Wednesday, 6 July 2011

La Femme Adultere

I thought for a change I would write down a little story, and the title gives it a nod to Camus, but a barely perceptible one.  Thanks Mrs C.  You can have it back when you like.

They had steak frites and salad.  Steack, they spelled it.  Why, she wondered.  She often wondered why things were as they were.   He never seemed to wonder about anything.  It was uncomfortably hot, in the car, in the cafe, in the room they had booked ahead (by post, sending a cheque to the agent, this was before the Internet) and the air seemed to be full of grit.  The two children were cheerful but tired.  The girl, always the sunnier of the two, ate her dinner and mooned her eyes at her parents.  She hadn't seemed to mind anything, although most of it had been horrible.  They had had ten days in a gite, in Brittany, a truly vile place with mice.  Mouse urine has a smell which gets into everything.  She couldn't understand how it had seemed to get into the baguettes she brought back fresh from the boulangerie every morning, but to her it did.  But the little girl, at four, was cheery and matter of fact.  She said she was hot, she said her dress made her itch, she said she wanted a drink, but everything she said had a point.  The boy was too little, he was a baby, and sometimes he was discontented.  He would be discontented, she thought.  She could imagine him, at perhaps nineteen, blond like her, white skin, pale eyes, tall, awkward limbs.  He would get into trouble, she thought.  She was an only child, and had sometimes thought that if she had been a boy she might have said no.  No to being good.  No to passing all your exams.  No to doing your best to be the best you can.  She might have joined the army if she had been a boy, or been a builder's labourer, or in some other way turned her back on it all, everything her parents had fought for and worked for and hoped for.  She might have broken her parents' hearts.  But she had not.  She had worked, and studied, and now she was married, and here were these children, and here they were having holidays in gites.

His feet were always dirty, she thought again.  Hers had been, too, once, that term at college when she had gone barefoot for seven weeks (and never worn a bra either) and the Christian Union had thought she and her best friend Lynne were a pair of Jezebels.  But afterwards, not.  Peppermint foot lotion, even.  But his feet were dirty.  He wore the same belt, always, no matter which trousers he had on.  It had an enormous buckle that seemed to dig into the concave space between his hipbones.  At this time he affected a pipe.  She thought this was because he did not really like smoking, and used the pipe so he could spend most of his time tamping, and knocking, and puffing, without much tobacco result.   She, she liked smoking. She did it all the time.  In those days nobody minded smoking.  You could smoke while you were changing your baby's nappy.  She did that too, sometimes.

Now they were silent, at the table, in the stuffy and uncomfortable little cafe, above which was the room all four of them would sleep in tonight.  The bar in the other half of the room, which had been empty when they arrived but for two old men with bright green drinks in front of them, had filled up.  The television was on, football results and Mitterrand.  "Dieu". was Mitterrand's nickname, she knew that much, which, although she was not religious, seemed faintly blasphemous.  She had been brought up in a secular, rather non-conformist, household, the child of parents past their first youth, almost of an age when they might have begun to give up on the idea of having children, but if she had said "My God" at home there would have been swift punishment.  Her mother had thought she was too fat, the last time they had met, a few months before, and she had half-heartedly followed the WeightWatchers recipes her mother had given her.  There was no problem there any more.  She remembered her mother in Amateur Dramatics, smoking a cigarette on stage and looking like Lauren Bacall.  She herself had on a pair of black satin drainpipe trousers and a skimpy multi-coloured T-shirt.  Her hair was naturally straight and blonde, her skin and eyes pale.  She wondered, suddenly, if he would really do the things he often talked about.  Would he lead a generation into a new understanding of the English vernacular literature and of the real meaning of the critical works of F.R. Leavis?  She had no idea.  But suddenly she remembered Madame Bovary.  She had read this book before this holiday, thinking she would understand something about France.  And what she had learned was that an adulterous woman must die.

She looked across the table at him.  He had fallen silent, and gestured across the room for the bill.  She knew he wanted to go across into the bar, and speak French with the locals.  He had gone to school in Paris for a little while, as a child, and it had left him with a command of French she could never muster.  She knew he wanted to drink more booze.  The children were a hindrance to that, and anyway the boy's nappy needed changing.

She went upstairs, with the children.  The room was a shoe box on its end, stuffy and gritty, with a tiny window high up.  The bed creaked.  The day bed, she supposed, was meant for the little girl, who was quickly and happily asleep across the end of the huge cot, whose purpose she could not quite work out, and which was too short for her to sleep on but too big for the baby.  She used it to change the boy's nappy, smoking as she did so, and laid the boy down in the baby's cot.  She lay down herself on the day bed,  and opened the book again.

She felt unused, un-looked-at.  She looked again at the book.

The death by poison was too horrible to read now.  Gruesome.  No.  These things do not happen any more.

She lay there, much of the night, and read Emma, from Charles to Leon to Rodolphe to the end.

7 comments:

Emma said...

And , sitting in the room she remembered the first time they had gone to France, she and her husband. Before the children - but Brittany again. St Malo with the ramparts - the Honeymoon - a fortnight after the Blessing, hot to trot on the heels of the Registry Office wedding. She had worn a scarlet knitted dress and her husband, a brown velvet suit. The dress had felt daring - she, the 'other woman', finally snaring her man. Fitting, really, that five minutes after tying the knot, they had bumped into the first wife complete with six year old; disabled toddler and baby-in-a-buggy.......

It stayed with her, all through the boozy wedding party in their rented flat and the 6am 'wake-up' party, courtesy of his sixth form -
The Blessing was a family affair and this time she'd worn an off white evening dress, with cream tee bar shoes and her grandmother's silver necklace.They had adjourned to a local restaurant where the wedding cake was a strawberry sponge. Now and then, she picks at the photographs. Her best friend with his uncle ;the ill assorted medley of relatives and almost friends who smile as expected as she clings to her husband, life -raft style - with the smile of triumph. And he is pulling away, pulling away in each frame.

They had not booked a hotel.
But found a room in a guest house some three hours after leaving the ferry.It was huge with a bed and little else. She drank chocolate from a chipped bowl at breakfast and they ate at local restaurants - usually the 30 franc menu but on the last night - the 49!!!!

They would be returning to their rented flat and she would be starting her first job.
He would be resuming his teaching post and she would now be permitted to accompany him to school functions. When they were living in sin , the Headmaster had banned her from school premises as a scarlet woman.
The first wife - now ex - would continue to live round the corner.With the children.

The return ferry was crowded.And it stunk, frankly.
Her husband was reading Moby Dick and he had kept on trying to 'improve' her reading choices on the honeymoon. It grated. So she wasn't going to read Melville just to spite him - but compromised by ostentatiously reading Conrad - The Secret Sharer - which was about a dopelganger.
They did not talk;he never listened to what she said about books so she continued her own conversations in her head.
Every now and then he replenished their drinks and they smoked in unison.

Suddenly, she saw something white like a bundle, bobbing around in the water. A lump of leather - a suitcase that had dropped overboard.
She pointed it out to her husband
It began to encroach.

The deck filled with people pushing and eating; shouting and stinking - with or without children. Boat personnel emerged from cabins with ropes and pulleys which were launched into the water in the vicinity of the lump.

The body was hauled out of the water. It was long and thin and had green and red tufts all over its head. It had been a man.
People swarmed, ogling and babbling and fetching their children and cameras - still eating their sandwiches and crisps and burgers and drinking from bottle and cans.
She did not move - but listened and watched as the body was strapped to the mast of the ferry where it would stay until it disembarked with herself and her husband and everybody else - in Dover.

When she was four, she had wandered away from the prison of parents and grandparents and deckchairs and towels and sandwiches on a beach in Weston Super Mare.
An hour later, she was chest - high in quicksand and sinking before she was hauled out by her father; doused by a water pump and cocooned in a towel next to a haven of deckchairs and sandwiches.

They disembarked at Dover - back to new lives which were just the same - but the body with its green and red streaks stays with her.

It is with her and Emma and the children as she waits in another room in another time for her husband and it does not go away.

Emma said...

Nine years beforehand, she had found herself at the bar of a local bistro at 11pm on 7th of the 7th '77.
Although that was not strictly true.
She had gone to 'Bunter's on a whim instead of returning to the house she shared with four other graduate students.

It had been a pig of an evening.
She had gone, solo, to the local pub - hoping that she might chance upon a party. She'd dressed carefully in a floral cotton maxi dress with strappy sandals.Ok for a night in the pub but equally fine for a party. And it was hot.

The usual crew had dribbled in but it had been a clock - watcher's bore of a night.

If Lynne had still been around,it would have been game on. They would have trapped the architects on the settle with the usual line, ' We haven't eaten for a week - apart from tins of Heinz cold rice and custard'. And they would have been whisked to Thornbury Castle for a posh nosh. But the best bit would have been home alone,laughing till they cried, nursing the dregs of Lynne's home - made wine and the last fags in the packet.
But Lynne was in London now - and, frankly she felt cheated out of an evening.She worked had enough for God's sake and had just handed in her dissertation on The Ancrene Wisse - about bloody nuns behind a grille, lusting for Jesus.God and sex. Usual stuff.

She decided to cut her losses when who should loom into view but her postgrad tutor - complete with James Robertson Justice moustache,desert boots and baggy jeans They had been ironed . He proposed adjourning to his flat for 'a spot of supper'.
And it would have been polite to say yes - and she had been brought up to be polite but No, No, No!!

Every instinct recoiled , which is why she was now beached at Bunter's, nursing a half of lager and lime.

The aim was to knobble the owner about after-hours parties - but he was nowhere in evidence.
Instead, the place was stuffed to the gills with teenage boys in the boot-cut suits of the local public school.

She asked for their teacher.

And there he was.
She burbled that she was studying for an MA in Middle English; he riposted that he had taken a First from Cambridge in English and walked out of the door.

Then walked back.Witty, tall, thin and dark. The boys sniggered and whispered 'He's married'.

He said he wasn't.
She thought - I know you are but I don't care. I want something for myself for once.

They arranged a drink for the following Monday and at the weekend, she mentioned his name to a friend who said 'I sat next to his wife at a dinner party last week. She's expecting their third baby'.

So he was married - but she knew that she would keep the date and she did.
And in the interim ,a Peter Frampton song kept playing in her head alongside Gerald and Gudrun in Women in Love:

You have struck the first blow.

And I shall strike the last.

They had shot the Russell film at a castle near her home and her school friends had been extras at the garden party scene.

She had seen herself as Jennie Linden, playing Ursula.

But this was Gerald and Gudrun, and she knew it from the first.
But she still went for the drink.

Jane Griffiths said...

Look, this is wasted on my blog. Write it here if you want, and I'll do stuff too, but write it anyway. It's all coming out.

Anonymous said...

I think I will.
It is funny how things come out - but they do. Eventually.

Anonymous said...

I quite like writing it on this blog. In fact, I quiet like writing it.

How odd.

Jane Griffiths said...

do guest posts then if you want, email them either direct to me or submit them as comments and I will put them on as posts, this is fantastic stuff, full of colour, and think of a cool pseudonym - or write it yourself somewhere else, but write it.

Anonymous said...

I'll email to you as a guest post - keeping the copy.

This has been milling around for years and is now taking shape.

Thanks M Bovary. Apt - must be subconscious.