A friend offered them the use of a flat in Aix. She talked of it lightly, as she did now of most things. Even the time the doctors said she might expect to live was treated in this vein. We’ll see what the summer holds, she would say. But when at the height of the summer it was obvious that she was not only alive but blooming, Aix was dismissed because of the heat or the tourism or something. It was circled on the calendar for next season, an option, if they felt like it. It was as good a game as any to play with life with each growing skilful at the pretence of being serious about it. This was the worst of it. The old anger that used to bubble beneath her flippancy was now inadmissible. If they were to connive in the fiction that her life was fine, that death was unlikely (at least for years), then the world’s misery, while noted soberly in the paper or on the television, was also quietly put aside as not really their affair. One day on his way to work he thought: but that’s the way everyone behaves! It was as if their game with life was unmasking one of the deepest but most casual deceptions of human thought.
That the strain told was a relief. Their first row for months was a testimony to their vitality. To call her a stupid cow put her firmly out there in the fields, large as life. To call him a prick was to affirm his manhood, however scathingly. With the seasons the year turned full circle around Aix. Why not the spring? Before all the tourists arrived. Before Cezanne’s woods lost their freshness. He, of course, would want to go in the summer for the nudie show on the beaches!
Quite suddenly with autumn coming on, they left. She had been for more therapy. The signs were not so good now. They took out the old script, blew the dust off it, and began to play again. Aix would be just the thing to build her up. Now that most tourists would have gone home. And the forests would be beautiful. They practised their lines and delivered them well. That they were actually on their way to Aix was the real wrench.
The sky, when they took the ferry from Rosslare, was so clear it was like a challenge to the very notion of travel. Back in their own garden in Macroom they could have had this sky to pretend with as well as anywhere else. Would French trees and wine make all that much difference?
Yet, as they carefully manoeuvred the autoroutes across France it was of winter murk she thought and the rich loamy fields around their home. At a roadside café heavy with diesel fumes she turned her face to the sky and said, I want rain, dense Irish rain! They changed their shirts but sweat soon stained them again. They relaxed, swilling wine from a bottle, worried and laughing at the notion of being breathalysed by a flic with a huge black moustache. What an impossible verb! Could you deathalyse someone? Death sat with them in the car but he was familiar now, sharing the bottle. He sat in the back seat and enjoyed the ride, sure of his prize. He had other options of course, collisions, bombs, more exciting events. This was run-of-the-mill stuff, his bread and butter.
Each silently reading his mind, they dismissed him. They slept in a lay-by and then the man drove through the night and she leant against him, dozing. It was as if they were willing discomfort on themselves to make it all the more real. They were active, uncoupled from thought that travelled along at a remove like the car’s shadow swooping over the landscape. Her head heavy against his arm, they were in a capsule of themselves rushing through unfamiliar space.
Dawn was near when they drove into the main square at Aix. It opened on them like a fairyland of lights, large bulbous grapelike things that shone all around the fountain. They eventually found the house among the crooked flagged streets of the old quarter. When they climbed the stone steps they found an old boy asleep across their threshold. They stepped over him, cold now towards all life but their own. Their friend had placed a bottle of wine on the plain pine table with a note welcoming them and inviting them to a drink. With the sun touching the roofs they finished the bottle and fell asleep under an old eiderdown that smelled of smoke and burnt ash.
Their friend was not house-proud. Dust lay heavy on everything. The doors had shrunk and draughts, spurred by the coming mistral, whistled through. The toilet had grown a brown skin that repelled. Mice scampered around in the dark.
They revelled in it. This is how the end of the world should be, dust laden, a cold sun, burrowing down under an eiderdown adding to its smells of smoke and ash and stale wine. No family photos anywhere. That was suddenly more important than anything. It was as if their past had been blotted out by this hard light that never varied, never relented like its sister in west Cork so fickle in her moods. It was like a cool sceptical French eye staring at them, noting their youth yet their indifference to style, the mysterious malaise, their doom, accepting them for the aloofness that seemed natural to them. And they in turn strolled the narrow streets, took the bus to Marseille, stood at bars drinking marc and wine, and showed the same tolerant disdain for everything around.
They put a bottle of wine down for the old dosser by their door. But even when they knew he was awake when they arrived home late they never tried to speak to him. He was part of this French life and they were outside it, as detached in a way as they had become to their own, affirming it in the morning when they awoke but with a blithe stoicism. A Roman stoic would have approved. He would have fetched the morning croissants and slit them open with the same deadly enjoyment, turning first to the weather forecast in the paper, as if it mattered. In a peculiar way their stoicism was marked by despair but not by sadness. Their gestures were despairing but not without a certain joy that never sought to redeem. It simply showed itself, as when after the market he gathered up discarded flowers and showed them to her, turning the bedraggled bunch this way and that, heaping them on the table where she sat and sipped her coffee. The eyes of the vendors packing away their things were disapproving. Here was surely a fine gentleman (anglais?) too mean to buy his woman a few fresh flowers. But that would have been impossible, too close to the virus of sentiment, the sweet smell of love.
When they thought of others in the same plight, the ‘love stories’ of fiction, they felt inadequate, somehow failing the great scriptwriter. But then they had opted for the banality of realism, ignoring the cue for drama.
If they appeared mean with flowers they were equally so with firewood. They scoured Cezanne’s forest for deadwood to burn in the open grate. Having failed to find any of his pictures anywhere on show they ceased to think of him as an artist. He became a petulant old man wandering around with his gear like a journeyman tinker. Here they were dramatising themselves, prowling the woods like gypsies to see what they could pick up, perhaps even steal, unsmiling towards people who passed. Aix sat in its bowl of cold blue frosty light in which all was so sharply outlined that at moments it surprised them to find the diffuseness of life still awaiting them in the candlelight of a restaurant, the endless snakes of people thronging the old quarter. It took them by surprise, that was all. It was simply the camera’s soft focus turning it on for a while, for an evening on the town. Next morning the austere blue, that sense of elemental detachment, was back with the Arab pancake seller and they would have one, watching him spread the thin batter on his black slab.
The nights grew colder and she huddled closer to the man for warmth and both felt closer in their cold unbitter capsule. They made love and functioned but held back from saying anything since every word was one too many. They had strayed into the magic land of the Ice Queen where nothing was demanded of them but that they move and look, even say hello to the pancake seller and smile but no more than that. She realised that even in this, allowing the memory to float in her as so much air, it was a trick of not possessing so that one could not lose, as one observed old people being indifferent to the child’s game while engaging in it for the sake of life which is sacred.
Neither of them could have expressed this in words. At times the trick grew eerie as if they were wraiths among real people, yet they drew strength from this too. It might have been a magic potion they bought every day on the street, giving them a sense of mastery over life, of being close to its secret, the ancient one of seeing through it and seeing it through.
Perhaps it was the Ice Queen who came in the night with her needle-sharp hammer to shatter their capsule. But she did it artfully so that at first they were hardly aware, as one is barely conscious of losing a social pretence that has served for so long, a way of looking at people and imagining being seen by them. He saw it happening in her and then felt the tiny spreading cracks in himself, a melting away of the deceit of self into the warm air (the weather helped) where one’s smile for the pancake seller had to be something more than a reflex of lip and skin. Secretly each of them knew it would happen like this. Even in the way they walked through the crowd where there had been a kind of untouchability there was now uncertainty. People rubbed against them, bumped into them as if to assert that they were really there, human no less than themselves.
They gave money to the old dosser and saw it as an offering to the Ice Queen. She should return and chill them again in her ice-blue love. But it was death who had returned in all his rags and smells and body parts and even the dosser seemed to know, scuttling away with a leer when they handed him the notes. Death who had drawn back intimidated by their dark gypsy eyes sidled up to them once more and took his place by the fire, and told stories from the past that were always of loss and guilt. Always someone was trying to forget the world and live for ever in the moment. And it always ended in tears and clumsy hugs. He sat between them in the car on the long road back to Le Havre and like people being polite to each other over an awkward guest they tried to ignore him, dragged up some of the familiar things to which they were returning, connived against him by turning deliberately cultural, visiting chateaux and museums like any other tourists, not too much just enough because too tiring, even enjoying one night in a classy hotel with swimming pool and sauna where naked and silent together they felt they were sweating out the fraudulent drug of Aix.
In a dingy room in Le Havre the light was really blue from the flashing neon outside. It was like a garish memento of their holiday, the postcard they had bought to change money but the one that would survive, even finding its way to the mantelpiece where no one had the heart to throw it away. They had bought wine but it tasted sour and they poured it down the sink. She lay exhausted, her body exposed to the ripples of blue as to a source of energy prodding her back to life. This is where it should end, in this nervy whorish light. Here the bones stood out in their skeletal truth. His too in her eyes when she turned to smile at him, claiming his death in a glance, asking where were the cigarettes. As he reached for them a bell sounded somewhere bringing a memory of other bells rushing over him, Torcello where in the late evening, the mist descending, they had climbed the campanile (due tickets, per favore) to stand looking down over the salt marshes where Venice had begun (reaching down, got them?) and the huge bells started up deafening them and they stood laughing, trapped in sound, cupping their ears (on your side maybe?) and for a while they were as nothing, disembodied from thought, their spirits in a wild carillon swooping down across the lagoon, wheeling over a vaporetto ghostly in the mist, returning to land heavy against each other, gripping tight (my side, got ’em), steady, her fingers firm on his wrist, lighting for her and holding the match to his own, the smoke drifting through the flashing lights in a way that reminded her of a funfair and then of the stretch of the Shannon where her father lay. She moved a pale arm through it scrawling something, nothing, in the air.