The velvet hours, p.18
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       The Velvet Hours, p.18

           Alyson Richman
 

  “Very well,” he answered. “You shall have your wish. But we should be quick. It’s not so close.”

  I felt his hand reach for mine, his fingers tightly grasping my own.

  As we raced to the Métro, I had never felt more alive. The striking of our heels against the pavement sounded exuberant. It was the music of youth, excitement, joy all wrapped into one.

  * * *

  We rode the Métro like young students. Our chins nestled in scarves, my bag with my notebook and pen slung across my coat, and our hands entwined. For the first time since I could remember, I wasn’t absorbed in observing the faces of those who crowded into the subway car around me. My world consisted at that moment of only Alex and me.

  At the park, we strolled through the winding paths. Little clouds formed from our breath as we spoke, and I clutched his hand even tighter.

  “I haven’t been here in years,” I said. “My grandmother told me that the highest-ranking courtesans used to take their carriages out here for their illicit rendezvous. Can you imagine?”

  “In their carriages?” Alex smiled. I thought I saw the color deepen in his cheeks. “Well, that’s a morsel I’m going to be mulling over in my mind tonight.”

  I closed my eyes and tried to savor just how wonderful it was for us to be in the middle of the park with hardly another soul in sight.

  Alex pulled me closer, and my body suddenly felt weightless.

  “Solange,” he whispered.

  I didn’t answer. I simply let him kiss me.

  30.

  Solange

  December 1939

  On the radio that evening, almost everything we heard became lost in static. Father smacked the dial out of frustration. I barely noticed. I was still thinking of Alex and our kiss.

  “Are you all right?” my father questioned.

  “Yes,” I answered. I tried to think of an excuse for my obvious distraction. “Grandmother just told me something unsettling today.”

  He looked at me, then down at his food.

  “I hardly think she could have told you anything sadder than another world war only twenty years after the last one.” He shook his head.

  I felt my stomach suddenly fall. Although I mentally fought to cling to the memory of Alex’s kiss, I could feel it dissolving in the face of my father’s agitation.

  He stood up and went into the pantry in search of a bottle of wine. I heard the glass being placed on the counter, then the sound of his pulling out the cork. He took a long swallow and came back to sit beside me.

  “I don’t mean to be cross, Solange. I just never thought I’d be alive to see another war like the last one. Every one of those boys whose last dose of morphine I administered, died fighting to free France from occupation by the Germans.”

  He shook his head and took another swallow of wine. “I feel like a dog that senses a storm is coming.”

  “Don’t say such a thing,” I said. “I feel it will only bring bad luck.”

  But the words had already been let go into the air, and they floated heavily like dark clouds between us.

  I slept fitfully, vacillating between the sweet memories of Alex’s kiss and the ominous predictions made by my father.

  But in the end, his sixth sense was confirmed. Two days later a letter was delivered to us with an official government letterhead. I placed it on the kitchen table. When I returned home that afternoon after a morning of writing and a brief coffee with Alex, my father was sitting at the table with his head in his hands.

  “What is it, Papa?” I asked.

  “I’ve been conscripted, Solange.”

  At the sound of his words, I immediately felt my stomach twist in knots.

  I picked up the letter and read it. “You are to report to duty as medical pharmacist, to the army hospital with the Sixth Army Regiment just outside Caen.”

  * * *

  My heart was pounding. How was this possible? Papa was fifty-three years old, and yet Alex hadn’t even received draft papers. At least, not that I knew of.

  “Papa, can they really make you go?”

  He nodded. “I’m afraid so. I’d be arrested if I refused.”

  “But there is still the medical test, Papa. Maybe you have a weak heart.”

  “I don’t, Solange.” His voice, almost always clinical, now had a traceable sense of fear in it. I could hear it like an out-of-tune musical note.

  “I’m not thinking of myself now, I’m thinking of you . . . I don’t want you to live in this apartment by yourself. It won’t be safe. I’ll worry constantly not knowing if you’re all right.”

  “I’ll be fine.” I shook my head. “Please don’t worry about me.”

  “It’s not an option, Solange. I want you to move in with Marthe.”

  I was incredulous. “But that would be impossible. She would never have me. I would be like a piece of mismatched china or broken furniture in her apartment.”

  “You are quite wrong, Solange. I paid her a visit late this afternoon, after I received my letter from the army. And she said she’d be delighted for you to stay there.”

  * * *

  My father explained that he could think of no one better than Marthe to make sure I was taken care of while he was gone.

  “She has survived at least one great war in that apartment,” he told me. “She’ll surely know how to survive another one.”

  “But how did she react when you asked her?” My mind was racing to put together my prior afternoon with her, when she showed me her private letters from her vanity. So many things had happened within the last twenty-four hours, and I was struggling to put all the various pieces of information in order.

  “Perhaps I shouldn’t have been as hard on her as I was the other day. She seemed different to me when I visited,” he said softly. “I suspect you’re having a beneficial effect on her . . . That said, I don’t think she’s all too concerned about the war.”

  “No, I don’t think so, either . . .” My voice floated into his.

  “As I suspected, she merely reacted as though I was going on a long journey, not understanding I had received orders to report to a hospital for wounded soldiers.”

  “That does sound like Marthe,” I agreed.

  “I am not one to show my emotions, Solange. You know that about me. But I must say, I’m grateful she’s pleased to have you live in her apartment. No one knows more than I do that she’s not maternal . . . but she truly seems to have real affection for you.”

  I nodded. “I know, Papa. I know.”

  The truth was, I had noticed a palpable change in Marthe over the course of my last few visits. She not only seemed more fragile, she seemed to reveal more of an internal softness as well. A sensitivity I had not seen before. I had visited her for over a year and a half, and for much of that time, I felt like she was happy just to have an audience to share her stories. But after my last visit, I felt there was a deeper need for her to share more than just her past.

  Outside, a fire alarm wailed in the distance.

  “We’re all feeling so vulnerable now,” Papa said.

  “Some more than others,” I whispered. I shook my head and thought of Alex and his father.

  My father was given less than one week’s notice before he had to report to the military hospital in the northwestern part of France. He arranged for a retired pharmacist to take care of the shop while he would be away on duty.

  One week was not very much time to get everything in order, but my father packed very little.

  “Unlike me, you can always come back to the apartment fairly easily,” Papa said, “so you needn’t feel that you must take everything with you now.”

  I nodded. On the bed, he had folded three white shirts, four pairs of pants, and two small, framed photographs. One taken of me on my first day of school. And the other, a photo
graph of my mother in her wedding dress.

  I walked over to the bed and picked up the black-and-white portrait of my mother. They had married at the town hall, and she had not worn a veil or headpiece. Just a long, white dress with a high neck, edged in lace that she had made herself after taking apart an old wedding dress she had bought at a secondhand shop. In the photo, she clasped a nosegay of delicate flowers between her hands.

  “She was so beautiful, wasn’t she . . . ,” I whispered.

  “Yes.” He picked up one of the shirts and began to refold it, his eyes not lifting as he spoke. “You know, you’re the same age that she was when I first met her, and you look exactly as I remember her at that time.”

  Now looking at the portrait, I could see our resemblance more than ever.

  My face had changed over the years. The soft face of my adolescence had been replaced by features that were in sharper relief. When I was a child, people always told me I had my mother’s features. We had the same high forehead, a similar slender nose. And although our eye color was different, we shared the same gaze. A look that people said went right through you.

  “If you’re not taking the larger wedding portrait of both of you, Papa, may I take it to Marthe’s now?”

  “Of course.” He was now preparing his toiletries. In a small canvas bag, I watched him put in soap, a tube of dentifrice, a razor, and shaving brush, all things I knew he had taken from his store.

  From his bedside I took the larger portrait of both of them. I had stared at this particular portrait countless times while my mother lay ill in bed. But now, I did not focus on my mother. Instead, I looked at my father in his dark black suit and vest. He was probably close to Alex’s age in this photograph, and it made me look at the portrait with a new perspective. I didn’t just look at them now as my parents, but as a young couple first setting out on their own. Only now could I imagine how full of hope and love they were then.

  * * *

  My father insisted that I move into Marthe’s a few days before his own departure. On that afternoon he carried my small leather suitcase to her apartment, and again tried to tell me he thought the situation was for the best.

  “You don’t know how relieved I am that someone is looking after you while I’m away, Solange,” he said as we walked toward the Métro.

  I had brought little with me, as I didn’t want to upset Marthe’s apartment with any unnecessary clutter. In my suitcase, I packed only the necessities: a few everyday dresses, my toiletries, my writing notebooks that contained my working novel, and my parents’ wedding portrait. And of course, I packed the two precious books from my mother, carefully wrapping them in brown paper and placing them between the layers of my clothes.

  “I understand,” I told him. Although I wasn’t sure how comfortable I would feel sleeping in Marthe’s apartment, I knew my father would rest easier knowing that I was not alone while he was at the army hospital. I was also concerned that Marthe seemed frailer than she had in past months. Seeing her every day would now give me the opportunity to make sure her health was not deteriorating, and it would enable me to hear more of her life story.

  * * *

  This time, it was Marthe, not Giselle, who answered the door.

  “Solange and Henri . . . ,” she said, and waved us inside. “Such a rare treat to have you both here at once.” She kissed me on both cheeks as Papa put down my suitcase.

  “Hopefully, I’ll get some leave in a few months,” Papa said as he straightened his back and walked over to us.

  “I’m still surprised they’d conscript a fifty-three-year-old man for the war,” she said, shaking her head.

  “There’s a dire need for pharmacists at these army hospitals. The nurses can administer the medicine, but they need someone there to do the compounding. Not to mention, the dosing of the morphine . . .” His back stiffened. “These are matters of science that need to be in the hands of those with pharmaceutical training.”

  Marthe nodded. Her face was heavily powdered today, and she was wearing a long gold necklace in addition to her pearls.

  “Well, at least at the military hospital you won’t be in the line of fire . . .”

  “No, I’ll just see the men with their heads blown off.”

  I shuddered.

  “Sorry,” my father apologized. “It’s just that I haven’t forgotten what I saw in the hospitals twenty-one years ago with the Great War . . .”

  “Well, it’s good Solange will be safe here away from all that . . .” Her fingers gently touched my arm.

  “Yes, we are all in agreement on that.”

  Marthe nodded, pleased to hear him grant her at least one concession.

  “I’m very thankful you’re allowing her to stay with you.”

  “It’s my pleasure, Henri. I feel a real kinship with Solange.”

  I smiled, touched by her words of affection. I had been visiting my grandmother for over a year and a half, but it was only in the past few visits that I felt she had truly shown a more human side of herself.

  “Giselle has made a cot up for Solange in the small room next to mine. There’s even a desk she can use for her writing. I think she’ll find it all very comfortable.”

  “Thank you, Grand-maman.”

  I saw my father’s face register that I had called her “Grand-maman.”

  “Shall we go into the parlor and have some tea?” I saw her glance over to my father, and there was a look in her eyes that I hadn’t seen before.

  It was as if she was seeking something from him. And I wondered if it was the need for forgiveness.

  * * *

  Father did not accept her invitation to tea. “I must go over the store’s inventory with Monsieur Cotillard this afternoon. I have at least a dozen loose ends to tie up before I leave.”

  “I can only imagine.” She went over and kissed him gently on both cheeks. It was the first time I had seen them touch.

  “Let me give you a moment to say good-bye to Solange, then,” Marthe said with a maternal kindness that surprised me.

  Papa and I now stood in the hallway alone.

  “Solange, be good and take care of yourself.” Papa clasped me around each arm. “Hopefully now you’ll have the chance to finish your novel.”

  His expression was soft, his eyes slightly wet.

  “Perhaps this is how all families are in the end. Imperfect, but still able to offer a helping hand when it’s needed . . .”

  “Yes.” I smiled. “Please don’t worry. I’m in very good hands, and the accommodations couldn’t be better.” I gestured toward the parlor with all of its beautiful furniture and objets d’art on the shelves. The portrait of Marthe pulsed over the mantel.

  “You’re right,” he said as he leaned forward to kiss me good-bye. “I’ll write when I get to the military hospital.”

  “I’ll write you, too,” I promised.

  “Finish your novel, daughter.” His words floated through the air as he let himself out. “Your mother’s bookshelf is incomplete without it.”

  * * *

  When he shut the door, I turned back to find Marthe standing at the end of the hallway.

  “Are you all right, Solange?”

  “Yes,” I whispered. I wondered if she could hear the crack in my voice as I answered her.

  “When a door is closed,” she said as she began walking toward me, “it means another chapter is about to unfold.”

  I nodded as I struggled to fight back my tears. My sorrow at Papa’s departure had taken me by surprise.

  “Why don’t we go look at where you’ll be staying for the next few months? Giselle and I tried to make it as pleasant for you as we could.”

  31.

  Solange

  December 1939

  The room could not have been more perfect for me. A rosewood desk. A side table with a pitch
er and basin. A small cot made up in crisp, white linen. Above the bed, cut into the plaster, was a diamond-shaped window that reminded me of a kite. Its panes capturing a view of the changing sky.

  “I hope it’s to your liking,” Marthe announced as she waved me inside. I walked into the room while she remained standing at the threshold.

  “You’ve made it so comfortable, thank you. I couldn’t ask for a lovelier room.” In the corner, I saw Giselle had brought in my suitcase. She always moved so stealthily, her every movement nearly imperceptible as she navigated through the apartment.

  “There’s a small dresser for your clothes.” She pointed to a three-tier chest. “But I knew you’d enjoy the desk . . . I used to write all of my letters on it.”

  A small sigh escaped her.

  “Now I don’t have the need to write as many . . . ,” she said as she stepped into the center of the room.

  “I’m looking forward to having you here, Solange. I haven’t had a houseguest in so long . . . ,” she told me as her fingers caressed her strand of pearls.

  “And I’m grateful to you for your obliging my father. I would have stayed alone back at our apartment, but he wouldn’t hear of it.”

  “There’s no reason for you to be alone. I have more than enough room for you.” She paused. “And I enjoy your company.”

  I was surprised by her compliment. “And I enjoy yours. I’m glad Papa thought we’d make a good match.”

  I lifted my suitcase onto the bed and unlatched it. On top was the wedding portrait of my parents.

  I saw her eyes fall upon the photograph, her gaze weighted down by it like an anchor.

  She looked up at me. “You look just like her, Solange.”

  “Yes.” My voice softened. “Everyone says so.”

  “I only met her twice . . .” Her voice was softer, gentler than I had heard it before.

  “She must have been just a little older than you are now when she and your father last visited me here. She was pregnant with you.”

  I felt a lump in my throat. I turned away from the portrait.

 
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