Sunday, 11 January 2015


Part One
There’s always a price to pay. So she had been warned, many times, by many people - some more sensitively than others. Her mother had invited herself round, cornered her in the kitchen and called her recent romantic choices ‘depraved’. Her gentle friend Rosie, meanwhile, confined herself to asking: “Are you sure you know what you’re doing?” Depraved. Well, that was love for you.
Into the slumber of Monday to Friday mortgage-paying, weekend Garden Centre-visiting grey predictability, he had exploded his kaleidoscope of colour, his vivid, irradiating energy. He lived a different kind of life to everyone else, as if he occupied some other, glorious dimension where unknown rules applied. Or none at all. Wild seas and dangerous currents were his everyday, his high-octane reality.
As she lay with her head on his chest, the sun’s glow burning through the curtains, the pulse of his heart raged against her cheek. Even at rest, his heartbeat was twice as fast as hers. “It’s like you’re constantly running from the law, my love.” She teased.
He gave an ironic laugh.
“He’s a bit flamboyant.” Rosie had remarked. “Not at all like Steve.”
“Hence the appeal.” She replied. Steve was her dull, non-communicative, chain-smoking ex-husband. Closing her eyes against the memory, she saw the small places of their life together, the nicotine-stained walls, the closing net of debt, the bickering arguments where nothing was really said.
“Anyway, what’s wrong with flamboyant?” She said. “Michel just knows how to express himself.” He certainly did.
“He’s a bloody frog.” was all her dad could say.
While she didn’t agree with her mother’s histrionics or her father’s blatant racism, honesty compelled her to admit that she had her doubts. It was a darker sense of caution violated, of somewhere entered where there was no guaranteed exit. It wasn’t even the worry that he might actually eat frog’s legs. She knew something of his history, the trail of women left for dead in his wake - at least in an emotional sense. Perhaps he was so alive that he couldn’t possibly live - in any normal way - and took with him anyone who stepped into his orbit. Then they found themselves stranded in a land far from home, kaleidoscoped into oblivion, hungover from the intoxication of him. She was next.
Perhaps it would be a glorious way to go. Or maybe it would be better to stay in comfortable slumber with a dull husband.
And then she would look at Michel and know that behind the radiant image was a darker reality.

Part 2
Zebra in the room.
The water of the Thames was dark and oily by night, lapping with rhythmic suggestion against the side of the punt. It had been Michel’s idea to steal one (or ‘liberate’ it, as he maintained) from the Oxford boat-house and have a midnight adventure.
“It will empower you.” He had whispered in her ear, his big, warm hands resting on her hips. “This is ‘Morse’ and ‘Lewis’ territory, you know.” She replied, laughing. “Are you going to murder me?”
“Perhaps.” His strange, light eyes - very un-French eyes - glinted at her in the semi-dark. “But no blundering English Pig policeman - that is correct, you say the Pigs? - will solve this murder. You and I will be the only witnesses to this unreported crime.” He had held her hand in his strong, certain grip as she climbed unsteadily into the punt. Amazing how much she trusted him when he was telling her he was going to murder her.
He climbed in beside her. “You will simply disappear.”
She leaned into him, the boat shuddering beneath them, breathing in the dark, maddening smell of him, feeling the pulse of his neck vibrating against her lips.
“Would you disappear with me?” She whispered.
She closed her eyes, sinking into his enclosing arms as he began lazily to propel them away from the bank.
“I know this is not the proper English way to punt along the river.” He said, a smile in his voice.
“No. You don’t have a cup of Earl Grey in your hand. And you’re not moaning about the weather.
Still, I rather like the French way.”
“It is not the French way, either. In France we would be crashing the other boats, blowing our horns and shouting, ‘Salaude!’”
She laughed, the sound echoing across the water, getting lost in the dark undergrowth. An owl screeched, as if in reply.
“Michel?” “Yes.”
“I think you’re already disappeared, aren’t you. On the run from the French authorities?” “I do not run. I never run. I evolve.”
She nestled more closely against him, feeling the working of his chest muscles as he pushed the punt. “Well, I’m on to you.”
“Then I’ll definitely have to kill you.”
He let the punt drift again, pulling her up so that she faced him. His eyes were steady, unblinking, the pupils so huge that they had all but driven out the light, the long, child’s lashes casting shadows on his cheeks. With one finger he traced along the bones of her face, across her brow, to her cheekbones, along her jaw line, as if he were creating her, moulding her shape. Slowly, he lifted her face to his, tasting her lips.
She had never been with anyone who kissed quite like Michel. Sometimes like this, sensual and unhurried, as if he was fine-dining; sometimes playfully, laughing against her open mouth and ruffling her hair. Then, when the mood took him, he would push her hard against the wall with explosive, ravenous kisses, trying to swallow her whole. Fee, Fi, Fo, Fum, I smell the blood of an englishman. Or woman. After he had eaten her up, he would spit out her bones.
He sighed dreamily and began to punt again, as she re-nestled.
“Have I hit on the truth, then?” She said. “Is Michel not your real name? Are you an exile?”
He didn’t laugh. “Just like Lord Byron.”
“Have you driven dozens of women to madness, too?”
“Are you going to drive me to madness, Michel?”
She saw his wide smile in the dark, the glint of his teeth. “Only if you want me to.”
She laughed. “You already have, my love. Can’t you tell? It’s after midnight and I’m in the middle of the Thames in a punt we just knicked.”
“You’re a bad man.”
Again, he let the boat drift, covering her eyes with his large hands. “Guess what.” He said. She felt his hands tighten.
“I have something for you.” His voice sounded close in her head, like one of her own thoughts. He took his hands away slowly. She felt a warm pressure and looking down, she saw a dark shape in her lap. “Open it.” He said.
It was a small bag, made of stiff card, with cord to close it. Peering at it, she read: ‘Maria’s antique jewelry, St. Aldates, Oxford.’
She gave a small gasp. She had often admired the jewelry in the window for its dignified
Edwardian pieces and an pearl and garnet ring in particular that would fit very nicely on her ring finger…
But the bag felt too heavy for that.
“Open it.” He pressed her.
She drew out a statuette, a cat deep blue as she lifted it to the moonlight, a cool, smug look on its face. Its sightless eyes stared into hers. It was strangely warm in her hand and so heavy - dence with the weight of secrets.
Puzzlement fought with disappointment and won. “Did you get this from Maria’s, then?”
“Pas de tout. I stole the jewelry bag from Cafe Nero. Somebody left it on their table.”
She shook her head. “You’re a very bad man.”
“Oui, c’est moi. Le voleur.” He reached across and took the cat from her hand. “Do you like her?” Her hands felt naked, released from the strangely comforting weight. She didn’t quite know what to say. “Yes, of course.”
“You want to know things about me, yes? Well, she could tell you a story, if she could talk.” He stroked the cat with a slow, sensual rhythm. She experienced a ridiculous pang of jealousy.
“Why don’t you tell me?”
There was a long pause. His breathing sounded loud in the darkness.
“D’accord.” He shifted away from her, looking out across the water. “ I grew up in a nothing little town near Reims. My father ran the bakery, until he went out of business. He liked drinking more
than baking bread. My mother loved this cat. She put her on the on the window sill and there she sat, for years, watching. Always watching.”
He told her about his violent father, his annihilating rages, his pathetic tears, afterwards.
“My mother always seemed to believe him when he told her he would never do it again. Even after he made her clean the blood off the walls.”
“Did he ever hit you?”
“Sometimes. When I tried to help her.”
She could picture it: the watching cat on the window sill, its fake lapis smoothness serene and undisturbed, absorbing the family secrets. The helpless little boy in his bedroom, the muffled sounds of pain vibrating the walls. “My poor love.” She said, stroking his arm.
“It was much worse after the bakery closed. We had to move away. I remember looking back as we left, seeing my mother’s pretty blue dress crumpled on the floor. We had to leave things behind, because we left quickly. It made me sad that she would never wear it again.” “But you took the cat.”
“Mais, oui. I put her in my pocket as we left. She was the witness to what no-one ever talked about. It was going on all the time, but it was - how do you say? - the ‘zebra in the room’.”
She couldn’t keep back a smile. “Elephant.”
“Yes, elephant.” He shook his head. “My mother wouldn’t leave him. I told her he would never stop.” He turned to her suddenly and said, with a slow smile, “But he did stop.”
“How... Why? Did he leave?”
“He died. He was killed.”
In the heavy silence that followed, the owl screeched again.
She jumped. “Why did you give me the cat, Michel?”
“I wanted you to know things... that I’ve kept hidden from everyone for years. Years. I thought she would help me tell you.“ He took her hand, opening it and placing the warm weight of the cat in her palm. She almost thought she could feel it purring. “I feel safe with you, my darling.”
But did she feel safe with him? There was another ‘zebra’ in the room, as he would say. But she didn’t know if she could form the words.
“Well,” he said, after a while, “Aren’t you going to ask me?”
She took a deep breath, letting go of his hand. “Did you kill your father, Michel?”
He drew her back into his arms, whispering: “Only the cat knows. Perhaps one day she’ll tell you.”

The copyright of this post belongs to Alison Stickings 11.1.15

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