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A Thread to Follow

Chapter Text

It took a year.

 

Thankfully, the time was busy. The capital seemed to absorb all the hours and energy I had to hurl at it. For every far flung commission I refused, Paris obliged with a more lucrative surrogate. For every provincial domestic piece, Paris demanded official portraiture, battle scenes, histories both heroic and mythic. The war was good for business, my father said. People suddenly wanted their memoirs written on canvas, ten feet high.

I had warned him on my return, much to his bemusement, that I no longer wished to travel much outside the city. And he had looked me over with a fond skepticism, and asked if it was the south or southerners which disagreed with me more.

 

One night, I told him.

Not in great detail. I did not think he would understand, if I told him everything. But I told him of a passionate friendship from the past. A tumultuous reunion and an uncertain future. He nodded along, his compassionate grey eyes reading me as easily as a primer. At the end of my narrative, he said, “Well, let’s see her then.” I asked him what he meant, and he tapped my head with his knuckles, as he did whenever I was within reach and being dense. “Well, I assume that you have painted her.”

I nearly cried, for of course, my likeness of her was gone. But I went to the store for him, found Portrait de la jeune fille en feu, and brought it out for his inspection. He looked it over with his teacher’s eye. He pointed to the background. “Brittany,” he said. I nodded. “I painted her mother, didn’t I?” I nodded again. He looked at me sympathetically, knew me entirely. “She’s pretty, then.”

That was when I cried in earnest, and my father put his arm around my shoulder, kissed the top of my head roughly and said, “I think that you need wine.”

 

Things were easier after that. Being in town for long periods, I found that my teaching practice flourished. If anything, demand was too high. I was having to keep a waiting list of keen young ladies and could, at long last, take on pupils according to merit rather than means. I was so busy, in fact, that my father eventually moved out of our old family rooms in the main studio, finding himself a smaller space. I commented that it was a good sign, that the business was expanding, but he scoffed. It was only so that he stood half a chance of being able to paint in peace, he said, away from all my fluttering cygnets.

As the months passed, he would occasionally meet my eye over a pipe and ask if I had heard anything from my blonde friend, and I would have to confess that I had not. He would never press me, or ask if I was at all concerned. I loved him for that.

 

I did receive a single letter, some three months after my return home. It was not from Héloïse, nor even from Eugénie, but from Bérénice, written in a beautiful ronde hand over four, cramped pages. It was a strange letter, full of the kind of bland trifles and intimacies one might expect from an eccentric relative, or worrisome parent. But I understood as I read that she must have feared its being opened by the wrong people. She detailed various outings that she had made around the city of Milan, a pain she was experiencing in her right side, how incomprehensible she found the Milanese, and how the heat and the food affected her dreadfully.

And then there were a few, brief lines about her cousin’s girl, with the trouble. How relieved she was to be back with her child. How things would take time to mend, but that the specialists were hopeful. And how she might be ready to travel again in the winter, should the weather remain mild. She signed off with the words,

In God’s hands, dearest, until mine can reach.

I must have read those words a thousand times, wearing out the paper with my eyes as the year faded.

 

My more observant pupils noticed a portrait taking shape in the corner of the workroom: a noble woman wearing dark clothes on a summer’s day.

“Is it hard,” one of my favourites asked one evening, as she helped me tidy after class, “to work from memory?”

“It depends,” I replied. “Often, I find that in painting, you create the memory, rather than the other way around.”

“So, she is not real?” Elisabeth looked so crestfallen that I had to laugh.

“She is the most stubbornly real person I have ever met,” I replied. “She is uncompromisingly real.”

This seemed to reassure her. “Good,” she said, her face blossoming with relief. I asked her why it mattered. She shrugged. “Because of how you look at her.”

 

And so, in late April, when I received a package marked as coming from the coaching inn outside Marseille, the significance barely registered. It was small and surprisingly heavy, and when I unwrapped its outermost layer, a note fell onto the table, inked on heavy paper. No return address and no signature. It read simply:

Original to follow.

For a moment or two I was emphatically annoyed. My day was due to be a busy one. I did not have time for cryptic messages from clients, clearly imagining I was so honoured by their custom that I would know who they were without the minor detail of a name. I ripped open the package in a temper.

 

And there she was.

 

The miniature, my miniature, of Héloïse. It had been reset into a plain silver frame with new, domed glass. And someone had restored the drawing. Not very professionally, it had to be admitted. But with care, and a loving attention to detail. It appeared they had cut away the burned sections with a razor, pasted what was salvaged onto new card stock. And then, they had painstakingly, methodically, drawn back in what had been lost to the flames. I smiled. They had matched the colours well. The line of the hair was almost perfect, the dress a decent enough attempt. The left eye was not exactly as I remembered, but it gave the resulting image a rather endearing, quizzical look; one that I had never painted, but certainly recognised.

As if she had been looking in a mirror. Wondering if she could.

 

Original to follow. 

 

I have no idea how I got through that day. Or the next. Not well, clearly, because on the third day my father came to enquire as to whether I was quite myself. A mutual student had mentioned I looked pale and distracted. I showed him the picture and the note, and we drank and smoked in silence.

At last, in a small voice, I asked, “What should I do?”

He refilled his pipe. “Hope’s a funny wee animal,” he said. “You want it in your life, but too much fussing and it’ll cut you and bugger off.” He fixed me with a beady look. “Do your job. Fill your hours. Get in a few extras on market day. And we’ll see.” We smoked quietly before the studio fire.

“What are the numbers on the back?” he asked me at last. “Three. Nine. Five?”

I muttered, blushing, that I had no idea, maybe something to do with the framers. And he let the subject drift back into silence.

April was still venting itself against the high windows, rattling wind and rain. I loved sitting in the studio when the weather was bad, snug and cosy, with the smell of the paints, the slight chill from the far corners, and the grey evening light. It reminded me of being small, watching my father work, listening to the soft drum thud of his brushes on the canvas, losing track of time as he chatted away to us about this and that.

“Buy some new bedsheets.”

“What?” I uttered, incredulous.

“You heard me,” he said, feigning severity as I laughed. “You’re expecting a guest. Now is the time, my girl! You won’t regret it and you may just be grateful. But, there you are. I’ve said my piece.” We smoked a little while longer. “Does she travel alone?”

“I don’t know,” I confessed.

“No servants, or…?”

“Not that she would bring from Milan,” I said. Then, I spoke aloud the anxiety I had felt in my stomach for days. No. Months. “She may have her daughter with her.”

My father slowly lowered his pipe from his mouth. “Her daughter,” he repeated. “And how old is this daughter?”

I frowned, pretending to work it out. “Nearly eight, I think. Thereabouts.”

His smile was affectionate, though somewhat condescending. “And what do you know about eight year olds, my Little Calf?”

I wondered why it did not feel sadder, when he called me that. After all, it had been nearly twenty years. Perhaps, now that we had proved to the world I was his equal, he felt more comfortable with my also being his child. I did not call attention. I just enjoyed the feeling for a moment. Then, I shrugged. “Start them on charcoal,” I said, “and be sure they wear an apron.” We started chuckling together. “Don’t let them drink the turpentine,” I went on, and my father joined in as if reciting from an ancient text.

“And if they do…”

“… then keep them away from open flame.”

He laughed. “Sound advice!” he said, slapping his knee. “Was that one of mine?”

“Yes.”

He shook his head, and finished his drink. “Sound, sensible advice.”

 

The weather was atrocious for a week. The mews entrance was a quagmire most mornings and Jeanne had the devil’s own job trying to keep the dirt from coming up the stairs and into the studio. She cleaned for my father before noon these days, and for me after lunch, so by the time she arrived, what with deliveries, and pupils coming and going, the entrance sometimes resembled a turnip field.

“You’d think it would discourage them,” she said, nodding at the studio full of young ladies, shaking the rain from their shoulders, the muck from their hems.

I beamed proudly at her. “I am that good,” I said.

She pushed my shoulder. She had known me since I was eleven years old. “Cheeky. I’ll get your water in first, all right?”

 

All this to say, that it had been a completely ordinary day, and was promising to be an equally unremarkable evening. We were about an hour into the still life exercise, and Marie Joséphine had lost concentration. She had muddled her petals together, as she always did. And, as she always did, she hoped I would not notice.

“Hold up your finger,” I said, with every ounce of my waning patience, “shut one eye, and count.”

“I did,” she protested.

“Well, do it again and count better,” I advised. “And maybe talk to your father about eyeglasses. Your father, mind. Not your mother.”

I knew her mother with passing familiarity. A handsome woman herself, she would sooner allow her daughter to die a thousand deaths in the Paris traffic than permit a pair of spectacles to grace the girl’s promising nostrils.

“Mademoiselle, this petal looks odd,” complained Marie Delphine. She sounded mystified, as if she were not entirely responsible for the oddness or otherwise of whatever graced her paper. I went to stand behind her.

“Odd or not,” I said, “it is correct. Keep going.”

“But it does not look like a rose petal at all.”

I pointed at the arrangement. “That is a rose petal. Look at it, trust what you are seeing, and draw.”

“May I trust what I am seeing, mademoiselle?” asked Marie Joséphine lightly.

“No, you may not,” I replied. The bell down in the mews sounded. “In fact, you, Marie Joséphine, may want to count again. Just to be safe.”

The weather was so atrocious that I could barely hear my pupils’ giggling over the rattle of the rain. Jeanne went to answer the door. Another order arriving, perhaps. Bringing in more mud. Poor woman. She had probably thought she was nearly finished for the day. From the hallway, I could hear the surprise in her tone. “Yes?”

“Lei è Marianne?”

 

The hairs on my neck stood alert. It was a small voice, yet somehow commanding. Somewhere in its cadence was a music that I recognised, that I felt I would recognise anywhere. I turned from my teaching, wandered, dazed to the head of the stairs.

A small girl stood on the doorstep below, hammered by rain. She wore a long travelling cloak of a dark material, had the hood raised over honey blonde hair. She was drenched through, but stood ramrod straight as she gazed up at Jeanne with enormous, skeptical eyes. Small, solemn face, dark lashes and dark brows framing those eyes. Those eyes which would be all the colours of the sea. My shout was involuntary.

“Theresa?”

Her blonde head turned. She saw me, standing on the landing, and suddenly grinned, delightedly. Toothily. And she turned to yell down the mews, so that her strong voice bounced victoriously over the cobbles, through the falling rain. “Mamma, l’ho trovata!”

Héloïse.

“Mamma!”

“Héloïse?”

I ran to the window overlooking the yard. And there, where I had looked for her a thousand times, where I had pictured her so strongly that I could no longer tell if what I saw now was real or the memory of my own imagining, there she was. Her face raised, finding mine at the window, blinking in the downpour. I could not think. I could not breathe. She was not hesitating. She was asking my permission. She was waiting.

Demeurons.

“Jeanne,” I called, my voice wild. “Jeanne, show them up!”

 

And then.

And then, they were standing in the doorway of the studio. She was lowering her hood, her eyes hunting, locking into mine, before a wide room full of strangers. And we neither of us moved.

“È lei, mamma?” Theresa whispered. She seemed confused by our hesitation. “L’abbiamo trovata?”

Héloïse bent her head, whispered to her little girl, hugging her shoulders. “Sì, l’abbiamo trovata, cara. Now, remember, try your French if you can.” Another reassuring squeeze. And her eyes lifted again, and looked at me, holding back.

I went to her. Embraced her. Said her name. Could say nothing else for a moment. I held her. I just held her, and at last, I felt the damp from her clothing seep through into my bodice and remembered myself. “You… Look at you. You are soaked. Jeanne,” I said, my voice flustered, my hands at my waist. “These are my guests from Milan, Héloïse and her daughter Theresa. They are come to stay for… for a while. Could you heat some water?”

“Yes, mademoiselle.”

I had taken Héloïse’s forearms, resting mine on them. Careful, maybe too careful. Painfully aware of the room full of my pupils, just over my shoulder.

“We can come back later,” she was murmuring, her eyes searching mine.

“No!” I interrupted her, bewildered, shy of her. She was in my house. “No. We finish soon. I will be…” On the threshold of my life. “Let me take your cloaks. You must be freezing.” I was disrobing her before she gave a reply, her limbs slow.

“Shall I get some towels, mademoiselle?”

It was Elisabeth who had spoken. I looked back to the studio floor to see a collection of curious eyes peeping around easels, watching the scene unfold. But Elisabeth had risen from her seat, a look of barely disguised delight upon her face.

“Yes,” I said distantly. “Thank you. Do you know where they are?”

“There is a coaching inn,” Héloïse was saying to me, catching me, stilling me, asking without saying. “It would be no trouble. If, at present, you are not free.”

I looked at her directly. “No.” And then, perhaps because I had been a little forceful, I said, “Please. Stay.” I breathed. “Stay here.” I had taken her hand. “I am,” I said. “I am.”

 

“È questo uno studio?”

I felt the slightest pressure from her fingers, then she was away, looking to Theresa. “Yes, darling. It is Marianne’s studio. Where she works. Where she teaches. Come here. Let’s have your cloak off.”

“Ti ha insegnato a disegnare, mamma?”

“There. You were drenched. I told you. Thank you, Marianne.” I took both cloaks, hung them up before the studio fire, told my pupils to carry on without me for a moment. I listened to Héloïse chatting away to her child. “Say it in French, and I’ll tell you.”

“Did she teach you to draw?”

“That’s good. And, yes, she did teach me. A little. But more importantly, she taught me to persevere on my own. You are shivering, Theresa.”

“No am not.”

“There’s another fire in the kitchen, if you like,” I offered. “A much bigger one. And something warm to eat.” I recognised the fierce opposition in those eyes, the shy curiosity, the flame forged will. I said to her, “You might meet my cat.” And Theresa’s resistant face suddenly lit, its enthusiasm tempered only by an unspoken acknowledgement that she was really too old to be swayed by such trivial things as cats, but that she was willing to make an exception this once. Héloïse looked at me with a tired gratitude.

“Come,” she said, speaking to her child’s maturity. “You are hungry. You told me an hour ago.”

“Not very hungry, though. Only a little.”

“A little? You made so much fuss for being only a little hungry?”

I watched them go, Héloïse’s back straight, her hands held down in front of her legs, shepherding her child forward by the flats of her shoulders, murmuring in a low sing song as they went. “Scoot. Scoot. Scoot.”

Somebody’s mother.

I could not have imagined.

I could not have foreseen the ache. Or the fear. Or how either could be beautiful.

Elisabeth was at my elbow, handing me the towels before I had time to look away. She whispered to me, her voice so enraptured that she could barely keep it down, “That’s her, isn’t it?”

I considered her excited expression dispassionately.

If you knew, I thought, if your parents ever suspected, you would never be allowed to return here. Not you nor any of your classmates could ever bear association with me. It would not matter how good a teacher I was, or how discreetly we conducted ourselves, or how fine a reputation was carried by my father’s name. You would all leave without a backward glance, and never mention me without a sordid thrill, the tingle of sly gossip behind open fans. For the good opinion of polite society.

Must we mind the opinion of such people? I asked myself. We must.

Mind, but not obey.

For, in this moment, Elisabeth looked at me with such joy, as if she were my better angel, a reflection of my honest self, showing my stumbling heart its true direction. I wondered suddenly if she had ever been in love.

“Thank you,” I said, taking the towels from her. “You have a few minutes more. Try to make an end.”

 

I walked slowly down the corridor into the private apartment. I could hear Theresa’s voice from outside the kitchen, already blurred with tiredness. “Non c’è nessuna gatta, mamma.”

“No. Well. Perhaps we will meet her tomorrow.”

Jeanne came bustling out into the corridor and intercepted me. “They’re wanting to get dry,” she said. “I got the spare mattress out to air. Stew’s ready if they’re hungry and their trunk is in your room for now.”

I thanked her, hugging the towels close to me, like plate armour.

“How long are they staying?”

My mouth was dry, hanging open stupidly. And I shook my head before replying. “I do not know.”

Even when Jeanne had bustled off, I hung back, shying from the threshold of my own kitchen, wondering whether I would be welcome there. When I strode around the door, Theresa was standing like a starfish before the glowing fire in her damp chemise, her ratty blonde hair down to her shoulders. Héloïse was carefully hanging her daughter’s dress up to dry on the fire guard. Black, for mourning; white, for freedom. They were chatting about the book they had been reading in the coach, mixing Italian and French, Héloïse patient and precise, Theresa wild and inventive. She flexed her fingers into the warmth, as if to make herself as large as possible, claiming the air.

“Héloïse?” I whispered.

Her expression was drained, her face pale. She came over to me in long strides, holding out her arms for the towels. She was still in her wet things, and looked, in this light, thinner than I remembered her. She stood very close to me. I wanted to kiss her. I wanted so badly to kiss her. But Theresa was watching curiously, and I did not know.

“Do you have everything?” I asked, still in whispers.

“Yes.” She was looking at my hands where my knuckles touched hers, her brows tightly drawn.

“Give me twenty minutes,” I said. “I am so sorry.”

“Do not apologise.” She looked at me with absolute sincerity, her eyes wearier than I had ever seen them. “Please.” She took my fingers in hers, as if uncertain of their reality. “Marianne, you have no idea.”

On a sudden impulse, I pulled her to me by the towels, wrapped my arm around her shoulder and held her tight. I pressed my face close in to her neck for an instant and breathed her in. “I am so glad,” I whispered vehemently. “So glad.” She managed a smile, but that too seemed washed out, as if she stood, battered on a beach, waiting for the next wave to swamp her. I squeezed her arm.

“Hai tutto il necessario, Theresa?” I called to the figure spread before the fire.

She turned to look at me with that same guarded curiosity, her eyes flicking to her mother to check that she was allowed to reply. “Sì, grazie, signora,” she said, nodding like a Duchess.

“Marianne,” I encouraged. “Puoi chiamarmi Marianne. Se vuoi. Hai già trovato la mia gatta?” I asked. “Have you found my cat, yet?”

She shook her head. “No. She is… cacciando, mamma?”

“Hunting,” Héloïse said, watching our interaction with a guarded interest.

“She is hunting, maybe?”

I had to laugh, picturing the animal in question. “She is likely asleep somewhere warm,” I said. “She hunts at night. But she will come back, I promise. Tornerà.”

Theresa seemed satisfied, and turned her attention back to the fire. “Lei caccia di notte!” she said under her breath, making herself enormous, stretching belly first towards the flames. “Come una tigre nelle giungle dell’India!” Héloïse laughed softly, her eyes on her stubbornly energetic child.

“What is tomorrow, Theresa?” she asked.

“All French day,” came the reluctant reply.

“Quite right.”

She smiled as she said it, and her face seemed just a little brighter. “Get dry,” I said to her. “Eat something. Make yourselves comfortable. Please. And if it is all too much,” I said, “my bedroom is across the corridor.”

At that, and only very subtly, her eyes twinkled. “I will wait for you,” she said.

 

I sent my pupils home promptly. Usually there were stragglers, wanting to help pack up, wanting to interrogate me, or ingratiate themselves. On the whole I did little to dissuade them, but that evening I made it quite plain that I had nothing left to give. Elisabeth smiled encouragingly as the last of her fellows ducked out into the rain and the waiting carriages.

“She came all the way from Milan,” she said.

“Yes,” I replied, noting that she had not asked a question. That her words had sounded more like a reminder; like reassurance. “She did.”

She nodded at me approvingly, as if we were old friends. “Good night, mademoiselle.” She might have said, ‘Good luck’.

 

I could hear no chatter from the kitchen, as I returned. There was Theresa, flopped over the table, defeated by sleep in the warm light of the fire. She must have simply put her head down as she finished eating and nodded off. Her pale arms were crossed, her blonde head resting on them. One of the towels was draped over her little shoulders like a cape, and it rose and fell steadily. Héloïse, too, was sleeping, stripped to her chemise, curled diagonal in the padded armchair where my mother used to do her darning, where the cat had crept in and given birth. One hand framed her face, rounded like a comb.

And I was lost. Absolutely lost in her. Standing in the doorway of my childhood’s temple, granted a fleeting vision of the future. I was transfixed by it, awed by it, struck dumb like the ancient prophets. But the moments passed, and the vision did not fade. And slowly, the miracle becomes practical. One shields it from the sun, keeps it from cold, and answers other hungers. I tiptoed over to the stew pot, ladled myself some dinner, and took the plate out into the corridor to eat.

 

What do you know about eight year olds, my Little Calf?

I sat on the hall chair, my supper balanced on my knees, like an excitable child dismissed from proper company. Sent out into the quiet to think carefully about how grown folk behave. I listened to the rain on the studio roof. And considered. What did I know about eight year olds? Other than they were people. Real and whole. Dignified and deserving and tragic. And that one slept in my kitchen at this moment, who had travelled so far, and lost so much. And that I did not know her. And that these things take time.

The cat sauntered by me, flicking her tail against my skirts with an arch impertinence, the greeting of an equal.

“Someone wants to meet you,” I told her, “if you would be so good.”

 

“Marianne?”

I must have been sitting there for an hour, when Héloïse called out for me, her voice drowsy. “Yes.” I went to her. “Yes.”

She had not moved. Her eyes had opened, her mouth drawing itself into a sleepy smile as she saw me appear in the doorway. “You were avoiding us,” she murmured.

I paused, my heart overfull. “You both looked so peaceful,” I told her.

She sat up slowly, stiffly, and gave me a vulnerable look. And then, I watched as she put her head into her hands, her elbows on her knees. It was so uncharacteristic a gesture from her, that I found I could not respond. There was another whole year of her that I did not know.

She spoke into her fingers, her voice terribly dry. “I thought we might have scared you off,” she said.

I went to her softly, knelt up on the floor by her bare feet, raising my eyes to mirror hers. I drew her fingers away from her face as gently as I could, weaving them through my own. And I laughed, finding that I was unable to meet her gaze, knowing there was nothing to be gained from pretence, for the matter that we discussed was serious and sacred.

“I am terrified,” I confessed.

She gripped my hands, her expression uncertain. “I resolved,” she said at last, “on the way here. And I have to tell you now, before…” She shook her head, as if the words were stubbornly clinging on inside. “I want you to be a choice I make,” she said at last, “when I am free to choose. And I want to be a choice that you make. I want us to be a choice that you make, when you feel under no obligation.”

I thought about protesting. That I felt in no way obliged. That I wanted her here with me. Desperately. That I wanted both of them. But such protestations would have been passionate, not rational. We were no longer negotiating the desires of us two, but planning for the good of us three. “I understand.”

“Then you know we should not stay,” she said unhappily, drawing my hands into her waist. “At least, we should stay only until I can make other arrangements for lodgings.”

“I will help you make enquiries in the morning,” I said quickly, backing away, trying to hide the crippling disappointment in my chest. But she reached for me, pulled me into her, dropped her legs either side of mine where I knelt.

“We will find our way together,” she said, with an absolute certainty. And then, in a voice that was suddenly quick and quiet, “Can we be somewhere nearby?” she asked, her breathing fast. “I will want to see you, Marianne.” Her fingers pushing into my hair. “I will want to see you all the time.”

“Héloïse.”

We kissed one another. As if our love were a book we had grudgingly set aside, and now, in taking it back up again, we found we had to retrace the last few paragraphs, reestablish ourselves in the chapter before we could move on. Her hand tightened in my hair, and I pressed into her, looping my arm around her back, tugging her forward, her lap into my stomach, my body waking to her, rousing itself, overwhelmed in a fog of her. It was only when I moaned unconsciously, that she reluctantly dragged her mouth away from mine, dodging me gently as I chased. She met my eyes with a look of frustration and regret, even as her fingers gripped me harder, closer. She glanced around my shoulder, to where Theresa still dozed.

I turned in her arms, sat heavily on the floor at her feet, reached up blindly for her wrists as she encircled me.

“Exhausted,” she murmured.

“When did you start this morning?”

She groaned, kissed my ear. “Five o’clock. And she talked for most of the day. She wants to do some drawing tomorrow, if you please.”

“She is enchanting.”

“She’s a beautiful menace.”

“We could put her in my bed,” I offered, “before she’s too deep.”

Héloïse looked at me, and then, with her usual frankness asked, “And where will we go?”

I felt myself blush. “There is a spare mattress,” I whispered. “We could put it in here. Or I could. If you were tired, and wanted a proper bed. You could go in with Theresa. Whichever you prefer.”

She watched me trying to brave out my discomfort, sitting on the floor, my skirts rumpled around my knees. I think she may even have found it funny. When at last I had embarrassed myself into silence, she sighed once, slowly, and said, “I did not come all this way to sleep in your bed, if you are not going to sleep with me.”

I turned my head to look up into her face. She was gazing at me, as if I were the sweetest idiot. “You want to sleep with me?” I asked, disbelieving, delighted, rubbing my head back into her belly, my shoulders against her thigh.

She buried her face in my neck. “Yes,” she whispered, her voice catching. “Yes. But not here.”

I turned into her, inhaling the scent of her body. I kissed the inside of her elbow, where the skin was so delicate it was almost transparent. I asked shyly, “Where shall we go?”

Her eyes were alight. She bit her lip, and said, “Your studio.” And suddenly I was hit with the thrilling certainty that this was something that she wanted, something which had stirred her, which she had imagined. I nodded slowly.

“I’ll bring the mattress through,” I said.

“I’ll put her to bed.”

 

The mattress was heavy, but I managed to wrestle it on my own, my heart already pounding. I laid it down in front of the studio hearth, under the high windows, where the rain still pattered and trickled, casting the shadows of a thousand little rivers onto the bed, flowing in black and grey. By the time I returned with new sheets, I found the fire stoked, a carafe of wine and two glasses on the floor, and Héloïse. She was standing in the corner like a calm spirit, wrapped in a painting smock, examining her new portrait.

She was silent for a moment, though I know she must have seen me enter. At last, she spoke in a low voice. “Is that,” she asked me slowly, “how I looked, on that day?”

“To me,” I answered. “She is made of my memory. And that is how I remember you.”

She looked genuinely surprised. “Hopeful?” she asked.

“And resolute.”

She nodded.

“It did take a long time,” she said softly, her eyes still exploring the canvas. “They fought us at every step. But they settled a lump sum on Theresa.” Her eyes were unwavering. “We never have to see any of them again. We can live on the interest until she is of age.”

I knelt down with the sheets, and pillows. “And then?” I prompted.

She smiled softly, proudly. “Then, she will be independent. She will be free to choose.”

In that moment, she was more beautiful than I had ever known her. “And what will you do?”

Her eyes flicked up to me, the smile lingering on her lips. “I want to make myself useful.” She did not elaborate, and I did not push. Not yet. A future with her in it still seemed insubstantial and strange to me, as if with too much thinking, it could burst apart. “My aunt and Bérénice send you their best wishes, by the way,” she went on. “They travelled with us. As far as Marseille.”

I laughed. “Good for them.”

Her eyes gleamed from the dark corner. “And you?” For the first time since she had arrived, she did not look tired at all.

“I have been very busy. Busier than ever. We’re flourishing.”

“And even so, you painted me,” she said, her eyes soft.

“I promised.”

“It is good to know you are a woman of your word.”

“I try to be,” I replied. “I find it is a question of making the right promises.”

She came to me, to help me with the sheet, kneeling opposite me, raising and folding neatly, and tucking under the mattress. “You have taken your time with me,” she said. “Many months.”

“My client is very patient,” I said.

She laughed quietly. “Oh, I must contradict you there.”

Her skin in the firelight was so lovely, I could barely take my eyes off her, barely hold back from her. But we were civilised women, and first we would make the bed.

“But, it has been nearly a year,” she went on, glancing at me from under those dark brows. “Perhaps, in that time, you have come to prefer her.” I did not respond, thinking instead of her collarbone, where it joined the points of her shoulders, how it would feel under my lips, on my tongue. “Your memory of me.”

I stilled. She was teasing, but my heart had snagged on something. A remembrance of whispers in the dark. Ecstatic and desperate. Don’t hate me. I stood, unsteadily, arranged the pillows. But I’m here. Please. Don’t hate me. She had noticed my silence. She came to stand near me in the glow of the fire, so close that I could feel the heat radiating from her clothes, from her skin. The smock hung loose, and I recognised the chemise beneath. 

I raised my eyes to her. “A memory can be easier to love,” I said. “A person has to love you back.”

“I do,” she said. Without hesitation.

“Now?”

“Now.”

 

We kissed. And this time, our kiss was a pressure, and a rhythm, and a wave. And the wave surged over distant cliffs, drawing down in its torrent all the years, all the distance, all the careful memorials and edifices that I had ever made to her, or she to me. The splinters flowed around us as we held one another, pricking at our skin, making us flinch and cry out. And the flood was swollen with all the sorry shadows of the living things we could not save, borne away from us into the dark. And I understood, kissing her then, to the sound of rain and fire, that the lover is not an artist, but a swimmer, crashing through the water after the prow of a boat, reaching out, taking hold, to choose with every desperate breath to love, and love, and love.

 

Sometime later, we drank the wine, propped up on elbows and over each other, speaking in low voices, learning one another again, slowly, carefully, thoroughly. And later still, we slept, under a blanket of limbs and rain shadows, the fire winking out its last beside us, into ember and ash.

 

I woke to the sound of padding feet. Héloïse was wrapped around me like a shawl, so there was only one person it could be. I stayed very still. There had been a chill in the night, thank goodness, and we had pulled our chemises back on, and the blankets up to our necks.

“Good morning,” said a confident voice.

I heard Héloïse groan slightly.

“Good morning, Theresa.” Her reply was tired, but natural, careful to betray no shame or surprise. I felt her arm squeeze me under the ribs for a moment and then we raised our heads together.

Theresa was standing in the doorway, grinning triumphantly, carrying a very patient cat by the armpits.

“Who is this, Marianne?” she asked, her eyes bright.

“That is Sesto,” I said softly.

Theresa frowned. “But she is a girl,” she noted accurately.

“Sesto is always played by a girl,” I replied.

The child nodded, taking for granted the correctness of the answer she did not yet understand. “She found me,” Theresa explained. “She was asleep next to me when I woke up.”

“I told you she likes warm places.”

Theresa puffed up, proud of herself, proud of her French. But then, the weight and inherent dignity of the cat was suddenly too much for her to bear, and she carefully placed the animal on the floor. As she did so, she asked her mother sheepishly, “Where do I make water?”

“Oh.” Héloïse sat up immediately, obeying the clarion call of motherhood. “Yes. Let’s go and find it, darling.”

“It’s in the cabinet in the corner,” I murmured, watching as she wrapped the smock around herself. “Far left.”

“Thank you,” she breathed, touching my shoulder.

As they walked out together, I heard Theresa whisper, “That is not your nightdress, mamma.”

“My clothes are all in your room,” Héloïse answered. “And we didn’t want to wake you.”

I lay back down, my arms above my head, and sighed, and stretched, tired and tender and happy. Profoundly happy. I saw the cat, sitting neatly by my wrists, her tail coiled around her paws, considering my contented smile with her narrowed yellow eyes. “Oh, really?” she seemed to be saying. “Is that so?”

“Well, you’re a fine one to judge,” I grumbled, rolling off the mattress and getting up.

 

I lit the fire in the studio, lazily coaxed it into a healthy blaze while Sesto explored our vacated bed, concluded that it was now her bed, and set about making the necessary alterations. I retreated to the kitchen to make some coffee and, as the water boiled, I found myself going and emptying the chamber pot, cleaning it, and to my surprise, not minding in the least. I washed at my nightstand, made my bed, Theresa’s bed, and called into the studio to ask if they wanted anything.

 

They were setting up one of the drawing donkeys together, Héloïse vigilant but hanging back, letting her little girl see if she could unfold it on her own without trapping her fingers. The operation complete, Theresa swept away to find a good piece of paper. And I was left staring at Héloïse, standing in my studio, in the light of a Paris morning. And she was gazing back at me. And there was no reason not to. I strode over the floor in my bare feet, watching her smile spread wide with anticipation, and I took her by the waist and kissed her, unhurriedly, lightly, on the corners of her eyes, where they crinkled into her temples, and I kissed her on her temples where her hair was so soft, darkening to a mousy brown. And she hummed, and held my shoulders, and gripped me tight, releasing me slowly as her daughter turned at the soft sound of our laughter.

“Mamma, dov’è il carboncino?” she asked.

Héloïse mouthed to me. “Coffee.”

 

I returned with the tray to the sound of Héloïse’s voice.

“You must sit so that you can look,” she was saying, “without moving your head.”

“I am too short,” Theresa replied.

“Angle the donkey a bit more, then.”

I heard the furniture being dragged as I entered the room, watching where I stepped in my bare feet.

“Now, can you see me?”

I looked up. Héloïse was sitting on the life model chair, before the blue and white curtains. Her painting smock was wrapped easily about her body, her hands crossed in her lap. Theresa sat before her, frowning at a blank piece of paper. I set the tray down on the floor beside the mattress, in the warm glow of the fire, watching them both.

“How do I begin?”

“With my shape,” Héloïse told her. “My outline.”

I poured a cup of the coffee, held it for a moment, not wanting to move. I could not tell if she had seen me yet, and I did not want them to stop.

“Don’t go too fast.”

Her eyes flicked over to me, and her face spread into a happy smile. She beckoned me. Softly, I walked over, gave her the cup, but she transferred it quickly to her other hand, and reached again for my fingers. She held them for a moment, trying not to move her head, squeezed them once.

“Mamma! Hold still.”

“How much of me are you drawing?” she asked, grinning as I ducked away guiltily.

“Down to your middle.”

“Very well. But I shall drink my coffee, so look carefully at how my arms are placed. My hands.”

I walked away, to the fire, and the warmth of our bed. I took up my cup, drank a mouthful and lay down next to Sesto, my head propped on my fist. I gazed at Héloïse. And she looked back at me.

“Mamma, you are smiling.”

“I am sorry.”

“Stop it. Smiles are too difficult.”

And the weather in the skies overhead picked up, and the rain blew in, clattering against the windows. The fire crackled behind me, and the cat was purring like the rolling of distant thunder. There was nowhere to be, and nothing to do for hours. And these things take time. But we would find our way together, if we had to carve it out with our teeth. I drank my coffee and gazed at Héloïse. And she looked back at me.

“Mamma!”

And neither of us could help it if we tried.