I miss Sylvie, so have brought her out. I’m just finishing a draft of a new book, a sweaty little mystery set in Sunderland, but keep wanting to go back. I suppose some characters are like that, like burrs.
The strike-flare-suck of the first menthol of the morning. She shakes out the light. Returns the tin to her bedside table. The half-awake morning winks on the gold tin. There is nothing else on the table, but a glass of beading water. She has never needed a clock to know the time. Sylvie hauls velvet-grey smoke into her belly. It fills her with something at least. The tickle in her throat, the tautness of the cigarette as she inhales, shivering within her grasping mouth. The fizzing paper as it burns.
That day, Sylvie had woken with difficulty, as with every other in the last twenty years. Her new city, her new hair, her new Sylvie. There was that slow-domino of Monday to Sunday. That drugged leaking of time. Habit kept distinctness to her days. Habit was her religion. Kept awake that which she had come here to do, as she gathered knowledge, courage.
She taps her legs. There’s the sound of her patting, a reminder to her body. Wake up, wake up.
She has to do this, before the leadenness overwhelms her. Before she is pinned like a butterfly in a whispering museum and the past opens over her like a map. Until she can hear the machine’s warning, its flashing amber lights at her closed eyelids, that neat ripple of cinnamon hair, tauntingly in reach.
Another lungful. Move.
She sat up, drew back the cover.
No body in her bed to manouevre politely around and out of her door at least. She should do less of that, she would do less of that. Is this not the time for resolution? At home, that origin of who she is, her starter self, it was Fete des Rois. Epiphany.
No epiphany about what she is here to do. The thought became a question became a plan became reality; this 30-flat block in the historic centre of this docile city. Where he lived.
If you go through the motions, Sylvie has found, if you create and perpetuate a habit, if you just get up, you evade it for some time.
She likes the sunlight on her breasts, her collarbones. The cruelty of its jubilance is sometimes too much. She likes the light best before it’s too loud. She likes to keep the bedroom warm so she can stand and whip up the blinds. Decisively. The sunlight playing over her, she feels cinematic, that life reaches its face into her small world and looks around. She is grateful for the momentary inclusion.
Sylvie picks up the camera from the puddle of clothes where she left them last night. Strides towards the kitchen and lets the pronunciation, from English to French, of the world surveillance play in her mouth. It’s exact same spelling.
The rest of the apartment is arctic. She keeps it this way. Always with windows leaning out. The freedom of circulating air. When it’s hot, her hands flutter to her throat. She looks for exits, she twists with memory. Though can it be memory if it did not happen to you? Might you absorb such a thing? Wishes.
Outside, the clearing of a throat.
Outside, a woman says Ohhhh in such a way to create a tunnel of vowels and says, ‘I’m concerned about the crocuses’.
When Sylvie listens to the world in mornings, there seems always the sound of a car engine idling somewhere, as if waiting eternally for to someone to arrive. She pulls on a hat that she would have knitted with Babette, long ago in her other life, in one of those huddled cafes as far away from Gare du Nord as possible, so Babette could mutter freely, with her downturned mouth and seemingly dark heart. Mittens, fingerless.
Memories fray decision, like small fire frays cigarette papers. Not to remember the other things she had knitted. Not to remember the way she had studied patterns, the wool she had travelled on the metro into Paris to select, how the rhythm got into her brain, the callus on her finger that she rubbed absently in the thin cross-hatchings of sleep around her studies of haemoglobin and bloodwork and terms that sang through her body with a triumphant drumbeat; you are something, you are intelligent, you are more than a body. Not that cursed Nicoleau girl with the misleading face who would not wear the Madonna.
The shame coated her, the loathing licked the backs of her thighs. And what now to all that promise?
‘Stop,’ she whispers to time.
She moves through the images she has taken yesterday. A flicker-book of the man’s Saturday. A salt and pepper-haired man with a face liked balled-up paper. Smoothed out, but never rid of its experience. Near the castle, near the narrow streets and bookshops, a flimsy mint shopping bag holding bread and pies. The pram an awkward appendage. In the last, almost he is about to meet her gaze directly, but for a blonde blur of woman’s hair between the lens and his face.
She inhales. Coffee before the next cigarette.
She sets the camera down on the kitchen counter. Traces lover’s fingers over the backs of her hands. There you are. It feels like such a long time since she was loved – and then what was that really, when you think about it? The nails are short, dented horizontally. Which can be a sign of trauma or Beau’s ridges, age. She knows the term from one of her other lives. Isn’t she only 40 though? Is she 40? There has been so much adjustment, and a disinterest in the dissolution of the years anyway, she cannot any longer be sure.
She picks up the camera again and takes it to the light, the window beyond the sink with the leaky tap that half-fills the bowl every night. She notices a splinter of frost. The next still, and there is Robert, in the corner of a frame. His legs scissoring into shot, like the arms of a compass. His torso is not present, but the round of his shoulders is there, the oval of his face. She zooms in, decides there is the evidence of teenaged acne, pitting the tender skin at his temples. She presses a button. Black.
What else? The slippers with the pompons, the house-coat that she bought in Japan when she was robust and back-packing, in that gap where she left Peter. Twenty years. The thought of him, how openly she’d believed in them, it could still make her feel stupid.
All these years later, it was still hard to believe he hadn’t made her pay for what happened. Sometimes, she would be walking along the corridors of another life and she would think of him. And there would be the sensation of falling.
The anger inside his face. Its pointed corners. Its brick-power. It had knocked something down inside her when she’d seen it, something final. The incontinence of it. Because he had assumed she would just come back, even after everything. ‘You think you won’t be punished?’ The wasp of spit buzzing on her cheeks.
Without Peter, no Letya. Her little mouse, le souree petit. And so those quads she’d had, and so those boots and so that stance and so that knowledge, of her own ability to adapt, just a photograph that presumably no longer existed.
Where was Peter now?
The thought of him even, at large, a million miles too far. No reinvention enough to quite seal him off, to keep him in the past. The way he burned. And she’d remember their lovemaking then, too, feel her neck sting with it. It had been like swimming in the ocean.
Better things. She wishes she lived somewhere warm enough to wake to silk, to a caramel and duck-egg chemise, to fully accommodate the age. Let her hair grow out and change to grey, let the waves take hold, to not have to be a woman. Not yet.
There is the kitchen, quiet in the morning light. There is Mr Fraser in his allotment already, coughing over his potatoes, there is the cafetiere to fill, the water to boil, the coffee to inhale as it steeps. The kitchen will hum. The frying pan will spit and sear, it will seal failed life within the egg. She will dab its yellow with the rye bread from the deli last night. The lids and spoons, the breath of flakes going to the gold fish that she felt this version of herself would have, the percussion of the morning. Sounds that made her real.
If this doesn’t happen, this sequence of events, tastes, physicalities (because after breakfast there are of course the ablutions) the realities, the silence will daub its sadness over her. Gloopy, like wallpaper paste over parted mouth and ears and eyes and nostrils, between her legs. Which is sometimes tender from the night before. And then her body will cling to the bedsheets, sticky and cold. She might not move for days.
But that day. She had somewhere to go and somewhere to be this version of herself. Le Cafe de Mort. It was a chore to translate to French and she realised she had started to think in English. Just as she had once started to think in Peter. They had these in France, all over the world. Where you may talk about death freely. Of course she had never been, would never trade her stories. (My daughter. Mine). But she could invent another death for these purposes.
The coffee grains are expanding, releasing their scent, washing white heat up the glass of the cafetiere. While that is cooking, she unpeels herself from the past and begins to properly dress. Ensures that she covers the white scar, the curlicued L that she had scribed into her own skin, that none of the men had ever noticed.
That day – today – she would be Sylvie.