It was May, 1968 and there was a woman on a train. She was slight, seated by the window and wearing black, her feet bare against the dirt of the carriage floor. Above her on the rack was a violin case and a green woollen coat, although the weather was scorching. The windows of the train were open, a pale wind gusting into the carriage and through the dark hair that fell loose around her shoulders. the woman’s belly filled the hot damp air between herself and the seat in front of her and she had to lean back, her legs parted, her hips forward in the seat, in order to accommodate her body in the space. She pressed her sweat-beaded forehead against the window and stared out across the springtime fields, fecund with sunflowers and barley.
The pink city walls ought to have been close by now, and yet the countryside was unrelenting. The vast blue skies softened down to a distant apricot horizon. She should have arrived in Toulouse mid-afternoon, but already the sun was setting. The conductor had passed through the carriage several times, and each time the news had not been good. She hadn’t understood the exchanges, but other passengers had shaken their heads, looked at wristwatches, thrown up their hands. What would she do if she was too late? Would there still be someone there to meet her? Would she even get there at all? We have always assumed she was expected, although no one ever reported her as missing.
The train slowed, and the man next to her rose to his feet and began to gather his belongings. Her eyes scanned the platform running up alongside them, the single, small stone building surrounded by scrub grass. ‘Toulouse?’ she asked him, pointing at her forearm, where the word was spelled out in blue ink.
Later the police would ask passengers to place her accent and they would recall only the sibilance of her ‘s’s, the way her words seemed round and throaty, but nothing of more use than that. Her voice would already have receded too far.
In my experience it doesn’t matter how long you’ve known someone or how intimate the things they’ve whispered in your ear, no matter what memories you are left with, when they leave their voice goes with them. Even in dreams their words have no form. Now I don’t recall if there was anything extraordinary about how she spoke, only the coastal sound of her breathing when she slept.
I can still usually place a face, describe what makes it unique, but for most of us catching the timbre of a voice is like trying to catch rain in a cup. still, people were keen to offer other useless details, like the sour smell in the carriage as they waited for hours in the thick air between stations, or the way they had to lift their feet from the pooling blood.
The man shook his head. ‘Another twenty minutes,’ he replied. But the woman’s face was blank. He held up his fists to her, flashed out his fingers, made fists again, then spread them once more. ‘Twenty,’ he said again. Louder this time. People turned to stare.
‘Twenty,’ the woman repeated. She couldn’t have been sure she’d make it. A storm was rising deep within her; clouds like knuckles, twisting and tightening. The pressure of her own body bearing in on itself. The baby was coming. Twenty minutes. She braced herself against the back of the empty seat before her and closed her eyes.
‘Are you alone?’
She opened her eyes to find the man was gone. An older woman from across the carriage had moved over to the vacant seat, and was asking a question. The train was pulling out of the station. The younger woman stared back at her through dark, feral eyes as a cool hand was pressed to her head. As the train picked up speed she slid one protective hand back on to her belly.
‘How many months?’ the older one asked.
The young woman shook her head. Tears cascaded over her flushed cheeks. The older woman wiped them away with the backs of her fingers then held up her two hands, less one thumb. Nine fingers. She pointed to her belly. The young woman brushed dark fringes from her eyes. There seemed to be a battle going on inside her, but it looked as though she’d understood. Reluctantly she lifted her hand from the seat back and showed her three fingers.
The older woman waited an instant, then shook her head, no. That wasn’t right. She mimed the roundness of her belly, imitated rocking an infant in her arms. the young woman watched her, then looked down again at her own pregnant body. She pinched the bridge of her nose and screwed up her face as if trying to concentrate all her effort on that one part of her body, then held up her hand once more. All five fingers. She closed it again. Then showed three fingers, plus one more, bent at the knuckle. The older woman grasped the hand and pressed her fingertips into the pulse. Her lips twitched. Then the younger woman twisted away and grabbed the woman’s hand back, wrenching the bones together.
The older woman didn’t flinch. ‘I can help you,’ she said, enunciating carefully. ‘I’m a midwife.’ The other woman looked up with obscured eyes and lowered brows, and then, slowly, she nodded, removed her right hand from her belly and held it palm upwards, outstretched.
The midwife looked at her. The woman didn’t look like a beggar. She was well dressed, clean. She shook her head. ‘I mean I can help you with—’
‘Say me!’ the woman urged. Her index finger trembled along the groove on the palm of her hand, right to left, tracing her life line, dark with dust blown in through the carriage window.
Instead the midwife took her hand again, firmly. She shook her head. ‘I help women deliver their babies.’ She spoke slowly and clearly, but there was no recognition in the young woman’s eyes, only panic. ‘Children,’ the midwife tried, ‘niños.’ But it was too late for translations. Suddenly, in a single, brutal cry, the young woman’s breath was carried out of her. Her chin extended, her neck thrust forwards as though someone were ripping strings of vowels from her throat.
She gripped the older woman’s hand once more. ‘What happens?’ she gasped.
The midwife was still talking, softly, urgently, but the younger woman did not answer, could not answer because the carriage full of people was blurring away. She was already in a tunnel, the clickety-clack of the train carrying her through. She was waiting for the light. There were voices, they were getting louder and yet more and more distant. Then there were hands at her knees, pulling them apart, and fingers inside her. The fingers were pushing hard, but the woman could not open her eyes, she was given over to the agony. She felt hands lifting her, many hands. She was being moved, shifted, but the pain, the pain. And then she couldn’t bear it any longer and she began to bear down, her face contorted with effort. She leant on herself, pushing and straining. Outside her a voice was shouting, ‘Non! Non!’ But she was in a tunnel and the train was rocking and the hands were pressing and pulling and the voices only bellowed meaningless words in her ear. Then the wind found her. They said you could see it pass over her, from her feet up over her body until her face finally stilled and she became nothing but a memory.
It was May, 1968. On a train half way between stations, a woman in a black dress lay on the carriage floor in an animal slick of blood and fluid and the silence of the moment was broken by the first cry of an orphan, held in the arms of a stranger and wrapped in a green springtime coat.
The midwife, the stranger who was holding this baby, who was sucking out fluid from his nose and spitting it to the floor, would soon become his new mother. She had delivered many babies, but never her own. She had prayed for it since the day she married, but in twenty-three years God had not granted her a child. The doctors had told her it was impossible, that for her it was not meant to be. But now, as she held this baby boy, still bound to a dead woman by a thick blue cord, she saw it all as clear as day. She felt jubilation wash over her, the presence of her God, and she whispered, ‘Thank you.’ Words that she would look back on with shame in the years to come. Not the gratitude itself, but how it rose from her heart before the poor mother was even gone cold.
Amandine Rousseau’s shoes were as green as a springtime coat. I told myself it meant nothing, but how many people do you know that wear green shoes?
It was early September. The sun sloped hot over the planes and cypresses along the left bank. There was barely a breeze, but what little there was bore with it the first tumbling of yellow-edged leaves. I heard them settling softly upon the boat as I woke. We hadn’t had a cold day since May, so I should have realised then that change was in the air. The trees always have their reasons. They knew the wind was coming. I can still picture the distinctive yellow light that spilled across my pillow that morning and how, lying in its warmth, it took me a while to surface from the tugging tide of sleep where Candice rose and fell with the swell. I have dreamed of the sea for as long as I can remember, long before Candice. Perhaps it’s an echo, I will never know.
I was playing the piano when she arrived. As soon as I heard the footsteps through the open windows, I knew it must be her. Most people walking on the towpath move with purpose and rhythm, even if they are just out walking a dog. But my clients’ footsteps were always hesitant the first time, and Amandine was no exception, despite the impression she tried to give. it takes courage to expose the most vulnerable part of yourself to someone. I always tried to make that first meeting as easy as I could.
She came to a stop a few metres from Candice. I stood, closed the piano lid and put away my music. Then the bell chimed out and I climbed up into the wheelhouse to greet her. She was far enough back from the door that I could see all of her through the glass pane, head to toe, straight-backed and impeccably dressed. Her shoes were bright green. As I opened the door she stepped forward, offering me a slender hand and a broad smile.
‘Amandine Rousseau,’ she said.
She wore a silver ring on her thumb, and none on her long fingers. Her eyes were wide and her face looked younger than her pale hair suggested. Something about her made me think of the unbroken surface of a lake. Her hand fit within mine like a child’s.
Once invited in she moved through the wheelhouse as though through water, glancing around as she went. Her eyes fell first upon my dining table, big enough for four but laid for one. Then on to Candice’s golden wood and rounded edges, the pilot’s wheel like a web strung out below the window, the varnish worn from its handles a reminder that she has been on adventures I will never know. Candice and I had never travelled together, but I would often stand at the wheel, looking downstream and wondering. It can be enough to know that you could slip your moorings should you wish.
I led the way, backwards down the steps into the sitting room, motioning for her to take a seat, and following her eyes as she considered the options: the Voltaire in velvet stripes, the worn couch in leather the colour of dark chocolate, the gilt-edged Louis XV chair in faded violet plush, with books piled up precariously on either side. The folding wooden chair by my writing desk and then the piano stool, pushed under the upright. She chose the Louis XV, sitting neatly with crossed legs, straightening her skirt and regarding me directly. Her skin was pale, almost translucent, but her cheeks were bright with colour. I was convinced that I had met this woman before. Something in the cheekbones? Her mouth? A thrill of anticipation washed over me, like the excitement that comes with the first ink on a fresh score sheet, the beginnings of a new composition. What was it that she stirred in me? I grasped at a memory just beyond reach, but there is only so long that you can look at someone’s face without appearing to stare and after a few seconds I was forced to look away without an answer. I should have looked harder.
My clients usually chose the shabby comfort of the leather couch on the starboard side, its back against the towpath giving whoever sat there a view out over the water. Unhappy people in particular seem drawn to the water. Typically I would take the Voltaire opposite but now it was too close to where Amandine was sitting, so I tried to arrange myself as professionally as possible on the couch. The problem was my height. The low couch is fine for stretching out on at night but if I sit normally it collapses me down, folds me in three.
I settled on a compromise, sitting sideways, leaning against the armrest, with my legs stretched out into the room. She must have sensed my discomfort but Amandine said nothing. Instead she dropped her eyes to the knotted floorboards, where that same yellow light fell across the dark varnish, and over my bare feet which rested a short distance from her own, small, neat and still wearing the vibrant green shoes so discordant with her otherwise neutral appearance.
I tried not to think of violins. Of a train between stations. Of a woman ... Amandine glanced up and caught my eye. ‘I’m sorry,’ her voice was as fine as mist, ‘should I take my shoes off?’
‘However you’d be most comfortable,’ I told her.
She brought her hands together in her lap, lifted her chin and regarded me with calm, appraising eyes the colour of lichen. With the sun reflecting off the water behind her, making her hair glow like pearl, the first silence bloomed in the space between our bodies. I waited as always for my client to break it, but Amandine seemed perfectly at ease, letting the silence settle until the absence of our voices was less noticeable than the creak of Candice on her mooring and the distant bark of dogs. She relaxed back against the violet chair-back, re-crossing her legs and folding her fingers together.
‘It’s very quiet here,’ she said.
‘Doesn’t it drive you mad?’ I smiled at the question, and after a moment so did she. ‘No, well,’ she said, ‘I guess you prefer it that way. I have to say I’m more of a city person, but I didn’t mean to be rude.’
‘Not at all. Newcomers often find Candice unsettling to begin with, but most grow to love her in the end. What are your first impressions?’
‘I’ve never been on a houseboat before. Strange, really, after so many years in Toulouse.’ Amandine looked out along the towpath thoughtfully. In the galley, the cafetière hissed on the stove. I had forgotten to offer her coffee.
I rose awkwardly. ‘So,’ I said.
‘Yes,’ she said, ‘indeed.’ Amandine looked up at me warily. ‘So. Well, I can see why you’re so fond of her.’
That was quite an assumption. ‘Is that so obvious?’
She ran a fingertip along the curve of her lower lip. ‘You’re kindred spirits,’ she said.
Taken aback by her assertion, I just stood there for a moment, caught in her gaze. Had she answered my question, or avoided it completely? Amandine leaned forward slightly and closed her eyes in concentration. ‘I’m surprised you can’t feel the movement of the water more.’ Two more breaths, as if to confirm the stillness of the boat, and she looked up again, scanning the cabin, the small galley kitchen, the piano, my various belongings, the corridor down to the bedrooms and bathrooms. ‘And I hadn’t imagined a boat would have so much room,’ she said.
‘That all depends on the size of the boat,’ I told her, placing the coffees between us. ‘And of course what you want to keep on it.’
Amandine looked at her watch. ‘I’m afraid I have to leave in about half an hour.’
‘We can work with that,’ I said.
She looked at me oddly. Again I felt the curious familiarity. ‘Well then,’ she said. ‘I’m told you make people happy? That’s quite a claim.’
‘That’s not really how it works,’ I said. ‘As I tell all my clients, I don’t believe anyone else can make you happy. But sometimes you can be helped to find your own way there.’
She nodded. ‘So to help others presumably you must already be happy yourself? What’s your secret?’
Amandine was steering the conversation. I shifted on the couch, trying to raise myself to her eye level. ‘It’s important I keep my personal feelings distinct from my work,’ I said.
‘I can see why. I imagine misery could be contagious if you let it.’
Misery? ‘Well, not everyone is so unhappy. There are plenty of people who are just fine, but they’re looking for better than that. They don’t think “fine” is enough.’ I caught her eye, hoping to see a flicker of recognition, and followed a hunch. ‘What do you think?’
Amandine gave a slow, crooked smile and took a sip of her coffee. ‘Oh, I think fine can be more than enough, considering the alternatives.’ Her eyes held mine. ‘But happy is better. So are you happy, or not?’
I had everything I needed back then. The peace of the water, Candice, work I loved. Blessings spilling over. At the time I was wary of her question but now I’m glad she asked it. It is a folded corner on a page, a reminder of who I was. ‘I am happy,’ I said, and it was true. Amandine looked satisfied with my answer. ‘And what about you?’ I said.
She looked at me then for a long while, her expression inscrutable. When finally she replied, she spoke quietly, as though she expected the wind to carry her words. ‘I’m fine,’ she said.
Despite what I told her, by the time most people came to me they were already in despair. People leave this kind of thing so late, until it has got out of hand and become overwhelming. Amandine was different. She didn’t look lost. She didn’t look like someone searching for something. Why, then, had she come? It was altogether puzzling. ‘And are you hoping to improve on fine?’ I said.
Amandine looked amused. ‘Are you going to try and cure me?’
I took a deep breath. ‘We’re just talking,’ I said.
‘Hmm.’ She looked down at the ball of her thumb then raised it to her mouth, the sun flashing on the silver ring as she bit gently into the skin. ‘So how long have you been a therapist?’
‘Years. It’s all I’ve ever done.’
‘Don’t you find it hard, spending your whole life thinking about other people’s happiness?’ she said. ‘I don’t think I could do that.’
‘Plenty of people do it and don’t get paid for it. At least I can expect to be paid at the end, assuming my clients are satisfied.’
‘That’s quite a guarantee. Has anyone ever refused to pay?’
I shook my head. ‘We all want to be happy, whether we do anything about it or not. To be here means you have already taken a first step. After that it’s just a matter of time.’ Amandine was still distracted, frowning down at her thumb, worrying it with the nail of her ring finger. ‘What is it?’ I asked.
‘Sorry, it’s just a splinter. It’s only tiny, but I’m left-handed and I can’t get the thing out.’
‘Here, let me?’
‘With pleasure.’ Amandine smiled and held her left hand forwards, her palm open. Life line, I thought, love line, heart line, head line. Something jumped in my chest. I blinked. ‘Let me get the tweezers.’
I pinched the skin below the dark speck, my fingers too large and fumbling. The splinter was deeply embedded. ‘Tell me if it hurts.’
‘I’m a doctor,’ she said. ‘I’m not squeamish.’
‘And you say my job is hard?’ I looked up at her again, changed in my eyes already, the way people do as we come to know more about them. ‘What kind of doctor?’
I reached for my glasses. ‘It’s tiny.’
‘It still hurts.’
‘I’m sure,’ I said. ‘The tiniest splinters can be the worst.’ At last I had found purchase on the sliver of wood and eased it out. ‘There.’ I rubbed the ball of my thumb gently over the place where it had been. ‘Is it all gone?’
‘Thank you.’ Amandine sat back and pushed away the hair that had fallen in front of her eyes, tucking it behind her ears. ‘I’m sorry,’ she said. ‘I must come across as quite cynical about what you do, and I’m not, honestly. It’s just that the world these days is greedy for happiness, yet people only make themselves miserable by chasing it. And we say that all we really want is for our children to be happy, which is true enough’ – she threw open her hands – ‘but how can a parent show their child the way if they’re lost themselves?’ I watched as she scanned the cabin again, the patchwork of furniture, the scant belongings. ‘You don’t have children,’ she said.
‘Never wanted them, or never met the right person?’
‘Amandine,’ I said, ready to turn back the conversation, to insist we kept the focus on her, but then I realised the question was probably more about her than me. ‘It’s not something I’ve gone looking for, and it’s never found me,’ I said. ‘How about you?’
Amandine nodded and drank the remains of her coffee. ‘You’re not one to do the chasing. You’d rather wait for things to come to you?’
‘As you said, we only make ourselves miserable when we’re too greedy.’ I took my place back on the couch, moving the notebook and pencil I had left there on to the old chest between us, which doubled as a coffee table. The pencil rolled slowly towards her. Before it reached the edge she stopped it with a finger and picked it up. ‘So I don’t listen to what others tell me would make me happy, I trust myself to know. But what about you, Amandine? What are you looking for?’
Her eyes dropped as she turned the pencil in her hands. I let my gaze drift out to the sunlit canal, where a flotilla of young mallards glided by. Who had sent this woman to me, I wondered. Candice gave the slightest of shrugs, just the wash of a boat but perfectly timed. I smiled and looked up again to find myself meeting Amandine’s eyes directly. Cool and considered, her face tilted, her gaze intense. ‘Well, Baptiste, what I want is something that makes me feel alive. Joy, passion, despair, something to remember or something to regret. I want to have my breath taken away, or knocked out of me altogether. Perhaps after all this time what I really want,’ she said, ‘is to fall in love.’
I kept my expression neutral, but it belied my disappointment in her. She had seemed so much more considered than that. ‘Do you think love will make you happy?’ I asked.
Amandine gave a wry smile. ‘What’s that got to do with anything?’
After she left I took my notebook and placed it beside me at the piano. The perfect, altered state of consciousness that comes when playing music I know by heart would always leave my mind clear to reflect on a session. A space for ideas to grow. Beethoven, Satie, Bach. As I played I would let the thoughts come, let them form and spin and settle until eventually I would know what was important and stop playing to make notes that roamed untamed across the page, blossoming into doodles and back again to words. But that morning I played on and on. Bach. Only Bach. You can’t argue with the logic of Bach, the musical antidote to the perplexing thirty minutes I had just spent with Amandine Rousseau, a woman who had come to me looking for happiness yet was reticent to discuss why, and who had left declaring she was looking for love. What clues had she given me? What was I missing? Nothing was coming to me. And this is how it started.
Nobody ever starts at the beginning. It wouldn’t make sense. Instead we start with what matters most to us at the time, or what we think matters to whoever is listening.
You walked up and down the room as you spoke, the boards creaking under your feet. You trailed your long fingers over the piano lid and over the contrasting fabrics of each of the chairs. When you reached the end of your story you paused for a moment and then turned down the corridor, opening and closing doors to bedrooms and bathrooms as you went, as though you were looking for something misplaced. I waited for you by the galley.
‘Come outside,’ you said when you returned, reaching for my hand. I let you lead me up and out into the chill morning air, over the icy gangplank and along the frosted towpath to the water’s edge. ‘Here,’ you said.
I crouched beside you on the bank, my heart pounding as we stared down at the water, terrified that you would lose your balance and not know how to swim. Or worse, that you would see something in the water that shocked you. But you were calm, seemingly reassured by what you saw there.
‘Just checking,’ you said with a smile.
The winter waters were so clear that our likeness was almost without distortion. When was the last time I had seen us together this way? Then, as I looked closer at the mirror of your eyes I saw how their focus went deeper. You weren’t looking at our faces at all, but at the crisp reflection of the banks, the naked branches of the vertiginous plane trees that reached down into the cold flow like roots below the surface.
Was the way you recounted that first meeting with Amandine how it always seemed to you, I wondered, or have you reshaped this piece of the jigsaw to make it fit? Either way, this is your story and that is how it must be told. Whatever the truth, you must recognise these memories as your own. If I were to change your words you would lose your trust in all of it.
My parents were either side of sixty by the time I learned the truth. I was twelve. My mother came into my room without knocking and found me sitting on the edge of the bed by the window. I sat there often. My room had flimsy curtains the colour of persimmons and on bright days I liked to close my eyes against the soft light that filtered through them, letting it bathe my face. There was something in the quality of that light that felt like home. But that day, as I had been sitting there, thick cloud had swept north from the mountains and there had been a sudden downpour. Dark shadows had flooded the room and I’d become distracted by my reflection in the long mirror on the far wall. It was telling me something I should already know. I was staring at it trying to work out what it was when my mother burst in, her arms full of rain-spattered clothes from the washing line, raindrops glistening on her cheeks. When she saw me she laid the laundry down on the bed without folding it and came to sit beside me. ‘Baptiste, what is it?’ she said.
Her reflection joined my own in the mirror, and it clicked. Realisation swelled in my stomach, sour-tasting and dense. ‘We’re not the same at all,’ I said, ‘are we?’
She didn’t need to answer. Our reflection was almost comical. A soft, round, fair-skinned mother and her darker, bony, crane-legged son, so ungainly even when sitting that my spine curled in embarrassment. On the school fields when obliged by the masters to run they said I looked like a deckchair being blown along a beach. My father was cut from the same mould as my mother; just as short and born fair, although he was lithe and tanned from working out in the fields. They were both shrinking under the weight of their years whereas I was at the age where it seemed as though I would never stop growing. Not even a teenager, and I towered over them like a cuckoo in the nest.
My mother put a trembling hand on my knee with a sigh. ‘Son,’ she said, ‘there’s something I need to tell you.’ I turned away from the mirror, looked down into her eyes. ‘A long time ago, when I wasn’t much older than you ...’ she began.
Her anxiety was palpable. I put my arm around her, tried to reassure her that whatever she had to say, it would be all right, but she remained tense within my tentative embrace. She was afraid. This kind of news can change everything, it can break families. I have often wondered, how did it change me? Would my life have been different if I had never known? You can never predict the effect such a revelation will have on a person.
My mother had nothing to fear. By that point I was already hers. A birth mother doesn’t have the power to erase the one that raised you from an infant. And I wasn’t angry at her for keeping it secret so long. We all do our best. Above all I remember being excited to discover that I wasn’t who I thought I was, because I hadn’t completely decided anyway. As the rain hammered against the window I had the thrilling sensation that we had taken to an ark, leaving behind dry land and striking out until the storm had passed. We sat together on my bed in the dark room for what seemed like hours, tossed on the waves of her justifications.
My mother told me first about herself as a young woman, and of the illness that had left her chances of conceiving slim at best. It was hard to picture her so young. ‘I was beautiful back then,’ she said. She hadn’t thought much of having children before the illness took the possibility from her. It had been taken for granted that one day she would, and in any case there was a war on. What kind of world would it be to bring a child into? But the idea of never having children buried itself into her like a seed and grew and grew until it was all she could think about. Pregnant women seemed to be everywhere, and mothers with wide-eyed babies and chubby-legged toddlers were now transformed from a normal part of life into members of a club that denied my mother entry. She became resentful of them, and the resentment bred anger and the anger bred a black despair. When she sought counsel from the priest one Sunday at confession, he told her to find a way to engage with them, to understand and empathise, so my mother who had never been one to do things in half measures trained as a midwife. ‘The priest was right, you know,’ she said. ‘Every time I delivered a baby I just knew this was what God had always meant me to be.’
She had known my father since they were children, but fell in love with him only when he returned transformed from the war. He’d always been the best-looking boy in the village, she told me, but he knew it well and had been a strutting cock before he went away. But the young soldier who returned was more interested in talking about other people than himself. He had hidden the war away, pinned it to his heart, the real heart that beat under his ribs, the pin sinking deeper with every contraction. Yet the pain had changed him in the strangest of ways, for on the outside he had become the kindest man she had ever met, always cheerful, always putting others before himself. He showed no interest in starting a family, indeed her barrenness had seemed to encourage him, but she ached to bear his child. Creating new life with him might bring light to the darkness in his soul and, despite the odds, she thought that perhaps God would grant this to her, to them. A small miracle was all she prayed for. Her desires were not selfish, but pure.
‘But God sees far beyond our horizon,’ she told me. (She knew already by then that I didn’t really believe, but she blamed my age and was sure that eventually I would see sense again.) After they married they tried to conceive for years. Every month the coming of her blood was an immutable tide, eroding her hopes and revealing her deepening despair until one day a sadness settled upon her which could not be lifted. ‘I wasn’t strong enough for the cross God asked me to bear, you see?’ This cross grew heavier every day and with every child she delivered until she came to the conclusion that her lot was not to ease her husband’s suffering, but to know it for herself. And so she accepted her burden as my father did his, with a smile. Years passed.
My mother paused. She took my hands in hers, turned me towards her. ‘So you see, son, I waited for you for so long. I wanted you so much. And I love you more than anything in this world,’ she said. ‘But it’s time you knew how you came to be. As much as we know.’ And then at last she told me about my mother. My other mother. In remembering, her face became radiant, her breathing more rapid, and we were joined in my room by the dark-haired woman, the rattle of the tracks, the slick of blood on the floor of the train and the green springtime coat.
That story was alive like no other. It grew and transformed year by year. Every spring the urge would rise in my mother to tell me once again how it happened, and every year she embellished it a little more. With each new recollection her account became more spiritual. It began with a faint glow around the woman in the carriage, her expressions during labour becoming more and more beatific until finally you would think it was Mary herself who bore me. I myself became rosier and more angelic in every iteration and any presence of blood became the slightest stain. But no matter how much that story evolved, I have never forgotten how in that first telling of my birth the blood poured from that woman just as the story spilled from my mother’s lips, like an absolution.
Back home my parents had a drawer stuffed with old photographs. This was before everyone had digital cameras, when you would get back a paper envelope of twenty-four photos from the printers. My parents took plenty of snaps, but they never put them in albums and over the years the envelopes split and spilled and the photos jumbled together. In amongst them were hundreds so blurred or overexposed that the content was barely recognisable, but my mother couldn’t bear to throw them away. There was a memory in there somewhere, she said, a sliver of our lives. Sometimes, when my mother felt melancholic, she would have us sit cross-legged on the floor by the drawer and pull out a handful.
‘Oh,’ she would say, ‘we took that in the Aquitaine. You were about six I suppose. Do you remember that holiday?’
I did recall going there, but my memories of it were different: the taste of an apricot tart, a thunderstorm over sand dunes. Encouraged, my mother would show me houses, churches, and markets, photos of me with a friend I had apparently made on that trip. ‘You remember her, don’t you? You wrote to each other for months afterwards.’ I didn’t. But the next time we came across those photos I would remember more, the holiday, the penfriend, the lashing waves. the sweet tang of apricots faded into the shadow of those memories that had their authority stamped on to glossy three-inch squares.
This is how I came to know my mother’s version of our shared past, and later, this is how I came to know you too, glimpsing your snapshot stories as they rose to the surface, rifling through fading pictures out of context. I have been glad of them. For many these days, if a moment is not recorded and shared it doesn’t truly exist. Our tiny experiences are captured, passed about and approved of, a trail of breadcrumbs we leave as we go, permanent in their record. I never liked that way, it was never my style, I always preferred living to talking about having lived, and so did you. But now I am thirsty for those details. If only there were more. And so I tug at any slight thread of the past, teasing it from you to see if we could fill in the gaps before it’s too late.
My mother is always happy to remind me about the childhood memories I fail to recall. Every minute seems fresh in her mind, aided by the hundreds of photographs uttering in unmatched frames around the cottage walls like fading butterflies, each one with its own story that she will tell and retell to anyone who’ll listen.
There is one at the foot of the stairs where I am tiny, perhaps two years old, standing precariously on the lid of the old upright piano in the front room, looking down into the open box. I am on the tips of my toes, one hand pulling at the strings inside, the other splayed against the garish, floral wallpaper behind me for balance, a small brown bird on a giant scarlet tulip. ‘I look like I’m about to fall,’ I said to my mother once. ‘Why didn’t you stop me? Why take the time to go and find the camera and take a photograph?’
‘I know, I’m sorry,’ she said. ‘It’s foolish with hindsight. It was just so typical of you, it was a moment I didn’t want to forget. I wanted to show it to you when you were older. As it turns out I never forgot, of course.’
‘You weren’t afraid?’
She shrugged. ‘I was always afraid, but we couldn’t guarantee we’d always be there to catch you. We tried to let you learn your own lessons. And you’ve survived, haven’t you, more or less in one piece?’ she smiled at the photograph. ‘that’s your character right there, Baptiste. Always so curious.’
‘Constantly. you had to break everything down until you’d figured out how it worked. You took your father’s radio to pieces once. The older you got the messier your bedroom floor became, always covered in dissected objects, and it all made sense to you. I wasn’t allowed to disturb them to clean. One day your father misplaced his slippers and went in to wake you in his bare feet. That was the only time I ever heard him swear.’ I tried to bring that stormy afternoon back into focus, my mother and I sitting on my bed, adrift in her stories. How had the floor looked that day? Was it messy? When she walked in with the laundry, how had she moved through the room? But the floor hadn’t seemed important at the time and all I could picture in the memory was the swept-clean, sand-coloured tiles that are still there to this day, a half-formed image completed from what I know is true.
‘But I’m so tidy,’ I said. ‘That seems so unlike me.’
A shadow passed across my mother’s smile. ‘It all changed the day you discovered you were adopted,’ she said, the creases in her brow deepening. ‘After that it was just questions, questions, questions. You put away your screwdriver. You lost interest in things. You had decided that understanding how people worked was far more interesting.’
‘Just like that?’
‘Just like that. When you were little your father was convinced you’d make an excellent engineer. That’s why he didn’t mind so much about the radio. But after that day it was different. You still spent hours alone in your room, but no one knew what you were doing in there any more.’
My father had put it down to adolescence. All boys went through that kind of phase, he said, but my mother was worried. At least the mess of objects had been easy to understand. But perhaps that’s exactly why I lost interest in it. Objects can be complicated but people are another story altogether. The day my parents told me the truth, a light came on. Behaviours that until then had seemed inexplicable made sense at last. My father’s single-minded pact with God that put so much distance between us. The way my mother changed around strangers, her body closing up like a lock, the warmth draining out of her. How she would startle when an unexpected knock came at the door, and the way she would alternate between clinging to me and keeping me at arm’s length. They had never been sure they would get to keep me. How long does it take until you stop looking for a loved one you have lost? The prospect of my family one day coming to claim me hung heavy upon them and its repercussions rippled through everything.
My parents were one mystery to solve and I was another. At school I’d learned that there are approximately seven billion, billion, billion atoms in a human body. Hydrogen, oxygen and carbon mainly, with a few other elements thrown in for good measure. And yet you could take me entirely to pieces and not find the person I believed I was. If you dismantled me right there on my bedroom floor, where would you find my character? Somewhere in me was a part of my other father, my other mother, a woman I had grown inside who I now sensed inside me, buried treasure without a map. I was convinced that one day I would find her, or that she would find me.
I know what I was doing in those long teenage years in my room. I remember it clear as day. I was bringing her to life. I didn’t give her a name but I gave her everything else, and in my own way I came to love her, or my idea of her. I took to laying her few possessions before me on the bed like a puzzle. They had kept them for me all this time, fusty-smelling from the cellar: the violin case, and the green springtime coat still stained with her blood. She had carried no other luggage and no identification. In the violin case, as well as a violin, was her train ticket (she had left from Barcelona) and a small piece of sun-bleached driftwood, roughly carved into the shape of a horse. I kept that little horse safe for years like some kind of totem, a clue in a murder mystery. Perhaps more mysterious still, one day it disappeared from the violin case and I never saw it again.
When you have such sparse information, too much weight is given to the little you have. Was green her favourite colour? Was her personality as luminous as the coat? Or was it a hand-me down that she didn’t even like? A mark of frugality rather than amboyance? Why did she carry nothing but a violin? Was it her most beloved possession or was that how she made money? Why was she coming to Toulouse and who had written her destination on her arm like an unaccompanied child? Was she running away from something bad, or towards something good? To help me I had nothing but my mother’s recollections, my imagination and a clipped-out image of her corpse in a newspaper.
Ah yes, the photo. i found it tucked inside the violin case like a stain. Under a small column headline asking for help identifying her, she was laid out in grey ink, her hair smoothed against her cheeks and over her shoulders. Her eyes were closed. The coldness of her skin flooded over me. My dead mother. Not a mother, I told myself, just an abstraction. Only memories can make a mother: the scent of her, the softness of her, her words and expressions. All of these things were already deeply imprinted on me by the woman in the kitchen. The woman who nursed me when I was sick, who taught me to read, whose hands had pulled me into this world.
But the woman on the train was someone to me too. She was important now. I had already started to form an impression of her from my mother’s story, an impression that was nothing like the woman in the newspaper clipping. Yet the more we look at a photograph the more time condenses into that one single moment. I had barely glanced at the photo before tearing it to shreds, but it was too late. For weeks my nightmares reeled with the image of her corpse until I could bear it no longer. I began work overwriting that memory of her with new, imagined ones. I told myself stories at night, picturing her boarding a train, walking on the beach at Barcelona, playing her violin. I repeated them over and over until the stories had sharp edges and vivid colours. Whilst my real mother was already closing in on her pension, soft and round and covered in flour, with earthy fingernails and thinning hair, I painted this other woman with bright skin, wild hair and lithe limbs. These images seem real to me even now, although I know they are not, nor the dancing violin music that insists on accompanying them. Strange, the tricks we can play on ourselves.
After weeks of my introspection, my mother decided I needed a new pastime or project. Something to take my mind off things. I had played the piano from the age of three or four and was already quite accomplished, so one day when she found me staring at the violin case she suggested I could learn to play it. Maybe it was in my blood, she said. But from the first time I opened the case and looked at the instrument I knew that I could not. Just the thought of touching those strings invoked something deep within me that felt like shame.
Six months ago you woke in the pitch black with a jolt. You had been curled around my back as usual, your knees crooked into mine, your skin against mine along the length of me, your arm wrapped over my waist and under my own, with your hand at on my chest, pressed against my heart. As you woke I felt your whole body tense. Just a bad dream, I thought, in a fog of sleep, pulling your arms closer around me. But you resisted and after a few seconds you were still frozen, your breath coming in short, agitated gasps. My heart, drenched in adrenaline, quickened against your fingertips as I tried to gather my thoughts. I had never imagined it coming in the night like that. I had no plan, no explanation as to why I was there in your bed when you had no idea who I was. I thought about whispering your name, but was worried I’d scare you. You’re more than twice my size. I’ve learnt from bitter experience that when you are disoriented or confused you become angry and unreasonable.
What might you do now in the panic of darkness? For long moments we lay still, our breathing out of beat and fractured, both as scared as the other, then suddenly I felt your tension dissipate.
‘Ah, it’s you, my little chouette,’ you whispered, the tips of your fingers caressing the skin between my breasts. ‘You came back.’ I didn’t say a word, but I relaxed a little. You must still be asleep after all, I told myself. Still dreaming. I felt your head settle back into the pillow, your breathing calm again in my hair. Your chest rose up in a long yawn and your body sank back down against mine as tight and as close as ever, except for your right hand, which now rested softly, lightly against my bird-heart.
We were still that way the next morning when we woke. I turned to you as you stirred, my face waiting for you. A question. When you opened your eyes you smiled your familiar crinkled, stubbly morning smile.
‘Good morning, Baptiste,’ I whispered.
Your eyes flickered briefly and then you said, ‘Good morning, Chouette.’
You lost me that day, and yet by some miracle you found a way to love me still.
It was a warm, light evening in the ripeness of spring. I had been at the piano, lost in a piece of music whose tempo was so close to that of a resting pulse it had almost become a meditation. The noise, when it came, startled me. It was hardly an explosion, just a soft thud on the deck above, but I’ve been jumpy ever since I came to Candice. In a way the quiet makes it worse. In the evenings there is so little to hear, an occasional boat approaching perhaps, but otherwise nothing but the lap of water, the chatter of birds and the churr of cicadas. When that sound came from the deck above me the adrenaline rushed through my blood as fast as if the sky were falling down.
Up on deck at first I saw nothing out of the ordinary. No plants were overturned and the towpath was empty. I wondered if it might have been a curious cat, bounding aboard and leaving just as quickly, which happened regularly, but whatever had just landed on Candice had been heavier on its feet. A duck? I looked down into the water. Not a ripple. Not a mallard in sight. Nothing. Only when I turned to go back inside did I spot her, a newly edged barn owl, still a little downy, but with a perfect white face, squatting gnome-like between the geranium blossoms and the lemon tree in the blue mosaic pot.
I approached slowly. Was she hurt? She didn’t move a muscle, just hooked me in with her wide black eyes, clicking her tongue. I crouched down beside her. ‘Hey, little chouette, what are you doing here?’ I extended a finger. She ignored it and I withdrew it again. I had heard a human scent on a baby bird could cause its parents to abandon it. Could I touch her without hurting her? I wasn’t sure. I knew nothing about owls. I wondered if her parents might arrive shortly to retrieve her, but the air around was still. I waited, thinking that perhaps they would come, or that she would fly away, but either she couldn’t or wouldn’t. She simply stood there trembling and calling out, until eventually my ignorance and nerves were overcome by my desire to comfort her.
She was soft and passive in my hands as I carried her on to the towpath, to the base of the tree I thought she had fallen from. I climbed up the tree as far as I could, but there was no nest in sight and no obvious hollows. I watched her for hours, waiting for an adult to join her, to coax her back to where she came from, but none did, and as darkness fell I became worried. she was vulnerable there. If she didn’t return to the nest she’d become prey for the canal-side foxes that seemed to thrive on this borderline between the urban and the wild.
Eventually I carried the owl back on to Candice, made a nest in a box, and offered her some scraps of steak I’d bought to grill with the neighbours the next day. She ate them with little fuss and apparent satisfaction.
I didn’t want to bring her inside for fear of disorienting her, so that night, which was clear but cold, I stayed out on the deck, resting my fingers on her lightly, trying to protect her without preventing her from leaving. I hardly slept for fear of crushing her in my sleep with the weight of my hand. Instead I whispered to her, ‘Hush, little chouette. Hush, my little chouette,’ and tracked the stars across the sky in order to stay awake.
In the morning I tried again, putting her back by the tree and backing away, but she just sat there watching me as I ate my breakfast at a distance. Still no parent came for her and, back on the boat once more, she showed no intention of leaving. I kept watch on her as I went about my business, and she in turn tracked my movements, slowly turning her head this way and that. If you were so inclined you could have read so much into that face: calm, wide-eyed, the shape of love.
So often we humans mistake other things for love in ourselves and in others – gratitude, servitude, lust – that we have forgotten how to recognise love for what it is. I felt something real for that little owl. Compassion, maybe, and a desire to keep her with me, but what kind of life would a creature like that have with a man on a boat? She was hungry, she was curious and she was not at all afraid of me, but it would have been cruel to encourage her to stay where she didn’t belong.
That night we slept together again, and the next day the same thing. On the third night, when my body ached with the weight of itself and my thoughts were muddied with fatigue I finally gave in to sleep, telling myself that in the morning I would take expert advice. But in the morning my little Chouette had gone and I never saw her again.
You told me that story as we stood together at the helm. I had asked you to tell me as much as you could remember, ablaze with the desire to discover all of you in the short time we had. You didn’t look at me as you spoke, but cast your eyes ahead towards the next bend in the sunlit canal. I glanced at you from time to time, still with an uncertain restraint. On either side of us the poplars marked rhythmic breaks between fields the colour of ripening lemons. Your hands rested lightly on the wheel’s handles. I was to your left, with my right hand on its spokes, low enough that although our arms crossed they were not touching.
You had always been more of a listener than a talker, but standing there like that something in the combination of the water and the shift that had come between us brought words to your lips. I had been waiting a long time for these stories and the wheel of Candice was where they finally found you.
Even after we moored for the last time it became our custom to stand side by side in the wheelhouse, looking out into the distance and waiting to see what memories would emerge from the water.
I knew what you wanted to say when you told me about that owl. You were telling me what you were afraid of. You always had such a knack of giving me whatever was important at the time, your stories perfect for the moment you told them. I wish it were still that way but you tell me very little these days, mostly either new versions of the same story, or stories that I know cannot be true. You prefer to hear a story than to recount one and I often read your own words back to you.
I have done my best to make sense of the things you have told me. Some elements are crystal clear and others out of focus, but there’s a story in here somewhere. Some days you recognise yourself in these words, and other days they don’t reach you at all but you are happy enough with their fiction and we go with the flow. Even I am no longer sure what I believe to be true. Your mind is so watery now we could all sink within it.