5th Arrondissement, Paris. April 1944
The hunched figure shuffled along the pitch-black laneway; ruined arm pressed against her side. She had lost one shoe and the bare foot throbbed. For a moment, she imagined the bloody trail she was leaving for the police dogs to follow but part of her no longer cared who might come for her. Would tonight be the night that finally put a bullet in her back? She shuddered at the thought. At least death would end the pain and her father would no longer need to worry about her.
The heat was spreading through her body as she stood disoriented in the dark. One of her father’s favourite sayings echoed in her mind; ne paniquez pas, organisez vous. She calmed her breathing…un, deux, trois, quartre…don’t panic, organise...
She stood rigid, listening for any sound, eyes closed – they were useless in the inky blackness. Again, she thought of her father and the last time she had seen him. They had argued of course, they always did, but this time the words were not barked at each other, a smirk playing at their lips, their familiar jousting. War was no time for games. Instead they whispered urgently behind the closed door of his clinic. He had begged her to stay home.
‘You are most certainly being watched, Ana,’ he warned, his face looked tired but there had been an edge of anger in his voice that she had never heard before. ‘You are putting this whole house at risk.’
She had raged inside, but then calmed herself knowing that dramatics and hysteria would not convince him of anything but her immaturity. Still, she spoke with force, the anger pulling her lips taut across her teeth.
‘Papa, I know what you do. I know you tend people in the old servant’s entry. This is a big house with many rooms, and I know you hide people. Do not lecture me on keeping this house safe. Men and women are dying this very minute on battlefields and in work camps. We all must play our part. Even your daughter…’
They stood inches apart. Neither was prepared to lose this time; the stakes were too high.
‘You must be mindful of the children, they know nothing of the war, I have made sure of this. I am careful, but you, you are so reckless. Do you not recall the fates of those arrested last month? They were shot and tortured and some were sent east. The collaborationists have even sent women to the guillotine. Women!’
Her father’s face twisted in anger. She had never seen him so angry. Certainly, the raids and arrests over the previous weeks had made Antoinette more careful but had left her as one of the few chemists in Paris to carry on the work.
‘Of course, I knew those people… Some of them were my colleagues at the university,’ she said.
She felt the fight go out of her as the sadness crept in. What she hadn’t told her father was that one of those men, the American, shot in the street had been her… what had he been? She wasn’t sure but perhaps he was the man, she’d hoped quietly, would be her husband…after the war…although they had never spoken of it.
Her father’s face softened. ‘You want to help but making explosives is no work for a woman. There are so many ways you could be helping the war effort,’ he said.
‘Until the war is won, this is my work, Papa. Who else can do it? I am your daughter, yes, but I am a scientist first, then a woman.’
He’d said much more, by turns, warning and begging her, but she stopped listening. Finally, he had issued an ultimatum: if she returned to the laboratory, she would not be welcome at his home. She knew it was breaking his heart to say such a thing, but she knew it was for the best. Then he had turned his back on his last living child, bracing his hands on the old carved desk that had been his fathers before him. With tears in her eyes she had kissed her sister’s children and left that day knowing she would not return, until the war was won.
Pain dragged Antoinette back into the present. Standing adrift in the dark alley somewhere behind her father’s house, her body shattered. She had broken her vow by returning but she knew he would not refuse to help her. Without warning, she was paralysed by a deep, convulsing surge of pain. It threatened to overwhelm her, but she stood rigid, knowing if she sat on the wet cobblestones she would not stand again. She could not see her damaged arm in the darkness but could smell the smoke on her clothes, in her nose, taste the acid on her tongue and smell her burning flesh. The pain in her arm seemed to burn hotter at the thought of it. She squeezed her eyes shut against the appalling images of the moment the chemicals had caught alight.
Desperate to get her bearings, she looked up at the rooflines of the surrounding stone buildings. She and her twin, Marcel, had climbed those roofs as children, it had been their playground, while their little sister Marie-Louise had preferred playing house. There it was; the distinctive mansard roof of the old convent house, a faint blue light shone through the stained-glass that remained after the Sisters had moved out to the suburbs, the house now converted to flats. The tiny private school run by the ancient order of nuns had taught the de la Roche children to read and write for three generations. That had been a source of pride for the Sisters, until Antoinette had darkened their doorstep. The Sisters had whacked Antoinette’s soft pink hands for every act of will.
Flexing her hands at the memory she could feel the skin tightening on her burnt arm. She grimaced in pain, the tight skin on her face objecting to the sudden movement. But suddenly she knew where she was. She was nearly home, although she now could not remember travelling the mile or so from the makeshift laboratory.
Taking small gulps of air, she looked back through the darkness towards the quai and the river Seine beyond. The sky was now glowing faintly and the stars that had only appeared a few hours earlier as she and the others had sat on the terrace with wine and cigarettes, feigning frivolity under the watchful eye of the enemy, had gone. The dawn was hours away and yet the sky over Paris was a sickly pink.
Her head swam and her gravelly breath seemed deafening in the quiet alley. She felt her way along the wall, searching for the low brick terrace she knew was only feet from the hidden door. It might have been a well-known refuge for injured members of la Résistance, but a place of last resort for her. To let her father see her like this…
She eased herself down until she was sitting on the cold stones. Great care had been taken to disguise the door, including painting it black and draping dirty tarpaulins across it. It had to be just feet from her, but she couldn’t make it out. Normally there would have been a call, to alert her father that his expertise was needed, and he would be waiting near the door. Was there anyone left to make the call?
She closed her eyes and carefully touched her left hand to the burned parts. The heat still radiated from her right arm, her shoulder, her face. The skin was tightening. She didn’t have much time. Despite the pain, Antoinette bent to remove her remaining shoe and threw it against the wall hoping the noise would alert her father. Or the police. She no longer cared who came first.
She hung her head. She was épuisé, exhausted, ‘done for’ as the American liked to say. God knew he had enough cause to say it in his line of work. He was quick with a joke, but he had been the saddest man she had ever known and that was saying something in those bleak times. She never knew what, or who he had lost but she knew loss when she saw it.
She conjured his face in her mind, his unruly hair and those eyes.
Her burnt skin protested now as she tried to smile at the thought of his arms around her. She pressed her back against the wall and clenched her jaw, waves of agony arcing through her body like electricity.
She coughed and the pain almost made her faint.
As the echo of her cough died away, she heard a sound, a knocking sound on timber. A flicker of light caught her attention.
Her limbs had begun to stiffen but Antoinette stood and walked towards where the light had been. A door opened in the darkness and her father ushered her into the dark room. He bolted the door and turned towards the dimly lit lamp with shaking hands.
‘Lie down,’ he said, pointing at the settee.
She shuffled over to the little bed. He was turning up his sleeves as he approached her with the now bright lamp. He stopped, horror on his face as he took in her ravaged appearance. He tried to clear his throat.
‘I heard the explosion. I…I just knew I would be needed, but I didn’t know it would be my own daughter…’
She tried to speak but no words would come. She had to tell him about the explosion, the fire.
He helped her onto the settee. Antoinette let out an animal-like sound as she collapsed onto the clean white sheet. She fought to stay conscious. Her lips were parched but when she ran her dry tongue across them, the bitterness made her grimace. She knew that taste; a tincture to dull the pain.
Delirium replaced her terror and she muttered soundlessly to her father as he worked above her, bathing her wounds, monitoring her vital signs as well as he could in the tiny room. She tried to ask him to take her up to his clinic, but as confused as she was, Antoinette knew the police would come to see Doctor de la Roche in the morning, if not sooner. They were both safer in the hidden room.
Sighing heavily, her father held her wrist and took her pulse again. He stood, head bowed, beside the bed. He replaced her hand on the bed and sat heavily on the stone floor, one hand on his own heart, forcing himself to take deep breaths.
…ne paniquez pas, organisez vous…
She watched him with terrified eyes, unable to help. He nodded at her and smiled. The face was lined but the eyes were warm. She tried to smile back.
‘I am okay, chérie. I am an old man, it’s normal to feel tired at this time of the morning.’
He smiled at her again and nodded at the little clock on the shelf in the corner of the room, the clock that had not kept time for years. She tried to laugh but no sound came. He stood and checked her vitals again.
‘I have given you a tincture. You sleep now, I will be right here,’ he said, as her eyes closed.
Antoinette had no idea how much time had passed, but for a moment, the delirium had subsided. She noticed that her father had stopped moving around the small space and tried to clear her throat.
‘Papa, thank you,’ she croaked. She was surprised that words had come at all.
Her father was sitting on the floor, his back against the old wooden door, his head in his hands.
‘I’m so sorry,’ she sobbed, a cough gurgled in her raw throat.
‘Don’t talk, my love,’ he said.
He shuffled over towards the settee and knelt beside her.
‘You will be well by morning. We will have tea with the children,’ he said.
Antoinette wasn’t sure when her father had decided to lie to her. If she made it through the night, they would be lucky to be free citizens by morning, let alone sitting around the big wooden table eating Clementine’s fresh baked bread.
She attempted to sit up but quickly abandoned the idea. She was drifting in and out of consciousness but could feel her father gently bathing her burnt skin. The room was stifling but they could not risk opening either the inner or outer doors. The police would surely be looking for her by now and they could not risk any of the children or staff seeing her. He thanked God the walls were so thick, the doors so solid, as Antoinette groaned in pain and mumbled incoherently.
Jean-Claude again leaned heavily against the wooden door. Seeing she was awake again, he rose and sat gently on the edge of the settee. Taking a deep breath, he reached for her good arm, testing her pulse once again. Her dark eyes were swollen but he could see her watching him in the lamplight. They sat in stillness, father and daughter, hands locked, silent except for their shallow breathing.
Jean-Claude smiled and wiped a tear from his own cheek.
‘Is my face very bad?’ she asked.
‘You are…beautiful,’ he said, his heart breaking.
Jean-Claude smiled although it pained him to see Antoinette’s damaged features. She had always resembled her mother; the dark hair and fierce nature.
‘Yes, chérie…the burn is very bad.’
Antoinette sobbed and coughed. Hot tears ran down her temples and burned the skin with their heat.
Jean Claude wrung out a cloth and gently sponged the tears away.
‘Tell me stories of Mama,’ Antoinette whispered.
He took her unburnt hand in his and began to speak. Surprised by the strength of her grip despite the terrible burns, he told her his favourite tales of her mother – her talent for cooking, her love of painting, her famously short temper. He spoke of her love for her three children.
Antoinette’s breath became even more shallow but her grip on his hand remained.
He then spoke of his own parents, their families. Jean-Claude’s father had been an officer but had then become a surgeon, his own mother a painter. Theirs had been an arranged marriage, but they were a good match and raised a large family. He spoke to his listening daughter of their grand home in Paris where like her, he had been born and lived his entire life, and of the ancient chateau in the countryside where he had spent long summer days with his cousins, long before his own children did the same.
For Jean-Claude it had been a charmed life filled with love and reading, sunshine, close-knit family, and his very fulfilling work. He told Antoinette of his younger siblings with affection and humour but stopped short of recounting how they had all died, one by one in their thirties and forties, leaving him alone to run the family estates.
‘There will only be happy stories told in this room tonight,’ Jean-Claude thought.
He began to speak of his own children. The lovely Marie-Louise with the softest heart, and brave Marcel, who had gone away to be a hero and returned home in a box, both now waiting with their mother in the family crypt. He wouldn’t speak of death but of how they had both lived their lives to the fullest. The family summers at the seaside were his favourite times, the snatched moments away from the hospital, a few stolen weeks of relaxation when he would do nothing but watch his children play.
‘Do you remember 1933, La Rochelle?’ he asked, her hand squeezing his in response.
Antoinette tried her throat, but she could not speak. She remembered the Summer very well. Marie Louise and Antoinette had convinced their father to give them two puppies they called Mimi and Joe. Sitting on the beach, the dogs yapping at the gulls, the family ate mussels fresh from the boats, boiled right there on the beach.
In the dark room, Jean-Claude told story after story, his words recreating that magical summer. The rambling chateau was being re-shingled, and they had camped in the gardens in a mishmash of tents, to the horror of Cook and the rest of the Paris staff. The children had been delighted.
He asked her if she recalled the summer storm that hit two days after the roof was completed and the children were forced to abandon their tents to retreat to the safety and warmth of their bedrooms. That summer had indeed been idyllic.
Lost in the memory, Antoinette sighed in the dark and Jean-Claude really smiled for what felt like the first time in a year. Considering they were from an old family, they had had an enchanted, riotous childhood, even if their mother’s absence was felt keenly at times.
‘Would that you were here now with me, mon amour,’ Jean-Claude thought, picturing his wife’s face.
He looked down at the ruined face of his daughter.
‘Chérie, I will bathe your face and arm again.’
She squeezed his hand again, this time weakly.
Rising slowly, still smiling at the thought of his wife by his side, Jean Claude felt he might faint. He had been feeling ill since the morning and now feared he would collapse there on the floor, leaving them both locked in the tiny room. He had the only key for the tiny room, looped around his neck as it always was, on scarlet cord. A panic began to rise in his belly. He needed to open the door, to be free of the claustrophobic space, but could not leave Antoinette alone. Slowing his breathing, he decided to quickly check on his grand-children and fetch more of the tincture for Antoinette’s pain, and leave the key on the desk in his clinic. If the worst happened, at least the police would find them both.
‘I’ve done all I can, my precious daughter. Please sleep now,’ he said, his throat raw from talking.
He gently leaned across and lifted her left hand. The pulse was weak. Her eyes closed. She was almost gone. He could not believe he would outlive all his children.
He sniffed the air. ‘Smoke?’ he thought.
Jean-Claude covered the lantern and unbolted the laneway door. Carefully shifting the tarpaulin aside, he stuck his head far enough into the alley to see the sky. There were no stars. The air reeked of smoke and worse, and the sky over Paris glowed bright orange. The fire from the explosion was spreading. He quickly replaced the tarpaulin and bolted the door.
Paris was burning.
He had to get to the children, perhaps get them out of Paris, or at least to the river. That would mean leaving Antoinette. He did not want to think about it, but he was running out of time.
He unlocked the heavy inner door and stood in the narrow corridor, breathing a sigh of relief that he was no longer in the airless room. Antoinette opened her eyes.
‘I’ll see you in the morning, chérie,’ he said, but he couldn’t look at her. They both knew what the morning would bring.
The clock on the small mantle ticked loudly in the silent room. It refused to keep time no matter how often it was wound, but the base was stuck in layers of varnish, so it remained. Jean Claude opened the glass case and touched the hour hand lightly. Carefully, he wound it anti-clockwise three or four times and hung his head, as though this small action had taken the last of his energy.
‘Would that we could truly turn back the time,’ he said.
Antoinette watched her father place his hand over his heart. She was desperate to help him but she could not move. Without looking up, his hand found the little clock again and he clicked the glass door shut. She wanted him to stay, talk to her of La Rochelle, of her brother, her sister… She closed her eyes and thought of those puppies, that summer on the beach.
Antoinette heard the key turn in the old door and even though her father had taken the lantern, she could see her brother waiting in the corner of the room.
Jean Claude shuffled along the pitch-black corridor, exhausted, but knowing exactly where he was going as only a man who has lived in the same house for all those years does. He had to get the children to the river, they would be safe at the river.
Eight more paces and a left turn would bring him to the stairs, a right turn, then nine paces to his cabinet de consultation, the clinic rooms that had been his fathers before him. The next landing lead to the room Marie-Louise’s orphaned children shared with their nanny.
He pushed the door open a fraction. They slept like the innocents they were, Clementine between them, like a protective mother hen. Jean-Claude wondered how life could be so incredibly beautiful in moments but could then bring such darkness in others.
He began to speak, to rouse his household. No words would come. He grasped the thick wooden door frame. He was on his knees before he realized what was happening and held his left arm as though his grip alone would keep him alive.
‘My heart is…breaking,’ he thought.
The cold sandstone under his cheek was not unpleasant after the gruelling hours trying to save his daughter and he relaxed at once, deciding he would not fight it, as though he had a choice. Jean Claude de la Roche smiled. He would soon see his wife again.
Antoinette was surprised to wake at all, let alone with no fever or pain. Bright light forced its way in under the door, forcing her to cover her eyes. She was disoriented. Instinctively she felt her forehead and cheeks. No fever, no pain. Taking her own pulse, she closed her eyes and counted the beats.
‘Perfect,’ she thought, although she felt sure it shouldn’t have been.
She cleared her throat and rolled onto her side, watching dust motes float in the shaft of light. There were so many questions running through her mind. In typical fashion, she attended to them one by one until she came to the large question that had been floating around in the back of her mind.
There had been…an explosion…
This was more of a statement than a question and it seemed to hang in the air, swirling with the dust. Her stomach lurched. She pressed her back into the mattress and ran her hands over her face and arms, sweat beads forming across her forehead. Her skin was smooth, but her clothes seemed to be in tatters. She felt sick. Screwing her eyes tight against spinning room, she forced herself to think about the night before. Her face and right arm had been burned. There was no doubt in her mind. She would remember that pain for the rest of her life.
Her father had saved her. The events of the previous night flashed into her mind as though lit by lightning…or an explosion. She could see it all; the slick cobblestones, the stench of the chemicals, the skin stretching across her ruined face.
She sat up, her head swimming from the sudden elevation, and checked her feet. Her shoes were gone but her skin was perfect, better even than she recalled. Her father’s reputation as a physician was widely known, but this recovery was nothing short of miraculous. Her hands moved quickly checking every part of her body but found no trace of the traumatic night before. Had it all been a dream, a nightmare? This seemed reasonable. She fondled the blackened fabric of her dress and felt the torn sleeves. Something terrible had indeed happened.
Lying back on the settee she was confused. Antoinette was not accustomed to feeling confusion. She remembered everything; dinner with her colleagues, flouting the curfew as they always did, somehow hiding in plain sight. She had just met the new chemist, a young man she had once seen at the university. After serving and surviving at the front he had found he had a talent for explosives and a deep hatred for the enemy.
After dinner, they made their way slowly along the river, arm in arm, to the laboratory, but to the Boche they were just a devoted couple walking home.
Where was he now?
She sat up again, a little too quickly and felt her pocket. Her papers were still there. She felt along the hem of her skirt for the carefully concealed papers that would be her lifeline if the worst should happen.
‘Think,’ she said, clenching her fists.
She had been thrown down into the alley at the back of the old disused stables that had been their laboratory. It had been part of an old abattoir being used again during the occupation, the perfect disguise for the strong smells of their operation. Obviously, she had been lucky, she thought as she ran her hands across her smooth skin.
‘Perhaps I am dreaming,’ she whispered to the room.
Antoinette de la Roche was not what you would call a dreamer. When trying to make a point, she could be dramatic, granted, but she considered herself practical and intelligent. She would be the last person to be given over to hysterics.
‘If that wasn’t a dream then I have died and gone on to the afterlife,’ she said a little louder as though tempting someone to argue with her. A little startled by the sound of her own voice, she looked around the tiny room, disappointment the only emotion she could muster.
‘Why does hell look exactly like the old servants’ entrance in father’s basement?’ she said, laughing at her own joke.
She decided she’d had just about enough of this nonsense, whatever it was. She swung her legs over the edge of the settee. She took a tentative step, and then two more. She leaned against the old outer door looking down at her bare feet, frowning at the dust motes swirling furiously now. The light should not be coming through.
The tarpaulins have been taken down. Her heart began to race. The police would be looking for her.
She put both hands to the latch and prepared to shove it as hard as she could, but the latch moved easily. Her father must have oiled it. The old bolt had often threatened to trap those who used the tiny room. She swung the door open, blinding sunlight flooded the room. She jumped back as though the light would harm her.
‘Perhaps I am in heaven, after all,’ she said. No, perhaps I am going mad.
A small grin edged across her mouth as she imagined the nasty mathematics mistress from her school days, Sister Marie, who would have dropped dead all over again to see the likes of Antoinette de la Roche in heaven. Buoyed by the bright sunshine, Antoinette made her way into the street.
Sunday morning in Paris was always quiet but as the occupation wore on it had become a ghost town. This morning somehow felt like the Paris of her youth. Parisians were out in force, soaking up the sunshine. The drizzle and low cloud of the previous week had departed in spectacular fashion; she hadn’t seen a day like this since before the war, but considering it was heaven that made sense. She allowed herself a little smile at the thought.
Stopping at the curve in the laneway she looked towards the quai. There were crowds of people, just strolling around Heaven or Paris, or whatever this was. She felt faint at the thought, but strangely elated, feeling she could run onto the street and throw her arms around everyone. Remembering her tattered clothes, she quickly retreated. Stopping abruptly, she looked up and down the length of the lane. Someone had removed the piles of building materials and barrels that her father had been storing on the brick terrace to disguise the doorway to the little room. The alley was clean and bright on that impossibly warm morning, clear of everything except the washing lines she could see crisscrossing between the buildings at the end of the street.
‘If this is not the afterlife, the police must have searched the alley already,’ she thought.
Her mind began to revolt at the idea of an alleyway in Paris existing in either heaven or hell. Where was the hellfire and brimstone? If this was heaven, then the streets were cobblestones as they had always been, rather than pavement of gold that the priests promised.
Confused and sweating in the warm air, she leaned against the low terrace wall, recalling the events of the night before as they jumbled about in her head. She had to get out of sight and think. Unlike the previous night, the door was now easily visible. She gripped the wrought iron handle to pull it open and stopped. The door her father had painted black was no longer black. It was blue. A shiny glossy blue, chipped in places, showing a deep grey paint underneath. She leaned her head against the door. It was warm from the sun shining on it.
She put her hand to her head and felt again for fever. The door had been deep cobalt blue during her childhood, but it should be black. She felt her knees buckle, the floor seemed to rise to meet her. She sat for what seemed like an hour but must only have been minutes, staring at the door, the only sound in the room was the ticking clock and her own breath.
Deeply inhaling, she pulled herself upright. She had to find her family. Whether this was Paris or heaven, she had family here and she had to find them before the police found her. She went into the tiny room and rapped loudly on the heavy door that lead to the house but knew it was pointless. The outside door had always been left unlocked, but the internal door was usually bolted from inside the house for security, especially during the occupation. She pulled the handle, but the door wouldn’t budge. It was at least four inches thick and far removed from the living areas, deep in the bowels of the house.
Antoinette pushed the outside door open again, catching sight of a small mirror propped on the mantel behind the old silver clock. She had never noticed it before. She picked it up and examined her reflection in the mottled surface. The clock that never worked showed it was just after 11 but had read 10:30 when she woke. The slim second hand was smoothly working its way around the face. She was more confused than ever.
Ignoring her tattered clothing, she propped the mirror against the clock and after combing her hair with her fingers, pulled it back into a chignon. She had never been interested in appearances but was grateful that her sister had taught her how to make herself presentable. There was nothing she could do about the state of her clothing, so she pulled the discarded top sheet from the settee and wrapped it around her waist like a long skirt. It would have to do, she thought. She could either walk around the block via the quai or through the busy Sunday market to get to the front door, the old carriage entrance that now served as the entry to the house.
Carefully closing the blue door, she kept her head down to avoid eye contact with any neighbours. Paris was a big city, full of soldiers and towns-people going about their day as best they could despite the war, but a woman would be sure to run into most of her friends, the local priest and the gossipy concierge from a neighbouring building if she was anything less that perfectly turned out, which, despite her sister’s best intentions, Antoinette rarely was.
Deciding to brave the quai rather than the crowded Marché, she hesitated in the alleyway, surveying the crowds of people strolling along under the plane trees. Completely forgetting her bed-sheet skirt, she stood staring at the crowded street. Had the war ended overnight? Had the explosion somehow caused the enemy to turn tail and go back east? Confusion gave way to joy as she smiled at the happy people. It was joyous to see Paris as it should be; teeming with tourists and locals enjoying the beautiful city. She tore herself away from the glorious vision and turned towards Rue du Bièvre, and home.
‘Bonjour, mademoiselle Antoinette,’ said a quiet voice.
Antoinette looked up to see Monsieur Levy, the famous luthier and violinist locking his studio, violin case tucked under his arm. He smiled warmly and waited for her to reply but Antoinette stood gaping, completely frozen in her tracks. The kind old gentleman nodded, tipped his hat, and continued towards the kerb to a waiting taxi. Open-mouthed, Antoinette stared at the retreating back of the elderly violinist. He didn’t look up at her from the cab window, but she continued to stare as it drove away.
This day, this Paris, most definitely had to be Paradis, heaven. She was certain now. Monsieur Levy had confirmed it.
At some time in January 1940, Mr. Levy had left his home and studio as though he had simply popped out the market. He took his violin and a small bag. He was never seen again. He had in fact, moved to Scotland. And he had reportedly died peacefully surrounded by his nephews and their families in 1943. Jean-Claude had received a telegram.
The kind, generous Mr. Levy would never go to Hell, so Antoinette knew now that she must be dead, and had, by some stroke of luck, made it to Paradis. Her father had a lot of influence, but clearly even she had under-estimated his reach. She smiled, then started to laugh at her own joke and felt a bizarre feeling bubbling up inside her. The trauma of the last few weeks had finally caught up with her and she felt her sanity slipping away.
A face seemed to float into her field of vision, and she reached her hand out to touch it. A gloved hand reached up to take hers and a voice from the past spoke to her. Antoinette’s world tilted and she found herself on the warm cobblestone sidewalk, a couple hovering over her.
‘Go and get her father,’ the girl’s voice called to the boy running down the street towards her house.
‘Antoinette, what happened to you? I saw you behind the church but when I walked over to you, you had already gone.’
‘Genevieve?’ Antoinette whispered. ‘You’re here too? How can you be here?’
‘Paul has gone to fetch your father. You’ll be okay.’
Genevieve patted her hand and took in her dishevelled appearance.
‘My father isn’t in heaven, Genevieve, he is still alive. Unless…no…’ Antoinette said.
More faces swam into view.
‘Marcel!’ Antoinette screamed. A moment later she was off the ground and in his arms.
Her twin had been her best friend, her ally and her protector, until he was taken from her by the war. He looked so young. She held him in a violent embrace as he struggled to pull away from her grip. A young girl walked towards her; concern knitted on her brow.
‘Marie-Lou?’ Antoinette grabbed her sister and drew her into the embrace with Marcel, who was still trying to get away. She smiled at the small crowd of people gathered around her. ‘You all so young? I saw Mr. Levy, he’s here in heaven too. And mama? Where is she?’
Marie-Louise looked at Marcel as though he could somehow translate the nonsense that was coming out of his twin’s mouth.
‘Chérie, let’s take you home, and clean you up,’ Marie-Louise spoke in a sing-song voice, as though speaking to a small child.
‘Yes, please let us go home and see mama,’ Antoinette said. She took her sister’s hand.
Not wanting to upset her deranged sister, Marie-Louise did what she did best. She held her head high and helped. It was her mission on earth, she had decided from a very young age. Antoinette had the brains, the dreams and the schemes, and Marie’s self-appointed role was to help her keep her hair and clothes neat while achieving those dreams.
They reached the huge entry doors, Genevieve’s fiancé Paul rapping on the ornate iron knocker. Jean-Claude pulled it open, his smooth face became troubled as he saw the crowd of people at his door.
‘Papa, why are you here?’ Antoinette cried out, tears springing to her eyes.
She pushed passed him into the foyer and called out to their mother. Jean-Claude and Marcel moved forward to take her by the arms and guided her to a sofa as Marie-Louise closed the door on the crowd of neighbours who had gathered to see exactly what was disturbing their Sunday walk.
‘Ana? What’s happened to you?’ Jean-Claude took in the dishevelled appearance and the bed-sheet skirt. ‘What are you wearing?’
He pulled the sheet from around her waist, his brow furrowing at the sight before him. Marcel bolted from the room at the sight of his twin’s tattered skirt. Marie-Louise moved forward to replace the sheet over her sister’s bare legs, searching her eyes for answers.
‘Get me some hot water and towels. Bring them to the clinic,’ Jean-Claude said to his youngest daughter.
Marie-Louise ran to the stairs and raising a warning finger to her lips, directed the gathered staff to follow her. They had been preparing all week, to depart for their summer home, the ancestral chateau near La Rochelle that morning, but that would have to wait now. For a tiny young woman, fifteen-year-old Marie-Louise ran her father’s household like a benevolent dictator, a role she relished as much as her older sister would have detested it. The girls boiled water and placed it carefully in the dumbwaiter with piles of freshly washed linens.
Antoinette had no interest in fashion, but Marie-Louise ensured that her clothes were fine-looking and well kept. She took clean stockings and undergarments from the trunk at the end of her sister’s bed and a new dress from the armoire. Marie-Louise was worried. The dress was a strange style and appeared to be burned in places. She knew what that much blood on a woman’s skirt could mean and she didn’t like to think of what might have happened to her head-strong sister. Or what might happen next. Had Ana been assaulted in some way? Marie-Louise had no idea how her sister had managed to disappear after walking home from Mass that morning, to be found collapsed in the street, her clothing ruined.
Marie-Louise took the fresh clothes to the clinic, waiting in the cool, dark foyer for Jean-Claude to admit her. Time seemed to drag by, but eventually Jean-Claude opened the door and allowed her to see her sister. Marie-Louise quietly nodded to her father. Antoinette was sitting on an old over-stuffed chair, wrapped in a fresh linen sheet.
‘Are you well, sister?’ She was careful to look at her sister’s face and not at the pile of soiled clothing and linens.
‘Yes, I am very well,’ Antoinette said, seeming quite her normal self again, ‘better than I’ve been for a while, chérie!’
She allowed Marie-Louise to help her dress, then pulled her into a warm embrace.
‘It’s so wonderful to be here, and to see you again.’
Antoinette gazed into her sister’s eyes and kissed her cheeks. Marie-Louise turned to see their father come back into the room, his worried face down-turned.
‘There’s nothing physically wrong with her,’ he said quietly.
Relieved, Marie-Louise turned back to her sister and hugged her.
‘But it’s not her body I’m concerned about.’
‘Oh Papa, don’t be dramatic,’ Antoinette said. ‘I simply fell asleep by the river after walking too far with my friends. Obviously, I’ve had a terrible dream, and torn my dress while sleep walking.’
Antoinette had told her father a most bizarre tale. A terrifying tale of death and of…war. He had made sure his daughter was physically safe, left her to clean herself up, and gone into the adjoining office where he had vomited. He had told her, and himself, that it was a nightmare. Just a bad dream, he consoled her as they both cried. It had been her mother’s absence that confirmed for Antoinette that she was neither in heaven, nor hell, nor was she dreaming. No, this wasn’t 1944; it was 1933. She was sixteen years old and she had had a terrible nightmare. Jean-Claude wondered if his daughter had been drugged or taken drugs voluntarily. She had always been wild, but her mother’s death three years earlier had seen her spiral into a kind of mania. She pushed at every barrier before her and saw every rule as though it was there to be broken.
Too much time reading medical books and hanging around those women at the university; filling her young head with silly dreams. His daughter was fascinated by women in medicine and science, and fiercely proud that French women led the world in medical research, but her out-spoken nature and intellect had made her a target at the lycee. And her obsession with old photographs of murders and autopsies had given her the nickname ‘Angel of Death’ even amongst her friends.
Marie-Louise watched her father’s face. He smiled at Antoinette, but they had all seen that smile before. That was what the three children called their father’s ‘we will discuss this later’ smile.
‘Yes, ma petite, that must be it,’ he said finally, smoothing her wild hair.
‘Keep her calm, ma petite chérie,’ her father said. ‘I need to talk to the staff. Perhaps we won’t go to La Rochelle today.’
Antoinette shook her head. ‘Oh no, papa, we must go. I am fine. We had…we will have the best summer.’ Jean-Claude looked at Marie-Louise who nodded her head although she really wasn’t sure why.
‘Very well, we will go, but in a few hours after you have rested. I will be upstairs if you need me,’ he said.
The moment they were alone, Antoinette took two large steps towards her sister, roughly taking hold of her Marie’s slight shoulders.
‘Fetch paper. And something to write with. Now,’ she said in a harsh whisper.
Marie-Louise knew better than to question her sister. She slipped into her father’s study and snatched a wad of paper that he used in consultations with patients and one of his prized mechanical pencils. She presented them to Antoinette, who then sat, scribbling on sheet after sheet of paper. She stopped occasionally to stare at the wall, mumble and count on her fingers.
‘I’m already forgetting things, like a dream.’
‘But it was a dream, darling,’ Marie-Louise said. She spoke softly, as though to a child.
Antoinette’s head flicked around to face her sweet sister.
‘It was real, and it was so awful. Oh god, the camps…’ Antoinette’s shoulders hunched, and her pencil flew across the page.
Marie-Louise scanned the words with her eyes, her hand went to her throat.
‘Why are you writing such things? The Great War was years ago. We were just tiny children. Germany is chastened. Oh, Ana…’
Pulling the paper away from her sister’s gaze, Antoinette continued writing and whispering to herself.
‘A new war is just beginning, it will take time, but it’s coming. The new Chancellor of Germany… Lucifer personified.’
Marie-Louise clamped her hand over her mouth, tears springing to her eyes.
‘Stop it, you’re scaring me. It’s not true. Stop…lying…’
Antoinette looked up again, her eyes boring into her sister.
‘Lying? You think I am lying to you? When have I ever lied to you? Papa yes, but you, never! Now, please, hush…I need to remember everything that happened, that will happen… so I can stop…it.’ She returned her attention to the paper and continued writing.
Marie-Louise turned and faced the huge cabinet of leather-bound journals that ran along the clinic wall.
‘Even if I just save you and Marcel…’ Marie-Louise heard in the mumbled, jumbled mess that was coming from her sister’s mouth.
Had she heard right? From the corner of her eye she saw Antoinette’s shoulders stiffen but she continued scribbling on the page. Marie spun on her heel to face Antoinette.
‘What do you mean, save us?’ Marie’s voice was shrill, but her face was blank.
‘Chérie, be quiet. Do not make Papa come back in here.’ Antoinette arched her eyebrow and locked eyes with her sister. ‘He will sedate me if you tell him anything and I may lose this…’ she tapped the paper with her finger. ‘Do you trust me?’
Marie-Louise did not answer, she just stared at her sister in a mixture of horror and fear.
‘Mary-Lou, do you trust me?’
Antoinette eased back the chair, silently, moving slowly. She reached across and took her sister’s thin, pale wrist. The young girl recoiled a little, but she nodded her head, her eyes not leaving Antoinette’s face.
‘This…this…whatever it is…has happened and I have an opportunity to fix things, save the people I love and do what I can to help others.’ Antoinette’s fingers began to tighten around her sister’s wrist.
‘You’re hurting me, Ana,’ Marie-Louise whispered. Antoinette released her arm.
‘I’m so sorry, my darling, but I must finish this. You can read over my shoulder, but you must be quiet, no matter what you see. Let me write and we will talk about it later.’
‘Why do you think you need to write all this?’
Antoinette sat back again and sighed. ‘Because I need to remember what happened, to try to change things. I can’t trust my memories; they are already slipping through my fingers. If I fail, all is lost. Paris will burn and so will we.’
Marie-Louise sunk onto the stool beside her sister as she gathered the bundle of papers and placed it in a neat pile. She flipped through the pages, reading what she had written, her lips moving slightly as she read.
‘Genevieve and Paul must be warned to leave Paris,’ she whispered, returning to her writing.
Marie-Louise sat staring at the paper. She was shocked to see that her sister had written her name and that of their brother. There were two sets of dates after their names, the way one would write dates of birth…and death. She tried to keep quiet, but she felt like she would scream.
‘What is going to happen to me? To Marcel? This is a prophecy.’
Antoinette ignored her.
Minutes later she spoke. ‘I am no prophet.’ Antoinette sounded bitter. Marie-Louise had heard anger in her sister’s voice before, but never bitterness. Marie-Louise looked at the floor.
‘Marie,’ she said and waited for a response. ‘Marie-Louise, look at me.’
Antoinette reached over and caressed her sister’s cheek.
‘Terrible times are ahead for this family and for France if I ignore this. I don’t care if papa does not believe me, but I need your faith. I will make sure it doesn’t happen…again. You just have to trust me, d’accord?’
Marie-Louise had always trusted her sister, but Antoinette had an alarming knack for getting herself into trouble. The young woman crossed her arms and stood at her full height. Even so she was inches shorter than Antoinette.
‘I will trust you if you stay out of trouble.’
‘Oh, my darling, my troublemaking days are over. I need to be very quiet now and be very clever. I will be invisible…so I can stop…’ she shuddered. Marie-Louise reached out to touch her arm.
‘I trust you and I will do what I can to help,’ she whispered and realised she meant it.
Antoinette returned to her writing and the only sound was the scratching of the graphite on the paper and their breath. Marie-Louise could feel her heart pounding in her chest. Antoinette finally pushed the sheets of paper away and turned to her sister, handing her the pencil.
‘Ana, does anything good happen…to me?’
Antoinette drew her sister into an embrace.
‘So many good things happen. You get married and have beautiful children.’
‘I…get married? When? To…whom…?’ Marie-Louise’s cheeks flushed. ‘Children?’
‘Yes, my darling. And Marcel is elected to municipal council.’
‘Oh, that’s marvellous. It’s perhaps easier to believe that something good will happen. I am too young I think,’
Antoinette nodded. ‘Yes, there are so many wonderful things coming.’
Antoinette clung to her sister. The sister she had lost and now found again. Was it a miracle, she wondered? However, it had happened, she had managed to return to 1933, she had been given another chance to do things properly, to make right all the wrongs. She wondered why she hadn’t come back in time to save their mother, but then she was only a small child when their mother died.
She found the first page of writing and printed carefully on the top;
‘I think I came back to this day because we were happy. I fell asleep last night thinking of the wonderful memories of that…this Summer.’
‘Shall we gather the staff and go to La Rochelle?’ she said to a mystified Marie Louise.
May 1990. Somewhere over Amsterdam.
Karen’s eyes were fixed on the screen suspended from the ceiling midway along the cabin. She could see the route the plane had taken across the top of Europe. The captain announced that they had begun their descent in Paris but according to the map, they were somewhere over Amsterdam. She felt her stomach churn. It’s just excitement she told herself. The flight attendants seemed to be walking about a lot she noticed. Perhaps there was a problem. She closed her eyes and tried to calm her breathing. She wondered if she had time to use the toilet again.
Another announcement but she was so tired she couldn’t seem to understand what the captain was saying, but then realised he was speaking French. Rubbing her eyes like a small child, Karen elbowed her travelling companion, Agnès, who opened one eye and mouthed an expletive at her over-excited friend. Twenty-two years old, sexy and world weary the way only French girls can be, Agnès was reluctantly returning to her family home in Paris, after a two year stay in Australia. She had travelled the world with her diplomat parents, and nothing troubled her. Karen was always in a fluff about something. She wished she could be more like her friend. The only things that excited Agnès were fresh cigarette packets, surfing and platform sneakers.
Karen turned to look at her boyfriend, Peter in the seat next to the aisle, his knuckles white on the arm rests. Unlike their well-travelled friend, Karen and Peter were experiencing air travel for the first time.
Agnès reached across Karen and patted Peter on the arm.
‘We still have maybe ten minutes before we land. Try not to burst an artery,’ she said.
Peter chuckled and relaxed a little. Agnes could always be counted on for a joke. He took a deep breath and rubbed his stubbled jaw. He didn’t mind the flying, but the landings and take-offs would take a little getting used to.
By the time the plane touched down Karen had managed to drop her passport and landing card between the seats, enlisting the help of the honeymooners behind her to retrieve the documents. Agnès rolled her eyes, affectionately and tucked Karen’s loose hair into a stylish but messy bun on top of her head, securing it with two hair pins she had pulled from her own hair. Karen grabbed her makeup mirror and admired the effect.
‘I will never learn to be as stylish as you if I live to be one hundred!’
‘No. You won’t.’
Agnès pouted but then broke into the broad grin she had named her Aussie Smile. She didn’t want to go home to Paris, having fallen in love with Australia. She was planning to return as soon as she could to work on an enormous cattle farm in the ‘outback’. Paris versus the Outback? Karen loved her friend but thought she had rocks in her head.
Karen and Peter were nervous about navigating Customs without Agnès’ help. Agnès said she would be waiting, cigarette in hand, in front of the Arrivals hall. They had known each other for nearly a year, and she had been a true surprise package in the friendship department. Fiercely loyal, funny as hell and always up for a good night out, or in, if there was food and beer and perhaps a television. She and Karen were obsessed with sushi, Baywatch and surfing but all the same, Karen half expected to emerge from arrivals to find her new friend had disappeared back into her French life like a beautiful dream. Karen still couldn’t believe that someone like Agnès would want to be friends with her.
Happily, Customs was almost empty and the officer on duty was very sweet and keen to practice his English skills. Upon finding two Australians in front of him he mimed a kangaroo jumping and, in a mix of heavily accented English and French, drilled Pete for information on the Australian Rugby team. After a few minutes of animated discussion, the Customs Officer welcomed the young Australians to France and directed them to the exit.
‘He probably thinks you play rugby, Pete,’ Karen said once they were out of earshot. ‘I don’t think they’ve ever seen a bloke your size who wasn’t a rugby player. I’m just glad you didn’t tell them you were a chef, or we’d still be there discussing the correct method for stuffing poultry.’
‘I am so glad you said method, because of course, there is only one way…’
Peter took a breath as though about to launch into a detailed description of such a method. Karen jammed her hands over her ears. Peter laughed.
To their relief, as Peter and Karen emerged into the morning sunlight, their friend could be seen smoking at the kerb, as promised. She was waiting with a young, dark haired man who had the biggest eyes Karen had ever seen. Peter handed Agnès a bag of duty-free cigarettes, which she happily added to her own allocation. Agnès believed you could never have too many cigarettes.
Karen reached for her sketchpad and pencil and started drawing.
‘Guys, this is Jan. Jan, Karen and Peter.’
‘It’s great to meet you!’
Jan shook Peter’s hand energetically and smiled at Karen. He tilted his head to see what she was drawing. Karen looked up and smiled and added a few more lines. She showed him the quick portrait. His face lit up.
‘C’est moi! This is me…’ he said, intrigued. ‘You are an artist…’
He said the word with reverence.
Jan held the portrait next to his face so they could see the likeness. Peter and Agnes smiled and nodded.
‘Err, Peter, perhaps you will come and work for my father?’ Jan said without taking his eyes away from the drawing.
‘Whoa, wow, okay, a job offer before I leave the airport,’ Peter laughed.
‘Let’s talk and drive,’ Agnès interrupted, slapping Jan on the backside, ‘I need some decent bread, some gum, and a fuck. In that order!’
They all piled into Jan’s mini-van and roared off into the quiet Sunday morning. Karen gave up wondering who this enigmatic young man was, and would he be the one to help Agnès with the last thing on her list. She slipped the drawing over the seat into Agnès lap, who looked back and mimed applause.
‘It’s a gift, for picking us up,’ Karen said.
‘It’s beautiful,’ Agnès said. Jan tucked the sketch into the visor so he could see it as he drove.
‘You will be a famous artist one day and this will be worth thousands of francs. No, millions,’ Jan said, smiling at her in the rear vision mirror.
She would have preferred he watch the road.
Karen was mesmerised by the farmland surrounding the airport, glowing with beautiful golden light as the sun rose over the landscape. She wasn’t sure what she had been expecting, but it certainly hadn’t been farmland dotted with fat cows. Industrial sheds began to appear beside the road, along with huge parking lots, truck stops and the occasional power station in the distance. Karen could see apartment buildings ahead, which she had guessed was their destination, but they pulled into a gas station.
‘I’m getting gum. Proper French gum! You want anything?’ Agnès asked the rest of them. ‘You should look at the market with Jan,’ she said to Peter nodding in the direction of the tents in the next allotment. Peter smiled and sniffed the air for a tempting scent. The girls laughed at him and Jan looked around, confused.
‘He smells everything!’ Agnès nodded and smiled at Jan.
Peter handed money to Jan to pay for the fuel, but he declined.
‘I was coming to the market anyway. It was the perfect opportunity to meet you and see if you want a job before someone else gets to you.’
Again, the offer of a job caught Peter off-guard. He was flattered but confused.
‘What business are you in? What does your father do?’
Jan looked at Agnès and asked her in French why she hadn’t explained it to Peter.
‘His father owns three famous restaurants. He is desperate for his own Australian,’ Agnès said, as though this explained everything. She turned walked toward the convenience store.
‘His own Australian?’ Peter asked, somewhat nervously.
‘Ha, yes, my father wants an Australian, because his greatest rival has an Australian and they are the best chefs, after the French, of course.’ Jan laughed. ‘Georges, Agnès’ father told us all about you and how much you love food. My father is so happy!’
‘Okay,’ Peter said slowly.
‘So, you will come and meet my father and you can decide. No pressure, man.’
Jan moved the van into a parking space and grabbed Karen and Peter’s backpacks, securing them in what looked like a specially designed space under the floor.
‘You can’t trust anyone,’ Jan explained, touching the side of his nose. ‘In Paris, don’t trust anyone,’ Jan said again.
‘Can we trust you?’
‘Of course. Of course. Sorry, yes. I work for the President. I am very trustworthy, and I have known Agnès since she was a baby and I was two years old.’
Jan handed Peter the keys to the van, in a show of good faith. They both relaxed, but Peter pocketed the keys all the same.
The little group made their way into the market, the two Australians felt they had entered a magical world. The dusty gas station seemed a distant memory as stalls piled high with seasonal vegetables stretched out in all directions, the two boys were soon lost in Culinary Heaven. Deep in thought, she hadn’t noticed Agnès standing beside her, unlit cigarette in one hand and a long half-eaten bread stick in the other. She offered the bread to Karen who took a huge chunk off the top and devoured it. They hadn’t really eaten since Jakarta, where they boarded the flight hung-over, sunburnt and not in possession of enough paracetamol. She could see Jan and Peter walking towards them, somehow already laden with boxes of produce, matching grins on their stubbled faces.
‘Jan, eh?’ Karen mumbled; her mouth was filled with bread.
‘Oh, we’re just friends really, but he’s sweet and we love sex together,’ Agnès explained in her typical nonchalant manner. Karen laughed.
Seconds later, the girls were laughing and choking on their bread in the middle of the market, while Jan and Peter looked on, puzzled.
‘Let’s get coffee, you crazy women,’ Jan said, shifting the weight of the cartons in his arms, filled with white asparagus, tomatoes and tiny strawberries.
They piled the cartons around them and stood at the makeshift bar drinking strong coffee. Karen was amazed to see people with glasses of beer in their hands at eight in the morning. Having grown up in Sydney’s inner eastern suburbs she was no stranger to people drinking at daybreak, but these were farmers and vendors, not drunks or party animals. She immediately felt at home in a country that was civilised enough for drinking to be acceptable at all hours, although she could hear her mother’s judgemental tone in her head. The predictable wave of guilt soon followed, and she turned her back on the men in denim overalls.
Karen wondered when her mother’s voice in her head would start speaking French.
She looked over at Pete who was busy preaching on the finer points of tomatoes and why hydroponics will never be the future of growing food. Agnès rolled her eyes and squeezed Karen’s hand.
‘You’re going to love it here,’ she enthused. ‘We will go to the Louvre this afternoon.’
Karen couldn’t believe her ears.
‘The Louvre? Where is it?’ she said, looking around excitedly.
‘It’s not here, you egg head,’ her friend laughed, head back, mouth open.
The farmer closest to them tutted and made a hissing sound. Agnès stopped laughing and quietly apologised to the older man. Karen was astonished to see the unexpected display of deference from her friend, but made a note that in France, loud laughing in public, even at a truck-stop produce market in the middle of nowhere, would not be tolerated.
‘When we get home, we will take a shower, have a rest and after lunch, we will go to the Louvre.’
It never ceased to amaze Karen how well her French friend had adapted to Australian life; how well she seemed to naturally understand everything around her, blend in. Karen hoped she would adjust to Paris as well as that, but feared Australia was a much more open society. She was so worried she would make a mistake, be immediately marked as ‘Un-French’ and banished from polite company. Agnès seemed to be reading her mind and squeezed her hand, offering her a drag on her cigarette.
‘You will have to learn to smoke to fit in here, you know,’ Agnès said, blowing smoke elegantly over her shoulder. ‘Everyone smokes.’
Karen carefully took the cigarette the way she had seen others do it and put it to her lips. Her mother’s voice boomed in her voice again and she quickly handed the cigarette back to her bemused friend.
‘I don’t care, I could never smoke,’ she protested, screwing up her nose.
The boys reappeared in time for Peter to see her put the cigarette to her lips.
‘This day just keeps getting weirder.’ He rubbed his hands through his messy hair.
‘Let’s go home,’ Agnès announced, stabbing her cigarette out on the ashtray in front of them. ‘And I am quitting smoking.’
‘Yeah, right,’ Jan, Peter and Karen said in unison, picking up boxes and bags of produce.
‘You watch me. Once I’ve gone through all the duty-free!’
Karen didn’t doubt that Agnès could do anything once she’d made up her mind. She realised she loved her French friend more than she loved Pete. Only a true friend would give up the thing they loved most in the world for you. Without being asked.
Karen couldn’t believe that she had found a friend like Agnès, waiting at a bus stop in Bondi.
Friends in high places
To Karen’s surprise, the van turned away from the apartment buildings she could see in the distance, retracing the route they had taken from the airport. The bright sunshine flickered through the trees lining the roadway, lulling her to sleep, her head on her Peter’s shoulder. Waking when the van stopped in an underground carpark, she was disoriented and parched. Her friends were all laughing quietly, sharing a joke, possibly at her expense.
‘I was snoring, wasn’t I?’
‘Er…no, but you did a little fart,’ Agnès teased.
Mortified Karen swore them all to secrecy. She was sure that French women never farted, and if they did it would smell like perfume. Her face burning red, she swatted Peter.
‘What was that for?’
‘You should have woken me.’ Karen tried out her best Parisian pout.
‘Don’t worry about it. It was a cute little fart and you needed the sleep.’ Peter put his hand to her cheek and kissed her forehead.
‘Where in hell are we?’
Karen was surprised to see they were in a subterranean carpark surrounded by expensive cars. A light flickered on as two men approached the van. They looked like Secret Service guys.
‘Home, apparently,’ Peter said, pointing at Agnès who was hugging one of the men and happily draping her backpack strap over the outstretch hand of the other, who pulled her into a bear hug as soon as she was released from the first man’s embrace.
‘This is Jerome and Filipe. They are my big brothers.’
Karen and Peter must have looked confused, but Jan shook his head at them in a way that communicated that they should wait for later for an explanation of who these two men were. Agnès had told them she was an only child. Jan climbed back into the now empty van, the produce had presumably been delivered while Karen was sleeping and farting, which left her wondering how long she had been asleep and how many people had witnessed her passing wind. As the van revved, a previously unseen door began to rise twenty metres away, the now bright sunshine streaming in. There was an armed guard manning a boom gate at the top of a short steep driveway.
‘We’re not in Kansas anymore, Toto,’ she whispered to Peter as a door hissed open directly in front of them to reveal a hidden elevator.
Agnès could see the exchange of glances between her Australian friends and smiled.
‘I told you my mum is a diplomat, right?’
‘Well, yes, but we didn’t really expect…,’ Peter waved his hand in the general vicinity of the lift, the carpark, and Jerome and Filipe. ‘Secret Service guys.’
‘We’re not terribly secret but we can kill you if you do the wrong thing. It goes with the territory,’ Jerome explained.
‘Licensed to kill?’ Peter joked.
‘Aah, Yes, actually,’ Filipe replied, his face stern.
‘We were both fresh out of University when we first began working for the family. So, we are her big brothers if anyone asks. We did the school run often, so we are more like nannies.’ Jerome expertly dodged a swat from Agnès. They both broke into broad smiles.
Peter made a mental note to be on his best behaviour.
The elevator stopped, opening to reveal an elegant lobby, complete with a secretary and metal detector. A door to the left was open, revealing an office lined with books, and Agnès’ father Georges sitting at the desk in the middle of the room.
‘Come in. Come in, my children are home.’
They all laughed and lined up for hugs and not double, but triple kisses. The secretary in the entry way had not looked up from her desk, apparently oblivious to the three smelly backpackers in her vicinity. Jerome and Filipe had also disappeared along with their backpacks and hand luggage. The tired trio talked and laughed with Georges until a badly stifled yawn from Peter told him that jet lag was setting in.
‘You must take a swim, eat and sleep. Then we will go for dinner at Peter’s new place of work. You will consider the offer, yes?’
‘I will definitely consider the very generous offer. My head is spinning that I have barely landed, and I have a job already. A very good job.’
Peter was still shaking his head in disbelief when the secretary appeared in the doorway and Georges gestured to them to follow her. It took a minute for Karen to realise that the woman wore an earpiece and was multi-tasking while she buzzed them through the door, handing them a security pass accompanied by various sheets of paper.
‘Read this, and don’t do anything on the list,’ she warned in a broad Scottish accent, which caught Karen and Peter by surprise.
‘Agnès, be a lamb and show your friends their room. I have a million things to do and no time to play nanny.’
Agnès performed a strange little curtsey that went un-noticed by the busy secretary and led them to one of the doors off the entry lobby, opening it with a dramatic swipe of her key card, head back like a matador, eliciting stifled laughter from Peter and Karen. They filed through the door as a slow beep began to emanate from the swipe-pad. Agnès shut the door firmly behind them silencing the beep, the three travellers standing in the long corridor with doors coming off at intervals. Karen wasn’t sure what she had been expecting but this certainly wasn’t it, realising for the first time that she had absolutely no idea where she was. Pete’s presence beside her was reassuring. Her face must have betrayed her unease as Agnès drew her into a quick hug.
‘It’s ok, chérie. You are safer here than anywhere in Paris! Security is everything to you, I know. Bon, you must read the list and promise me you won’t fuck it up and you can stay here for as long as you want! Just so you know, we only get one chance, and I must stick to the list too, now that I am an adult. Here is your room.’
Agnès nodded her head towards the first door on the right-hand side of the corridor, gesturing to Peter to use his swipe card. He waved it dutifully in front of the access panel that whirred and clicked. He pushed the elegant white door open to reveal a stylish living space with numerous doors leading from it. Peter was incredulous.
‘Holy shit, are you kidding me? This is our room?’
‘Yes, this is home sweet home. Your bags are here as you see. Make a mess, do whatever you want. This is your space. You must keep it clean though. The staff won’t clean our rooms.’ She pulled back the heavy drapes.
‘Do you want to take a swim or sleep? Or we can eat?’
Agnès showed the astonished couple their bathroom, the pretty view from the window, the walk-in wardrobes, finishing with a demonstration of the sound system.
‘It’s all soundproofed,’ she bellowed over the booming music, dancing around the room and shouting.
Peter and Karen joined in and danced madly in the huge space, all collapsing on the Persian rug, laughing and exhausted. Peter picked up the typed sheet of paper that had been handed to them by the efficient and slightly frightening secretary on the way in, which Agnès referred to as the ‘shit list’.
‘No drinking, no smoking, no drugs, no visitors, no fun, no smiling…. It’s all very straightforward,’ she laughed, lying back on the rug. ‘I’m going to swim, then eat, then sleep. In that order!’
Agnès laughed at herself for once again using her favourite turn of phrase.
‘I will buzz you in five minutes. Get your swimmers on, kids.’
Agnès loved using her Aussie accent.
Karen and Pater obeyed her direction, as they always did, and found themselves half an hour later dripping wet beside a heated roof-top pool under a glass conservatory, munching on fresh fruit and the best ham and tomato sandwiches they had ever eaten. Nothing ever seemed to go wrong when Agnès was in command, Karen thought to herself as she smiled over at Pete, who was chewing ecstatically, eyes shut.
‘Now we sleep, then you will go with Dad and get your job. We,’ Agnès nodded at Karen, ‘will go and look at art.’
They followed her back to their beautiful rooms, amazed by their dumb-luck and the generosity of Agnès’ parents. As it turns out, Karen thought, Paris is always a good idea.
A home in Paris
Weeks passed in a blur after that first visit to the Louvre. With a little help from Agnès’ father, Karen became a volunteer at the museum, assisting with the cleaning of the sculptures, a task she referred to as ‘shit patrol’. Karen took her work very seriously, even if that included scraping pigeon excrement off marble plinths while tourists snapped photos in the Tuileries Gardens. Peter, still amazed by his sheer luck, had started work for Olivier, Jan’s father, loving the long hours, the camaraderie of the kitchen.
Agnès was writing freelance articles for a German language art magazine based in Paris, and Peter was working all hours. This left Karen free to immerse herself in art. Her mornings may have been spent cleaning pigeon poo from sculptures, but her afternoons were free to wander the museums, gardens and galleries and she discovered the many art supply stores dotted around the city.
Her tea-chest of art supplies arrived from Australia and supplemented by regular purchases from Sennelier on the left bank, Karen happily set up a makeshift studio in the ensuite bathroom.
Peter had Mondays off and would meet Karen at the museum. One icy afternoon in November, he collected her on Agnès scooter. Karen waved a letter at him, her coat flapping in the wind, scarf trailing on the pavement.
‘They offered me a job. They want to pay me to learn how to restore artworks.’
‘Wow, that’s incredible. Congratulations, babe. Let’s go and find somewhere warm to celebrate. Angelina or Laduree?’
After their celebratory hot chocolate, the ride home froze them to the core. No matter the weather, the Paris streets whizzing by never failed to excite Karen. She almost pinched herself, not believing she could be so lucky. Here she was in Paris with an amazing man, a job at the most famous museum in the world and a best friend. They pulled into the underground garage and parked the scooter. Popping their head into Georges’ office to tell him the good news there were excited to see Agnès talking to her father.
‘No, this is a disaster, Karen. You are here in Paris to make art, not just look at it, or clean shit off it all day.’
Karen was crestfallen and Peter put his arm protectively around her waist.
‘I’ll take the job for just one year, just so I can say I worked at the Louvre when I’m a famous artist.’
‘You won’t get to be a famous artist if you are working in the museum.’
Was this jealousy, Karen wondered. She was never very good at understanding people’s emotions nor their motives.
‘I promise I will keep painting,’ she said softly.
Agnès took charge and naturally the mood lifted again.
‘Okay, now let’s go for a drink to celebrate your new commitment to your art career!’
Their celebratory drink took them to the Ritz, the only place to party according to Agnès. Karen always felt like a duck out of water in the luxurious bar, but as always felt grateful for Agnès ability to make her feel comfortable.
‘I’m going to paint your portrait,’ Karen slurred to her friend in the taxi on the way home. ‘To prove to you that I am going to keep painting.’
‘I believe you, but you better paint my portrait every day for a year if you want to prove anything to me.’
‘You’re on!’ Karen and Agnès shook hands while Peter shook his head.
A week later the collection of portraits was already becoming too much for the suite they shared in the embassy. Peter stood brushing his teeth as Karen put the final touches on her latest piece.
‘I don’t think Agnès seriously wants 365 portraits of herself.’
‘366. I think next year is a leap year.’ Karen said. She was in another world as she expertly moved the drawing charcoal across the canvas.
Peter spat the toothpaste into the sink.
‘I think we should get our own place, babe. I need a kitchen and you need more space to paint.’
Finally, Karen stood back from the canvas and nodded, first at the canvas, then at Peter.
Surveying their comfortable surroundings, they both knew he was right. The time had come to find their own apartment in Paris, as daunting and exciting as that was.
Peter floated the idea of throwing a wild going away party to see if Fraulein Fischer would join in or have Jerome and Filipe remove them and their grubby back packs. Karen laughed as she washed her charcoal-covered hands in the bathroom sink. It would need a good scrub before they move.
Peter picked up the phone next to the toilet to call Agnès. They had made a pact to only use the phone above the toilet to call each other’s rooms, such was the novelty for the two Australians to have a phone in the ‘dunny’ as they called it. Peter growled into the handset, trying to sound sexy.
‘Guess where I am, Agnès,’
‘I’m guessing in the bathroom because you sound constipated.’
‘Ha ha, that’s the best come-back yet. You’re getting good at this game,’ he teased. ‘Can you come in? If you’re free? I want to show you something.’
A few minutes later, Agnès stood dumbstruck in front of the portraits Karen had painted so far. Karen stood with her back to her friend, looking at the walled courtyard. As always she was battling with the inner-critics that told her admirers of her work were simply being kind, that the art was rubbish and she was doomed to be a sculpture cleaner for the term of her natural life. As much as she loved making her art, listening to people admiring it was almost worse than criticism.
Agnès looked around the cramped ensuite-cum-studio and understood it was time for them to move into their own place, and in fact, she said she knew a place that would be perfect for them.
The trio laughed.
‘Of course, you do!’ Peter said.
It seemed Agnès knew everyone in Paris.
The apartment was just a few blocks from the metro station that would take Peter back into the 1st arrondissement for work. The move was easy. They loaded up their backpacks with their clothes and Jan dropped by with his van and two kitchen hands from the restaurant. The unfurnished apartment lacked even the basics, a surprise to two Australians accustomed to flats having built in kitchens and even wardrobes in some cases. Kitchen basics appeared over the course of the weekend, with Peter’s boss buying them a new futon. Their generous friends gave them various kitchen appliances that elicited excited sounds from Peter and made Karen’s eyes glaze over.
‘I’m so lucky to have you, babe,’ she told him as he excitedly showed her the new blender from Jan, ‘I’d live on Pot Noodles if I had to cook.’
Trawling the flea markets all over Paris and taking Jan’s van to brocantes further afield, they managed to furnish the studio in their preferred vintage style. They loved the apartment, relishing the feeling of independence and although Peter missed his passionate food-oriented conversations with Georges, Agnès’ father, neither of them missed the constant mildly irritating presence of Fraulein Fischer, who regularly reminded them of their luck at having such generous hosts.
Sculpture restoration was fascinating up to a point, but as predicted, Karen’s own art-making all but dried up in the busy weeks after they moved even though the new apartment offered enough space to set aside a whole, albeit tiny, room as a studio. At first the room with the natural light had been their bedroom while she made a studio of the miniscule room that adjoined the living room. Who knew what the tiny space had been used for by previous inhabitants; perhaps a study or playroom if they had had children?
In the middle of their first frigid winter in the apartment, Karen had woken from a dream in which the space was lined with books, a sturdy chair tucked in one corner, draped in old woollen throws. Unable to shake the feeling that it should be exactly that way she spent the following evening rearranging the rooms so, as the winter sun was trying half-heartedly to elbow its way through the clouds, Peter arrived home to find their bed evicted to the living room, the studio set up in their former bedroom, and his now-manic girlfriend on the Minitel planning an excursion to Ikea for shelving for the books stacked in piles around the room.
He kissed her forehead and after his shower, curled up on the unmade futon to sleep the day away before heading back to the relative safety of a Michelin starred restaurant kitchen.
Agnès was concerned about her friend.
‘Darling, you promised me you would keep painting. You can paint anything, it doesn’t have to be me, just keep painting. It helps you…’
‘What do you mean by that?’ Karen placed her cup on the table and glared at her friend.
Agnès had never seen Karen so agitated.
‘You are stronger when you paint. I am only saying this because I love you.’
Agnès’ eyes flicked from Karen’s face towards the Louvre museum opposite the café.
Karen sighed heavily.
‘Fine, I’ll quit my job,’ Karen said, as though she was doing Agnès a monumental favour. She secretly hated the work and was more than happy to quit and concentrate on her artwork.
Peter wasn’t sure it was a good idea for Karen to paint alone all day, but she had already given her notice at the museum. His constant fatigue from working long hours in a hot kitchen and his new-found inability to read her moods resulted in nasty rows in the small apartment. Both felt justified in giving the other the cold-shoulder for days. Karen would never apologise for her nasty words flung about in anger. After a while, Peter would apologise daily to a turned back and a middle finger in the air.
They were better in the warmer months; arriving home with fresh bread, the smell of coffee wafting from the tiny kitchen, he would shower, eat and flop naked onto the bed. Sometimes she would join him, and they would make love. But if it was cold, as it often was, flopping naked on the bed would be suicidal in their chilly flat so he would bundle himself in a layers and sleep like the dead, leaving her hunched muttering over her drawing table, unlit cigarette stuck to her lower lip.
He had all but given up trying to make sense of her, deciding to just love her as she was, and pray to any god that was listening that that would be enough.
Paris had been an excellent move for Peter as he pursued his dream to become a chef, but the longer they stayed, the less he was sure Karen would survive it. As he rode the Metro to the restaurant each day, Peter acted as though would it be his last in Paris, drinking in the city, sometimes taking a new route if time allowed.
If he had to choose between Paris and Karen, he knew he would choose his fragile girlfriend, regardless of how that might affect his flourishing career. He could be happy anywhere, but Karen’s mental health seemed to be suffering during the dark winter months, only to emerge into the light bright weeks of Summer in a mania that alienated their friends and sometimes made him fear for his own safety.
During their second winter in the apartment, he was stunned by the delicate pencil drawings she was making, producing piles of sketches each day that littered the apartment floor. They were spare and elegant, drawn from memory mostly, or furtively made sketches of neighbours if she felt brave enough to leave the house. There were new faces amongst the piles of drawings and each day he would ask her about them, to tell him their story. It was a game she liked for a while but as she became more withdrawn, she resented his questions and hid the artwork in piles under her desk.
He had given up asking if she had approached a gallery.
One particularly cold day after Christmas, Peter rolled towards her as they lay bundled in their bed, him reading a trade magazine, she mesmerised by Albert Camus. He held up an exquisite antique diamond ring, asking her to marry him with his eyes. She choked back tears and nodded, and he slipped the ring on her finger. It had been a stroke of genius, he thought. Karen seemed to glow with inner fire for the weeks afterward. They were lost in each other again. It almost seemed as though the girl he had fallen in love with back in Bondi had returned.
She turned a few of the little pencil sketches into beautiful paintings over those happy months; beautiful portraits of Agnès, Peter and Jan, a distinctive combination of pen and ink, with watercolour and gouache unlike anything Peter had seen before. Jan’s father bought the portrait of his son and Agnès parents paid double the asking price of the painting of their daughter. A gallery enquired; they had seen the portrait of Jan in Olivier’s restaurant. A newspaper wanted to write an article. Things were finally starting to happen for her in Paris, Peter had said to her one morning as they talked about visiting the gallery.
She was nervous about showing her art in Paris, convinced she would never measure up, that although she loved each piece passionately, she lived in terror of any criticism or rejection.
‘Do you feel that way about each dish you prepare?’ she asked him one day.
He couldn’t tell if she was joking.
‘Of course, I do,’’ he replied.
She threw a pillow at him, so he figured it had been a joke.
Agnès planned a surprise engagement party for the first day of Spring. She hired a private room in the Louvre, although Agnès could have chosen a better time to announce she was returning to Australia. Her work visa was approved, finally, and she was excited to announce she had been offered a position on a cattle farm bigger than Belgium.
Karen told her it was too far away from the beach; she would have to find a cattle station closer to Bondi. Karen wished she would find one closer to Paris.
Agnès’ last night in Paris coincided with the opening of Karen’s show at the little gallery in the Place de Vosges, the sell-out show establishing her as the next big thing. When the last red dot was placed on the wall to show that every painting was sold, Karen was lightheaded, kissing cheeks and shaking hands. It was her hands that were shaking. Night became morning and the whole entourage traipsed out to Charles de Gaulle airport to send Agnès off in style. Hugs and tears and promises to write daily flowed between the two girls and the whole group posed for a photograph with three pilots who had just flown in from Japan. It was a fitting bon voyage for Agnès who had brought so much colour and depth to Karen’s life.
‘Don’t be mad at me for going. I’ll come home and we will drink gin at the Ritz,’ Agnès whispered, her face buried in her friend’s hair.
Karen nodded. She couldn’t speak.
I’ll wait, she thought.
Life went on in Paris; Peter working in the restaurant as a Chef de Partie, Karen selling paintings as quickly as she could paint them. As promised, Agnès wrote every day and Karen organised her wedding with her best friend though they were separated by thousands of miles and various oceans.
The letters stopped in June, although the one that arrived from the Northern Territory police department broke the monotony of the empty tray on her father’s desk. Georges flew to Australia and stayed for the southern winter.
Peter and Karen’s wedding date came and went.
Agnès had walked into the desert one night, taking her camera to photograph the stars, never to be seen again.
Georges came home emptier than he had ever been, and they moved from the embassy to their home south of Munich and waited. Karen and Peter’s apartment, it turned out, was owned by Agnès parents. Could they stay and wait, please? In case she comes home to Paris?
Karen had to wait. She had promised Agnès.
Peter made Sous Chef. Karen, now moody and volatile again, had stopped painting the delicate gouache and ink portraits. The intricate drawings and collages piling up around the apartment were now all skulls, death and anger. There was a new hardness in her work. Karen could not remember being angry before, had never missed anyone before, but she missed her friend as though she had a limb missing. She was angry that Agnès had left her, angry that Agnès had been so irresponsible to let the desert take her. Karen knew her friend was gone. All that was left was a very real ache somewhere in her stomach.
She hadn’t missed her parents when she moved to Paris, well maybe her father a little, and the dog. She had missed the dog, but not like this. She had known where the dog was. How did a woman like Agnès just disappear?
A force of nature doesn’t just disappear.
Peter took longer to realise that he had also lost Karen. Exactly when she started using cocaine was unknown. One of the gallerists had taken some of Karen’s work to New York and life quickly became a blur of concord flights and five-star hotels. Later as Peter was putting the pieces of the puzzle together, the Director of the gallery confessed she thought the drugs would help with the grieving process after Agnès disappeared. Peter admitted that the coke had helped at first, but it was the heroin that was her undoing, her artwork charting the progress as the addiction took hold.
The gallery was still selling the works on paper. Karen’s notoriety increased after her 1995 show in Rome that involved a painting in human blood.
His own professional success aside, Peter decided it was time to go home. To Australia. They would go to the outback and find their friend if that was what Karen wanted to do. Then they could go back to how things were, before Paris, before his sheltered, nervous girlfriend could sell a painting and make enough money to go on a month-long bender on the proceeds. Karen said she had to stay and wait for Agnès. Peter said he had to leave.