have returned home. It was true that his wallet was not found, and that a large sum of money had been taken out the day before, but that was, no doubt, for a reason. Though what that reason could be Mme Sebaillon had never been able to work out. It ceased to concern her after Jean-Louis’s assets were made over to her. His wealth was not great, but enough for Mme Sebaillon to compose a new life.
In time she sold Jean-Louis’s studio and most of his paintings, though she kept his sketch of her. It hung above the mantle-piece, in her salon.
Over coffee with the strange man, it would be sufficient to explain that Jean-Louis had drowned.
She reached the far edge of the park and walked along the side street to the market. The vegetables looked as if they had been polished; the stall-holders smilingly greeted her. Today she would be busy: first, there was coffee. She shivered again with excitement. Then she had her sister coming to lunch.
Poor Prudence, she thought at once. How shaming to be a woman and never to have married, never to have slept with a man. I shall make her a fine soup. I shall tell her the account of the old man driving away with the young Englishwoman - she can make of that what she will. Then - Mme Sebaillon breathed deeply and smiled - then I shall tell her about my coffee with ‘Dan.’ Quietly she said his name again. It thrilled her, yet Vérité Sebaillon realised that however much she looked forward to this meeting, she anticipated even more recounting it to her sister. She found their chats deeply satisfying, not least because Prudence always had the refined ability to see things in exactly the same way she did.
Mme Sebaillon’s eye was caught by a flower, a solitary white lily. It is perfect, she thought, as she bought it. ‘Dan’ will notice it in the café. Then I can explain how each day I lay flowers on Jean-Louis’s grave.
But Dan did not show up. Mme Sebaillon waited, irritably sipping her coffee. The lily lay on the table. She took out the pink phone and looked at it, as if expecting it to provide an answer. It said ‘missed call,’ but she was unfamiliar with its workings. She dropped it back into her bag and went home.
The following day, Vérité Sebaillon set off as usual for the park. She had been both intrigued and disappointed by her lunch with her sister. Her initial enthusiasm to tell Prudence not only her account of ‘Julia’ accepting a lift, but of ‘Dan,’ whom she had so nearly met for coffee, waned early on. Vérité quickly realised that her sister was not on this occasion interested in anything other than her own narrow life. It was selfish of her to be so preoccupied with the trouble that had occurred in her apartment block. Vérité felt justified in being cross. Even more so as she had been unable to get Prudence to explain the source of the agitation until the two of them finished the bottle of wine. Prudence would start, then stop again, until Vérité became quite exasperated. ‘Either tell me or don’t,’ she said. ‘I am not sure that I care.’ Finally Prudence was ready to talk.
Prudence started by reminding her sister that she lived in a very genteel block, a nice neighbourhood, a place that was calm, well-managed, decent. Vérité impatiently agreed. She knew all this. It was indeed all these things, though of course in a less desirable area than her own, and Prudence’s flat was considerably smaller. Poor Prudence: how dark her flat was and only one small bedroom. She, on the other hand, even though she had no use for both, had two large bedrooms, a fine sitting room with a chandelier.
The police had been called, Prudence was now saying, and the gardienne, but it was too late, they had disappeared.
‘Who had disappeared?’ snapped Vérité, It seemed a dull story, unlike the one she herself was dying to tell. Why it probably involved nothing more than a stolen flower pot.
‘The couple. Though I am not convinced they were married. I just saw them as the lift went up and down. They seemed very young.’ She gave a sort of yelping judder and raised her handkerchief to her eyes.
‘Prudence what are you talking about? What had a couple in a lift to do with the problem in your flat?’
‘They broke it.’ she shuddered again.
‘The lift.’ Prudence’s voice was shrill.
‘You are not making sense.’
‘And the noises they made - pour me another glass - it makes me quite faint remembering. Like animals - but why in a lift? I can tell you, I will never set foot in it again, even though I’m on the fourth floor. It is too disgusting.’
At last Vérité understood. Her eyes opened wide and she raised her chin, to give the impression of looking down upon her sister. Despite her reluctance she was impressed. She had respect for this drama. There was no way she would tell her tale now; it would be like offering a vin de table after a first growth.
‘Oh là là. And in a lift?’ Vérité breathed through her teeth. ‘You say they were not found?’
‘That was what was so peculiar. Although they had jammed the lift, by the time the concierge and police got it to open, it was quite empty.’
Vérité now breathed out. A long whooshing noise, like a balloon deflating. There was nothing she could add, and her sister had no more to say. After they had sat in silence for some time, considering the story, Vérité got up to offer her sister the lunch she had rapidly prepared after her own excitement earlier that morning. How it had paled by comparison. Vérité felt disappointed. Angry too, as if something had been stolen from her. They ate, exchanging few words, digesting what had already been said. The afternoon was then spent with Prudence re-running her account several times more, though that took the story no further.
Mme Sebaillon walked briskly, lost in her musings about the previous day. By the time she reached the park gates there was light rain. She held her umbrella upright and carried her shopping bag over her bent arm. As she entered the park, she saw with surprise the woman whose actions she had followed so carefully the day before. The young woman was hovering around the park bench, as if searching for something. Mme Sebaillon patted her handbag and walked towards the bench. She would be civil, that was all that was required. She raised her eyebrows and her chin:
‘Bonjour,’ she said, adding the smile she made each morning as she put on her lipstick.
The girl turned and politely returned the greeting. Mme Sebaillon could see through the untidy fringe that the woman might have been crying.
‘You are Julia?’
The girl started.
With barely a hesitation, Mme Sebaillon slipped her free hand into the cavernous dark of her handbag and extracted the mobile. She wondered whether to say ‘voilà’, but the exchange was made in silence. However Julia’s response was like that of a child: her face lit up and her frown vanished, she bit her lip, shook her head and gazed at Mme Sebaillon as if she were a magician or had just done something extraordinary.
Then, to Mme Sebaillon’s embarrassment, she found herself wrapped in an embrace with the young woman kissing her on both cheeks.
‘Dan told me someone had found it. He’d forgotten about the strike, or he’d have come yesterday. He said he left a message - to meet you by the bench where you found it - and here you are!’ Words gushed out, like a spring bubbling over rocks, and the unexpected warmth of the girl’s gratitude had a curious effect on Mme Sebaillon.
‘Come child, it is nothing,’ she said, pulling away with a mixture of pleasure and awkwardness.
‘You don't understand. It is everything to me. It has all my contacts. Without it I was lost.’
‘But,’ Mme Sebaillon found herself longing to know more about Dan and the old man. ‘I think you are not alone in Paris.’
‘I don’t know anyone well... You have no idea how happy this makes me.’
‘Youth,’ said Mme Sebaillon, disappointed by her young companion’s response. ‘How little it takes to make them happy.’
Julia faltered: ‘I am not so young. But this certainly makes me happy. Forgive me, but if something you feared you’d never see again turned up, would you not be happy?’
Madame Sebaillon was about to retaliate: Me? Happy? With my cross to bear? But to her consternation, something about the way the woman was looking at her made her feel strangely close to tears. She frowned. It was Prudence, not she, who cried. What was the matter? Perhaps she was sickening for something. She should move on, this young woman had nothing more of interest to say. Moreover, she had an impertinent tone. But Mme Sebaillon’s feet remained firmly set on the soft earth as if they were bulbs wanting to be planted. And there was something about Julia that reminded her of someone she had once known. She must stay strong. A set expression moved over her face.
She said: ‘Happiness is for fools.’
‘But that’s terrible.’ said Julia. Mme Sebaillon looked away as Julia spoke again: ‘To deny yourself happiness?’
Mme Sebaillon stared hard at an old crisp packet spoiling the grass. The image distorted as moisture swelled in her eye; she tried to blink it away. Now a pigeon landed, barely a metre away, with a heavy flutter of his wings and strutted towards the packet, his neck jerking forward with each step. Mme Sebaillon wondered briefly what nourishment he could hope to find in the empty crisp packet.
The girl’s voice reached through her thoughts. ‘Forgive me, but I’ve seen you in the park before - I come here before my classes...’ Julia hesitated. Mme Sebaillon was aghast. She, noticed by this young woman? That was the wrong way round. It was she, Mme Sebaillon, who did the noticing.
Troubled thoughts now raced through the older woman’s head. If she had been asked, she would have denied that anyone paid attention to her daily walk. At the same time, the idea of being transparent presented its own concern.
Then Julia said: ‘You remind me of... my old ballet teacher.’
Mme Sebaillon’s mind sped to the sketch above her fireplace. Is that maybe what she had known all along - from the way this Julia moved, held herself? Was that the reason she’d first noticed her? Julia took an elastic band from her pocket and played with it in her fingers, gathered her hair back into an untidy bun. Suddenly Mme Sebaillon forgot herself. She smiled warmly, like finally striking a match that manages to hold its flame.
‘Sacrébleu. It is true I trained in classical ballet.’
Julia smiled, but her smile fell away as Mme Sebaillon said: ‘And are you dancing now?’
The girl grimaced: ‘I’ve come to Paris to sort myself out. My husband’s just left me. My life’s a bit of a mess.’
The drizzle stopped and Mme Sebaillon folded away her umbrella. The openness of this Julia was disconcerting. Maybe she should not have engaged the woman in conversation. A raindrop fell down Mme Sebaillon’s neck from an overhanging branch and she flinched, but when she looked up she noticed the patterns on the bark of the plane tree which kept the two of them in its shelter, saw how the sun highlighted raindrops on the leaves like diamonds. Julia continued her unrestrained chatter.
Now Mme Sebaillon listened in a more detached way, determined not to let her natural caution slip again. She raised her eyebrows. It never did to be taken in too quickly. Moreover she needed to understand how the old man fitted into the picture. Could this story yet out-measure the one Prudence had related?
She became aware once more of Julia’s voice: ‘That’s why the phone matters. It’s too soon to return to England. Paris has got me dancing again, but I have to find somewhere to stay. I’ve been staying with Dan and his wife, but they need the room back so I’m going to ring round...’
Mme Sebaillon saw her opportunity: ‘Your friend, the old man? Will he not help?’
Mme Sebaillon watched her companion frown, then to her surprise, she laughed.
‘The concierge? You saw him give me a lift? No, I asked him. He told me I shouldn’t hang around here after dark, in case I was mistaken for a different sort of woman!’
Once again Mme Sebaillon struggled with her response. It was disappointing that her embellished concoction of the woman’s life, as yet untold to Prudence, had no basis. But at the same time, and despite herself, she was being drawn into the unaccustomed warmth of the young stranger’s friendly chatter. Although she knew it to be a lie, she said: ‘For a foreigner, you speak French quite pleasantly.’
‘May I offer you a cup of coffee, to thank you for returning my phone? If you have the time,’ said Julia, looking straight into Mme Sebaillon’s grey eyes. ‘I’d love to hear about your ballet experiences. You prove the saying that once a ballerina, always a ballerina - the poise, the serenity, they’ve stayed with you.’
Mme Sebaillon enjoyed the flattery, but said ‘Ha! Why bother yourself with the lives of the old?’
‘That’s how we learn. Age, experience.’ said Julia; adding with a smile, ‘It can work the other way, too.’
Aghast, all Mme Sebaillon knew was that she needed to regain the upper hand. ‘It is I who will buy you the coffee,’ she said, and afraid she might lose her nerve, quickly added: ‘Let us go,’ and the two of them walked to the café at the far end of the park, by the entrance to the Marché des Pauvres Filles.
Mme Sebaillon stood inside her flat, holding onto the door, as if afraid to open it further. Julia waited on the threshold with her bags. Strangers again, Mme Sebaillon looked her temporary lodger up and down. She had rapidly regretted her decision to invite Julia to stay for the few days until her new place was ready, wondering what coup de foudre had overcome her. Prudence, horrified at her sister’s uncharacteristic rashness, had urged her to pack away all objects of value and to turn the heating off. Vérité, doubly annoyed by her own folly and by her sister pointing out the very things of which she was already aware, had stripped the spare room of any hint of warmth.
Mme Sebaillon watched Julia put her bags on the eiderdown and glance around her temporary bedroom. There was a small dressing table with a frilly skirt in faded mauve and yellow flowers, a stool in matching fabric, a mottled mirror, a small dark wardrobe, a cane chair, a single bed with a wooden frame and a cross on the wall. Mme Sebaillon saw Julia shiver, though outside, through the window, it was a fine day.
‘When you have unpacked, you may come into the salon.’
Mme Sebaillon prepared a tisane and took it through with some petit beurre biscuits. She saw Julia sitting on an armchair, looking around the room, at the chandelier with its thirty-two glass droplets, at the empire-style mirror, which reflected everything, at the glass bowl of individually wrapped chocolates, at the old leather-bound books, at the arrangement of orange and yellow chrysanthemums.
‘They are for Jean-Louis’s grave. I shall take them later,’ she said, as she settled the tray on the coffee table. Then, because Julia did not respond, she added: ‘The chrysanthenums. You will recall the tragic accident that befell my husband.’
‘Clearly you loved him very much. Is this the two of you?’
Julia held up a photograph. Mme Sebaillon handed Julia an exquisite yellow china teacup, and glanced at the image of her young self, smiling shyly in the arms of Jean-Louis.
‘Where did you find that?’ Her composure rattled, she took, almost snatched, the photo card from Julia. She thought she had destroyed all the photographs.
‘I pulled out Boule de Suif from the bookcase - I like Maupassant - and it was there, marking a page.’ said Julia, blushing. ‘I’m sorry. I can see it has upset you.’
Mme Sebaillon took the photo to the window and turned away so Julia could not see. She was happy Julia misunderstood. So used had she become to the Jean-Louis of her memory, that seeing this image of herself with him was a shock. But to Julia they must look well together. Her smiling; like a little innocent. The last time she had smiled like a fool. She had forgotten how confident Jean-Louis appeared, how well he could charm people, take them in. She preferred the Jean-Louis of her memories. She could grieve for that Jean-Louis. It was all the fault of the Brazilian model. Fael. Rafael. He was to blame. The power he had had over her husband. Power enough to make Jean-Louis give everything up. His work, his family. Her. How naive she had been. The shame. The dreadful shame. He had never really loved her. He had married her for his mother’s sake. To present a respectable facade to the world. She had determined that no one should know. She had never told Prudence. She could not even bring herself to admit it in confession. But sometimes in the blackest hours of the night, Mme Sebaillon would wake from the dream and feel afraid. It was always the same dream, that she was on stage and Jean-Louis was saying: ‘Slip off your clothes, my little dancing wife, so I can paint you.’ Then Fael would stand in front of her, blotting her out, laughingly taking her place.
‘Is that you in the painting?’ Julia woke Mme Sebaillon from her thoughts.
Above the mantle-piece hung the sketch in red chalk of a ballet dancer sitting, adjusting her ballet shoes, her hair tied back. The only work by her husband that Mme Sebaillon had kept. ‘Once I was young.’
‘How beautiful you were, and it’s so sad what happened to your husband. Like a fairytale.’
Mme Sebaillon hesitated, as if tempted to say something else, then changed her mind.
‘Oui,’ she said, but her reply clashed with Julia’s afterthought:
‘Except that of course fairy-tales aren’t real; and yours is true.’