FICTION: Virgin and Child (2015)

We are two holidaymakers in sunhats and shorts, and cameras on strings hanging down from our neck. We walk stop-start in that touristy way, our eyes wanting and wide to this city sat on the Mediterranean coast. We pass others, like us, who look and walk the same, who want the same, like us, and in much the same way; and it’s pleasing to think of ourselves as part of a set. We want things not as we see them, or as they may actually be, or as they may, later, seem when emerged from memory; rather, we want things in an idealised form, in the manufactured form agreed upon by many. We are past the tramlines, now, in the fountains and the park that cuts seaward, splitting the city in two. Making notes, we wander into the old town lanes.

The old town walls are powder yellow and pink, their tops proud and beaming in abundant day; and though we are low in the shaded streets, light burns at any edge. We pass shop displays and stalls and outdoor seating half-blocking the street. We dodge shoppers, tourists, scooters and small cars, catching flashes of sun-drenched squares, white spaces, brilliant and vague.

Our eyes shift register, in open space; they adapt to the increase in light, so that when we look behind us at the street from where we just came, it appears itself now vague, limited, not at all the same; while our eyes come to recognise shapes, the world, in the cooling white square.

We sit at a table and watch passers-by, two double espressos in matching white cups. We read and write notes, and mark the map with potential good spots—landmarks, must-sees, iconic views. We fan through our wad of postcards and compare them to the map. The map on the table and the cards on the map, we compare one against the other, expanding our notes, figuring sightline, angle, distance, time of day. We order each location by various values— reaching, at last, our order of approach. We sit silent and empty and pleased, stirring our coffees with little silver spoons.

We are high up at Colline du Château, a small steep hill between the old town and the port. There is a park and a famous waterfall, tourists stop for pictures, hunched grinning in the spray. The chateau is itself nothing more than a floorplan in stone, ruined walls at waist- and ankle- height, columns cropped, corners smoothed, rashes of grass between the gaunt remains. There being no postcards of the castle, there is no work to do, and so we walk back to wait for space on the viewing terraces. They give the views we want over the city and the sea, and we get much work, many pictures, always being sure to refer back to the cards. We agree to return in sunset and night; there’s a shot we want with our moon.

The beachfront is lined with palms and benches facing out to sea. We watch a man shimmy by backwards on rollerskates, feet tracing figure-eights, hips swaying, in time, side-to-side. The beach is stony and bright. The wind is up. A young boy chases another, swinging a yellow spade, and they crisscross and double-back between bathers, stopping with a woman who wraps them together in one towel. Gulls seesaw. Boats bob on the bay. Sea and sky are much the same and it’s pleasing to think of them turned upside down. There are clouds approaching from the mountains behinds the town, advancing slowly, a grey-chalk hulk. We head to the famous market before we lose the light.

After dinner the sky is clear, again, and wide and black. So we sit, with double espressos and lit cigarettes, outside at a small table on the corner of two streets. The moon is full and yellow-white. We move our cups so that the saucers touch and both handles point back to us at six o’clock. The waiter bounces between twosomes soaking up the night. The waiter comes to us and laughs. We talk to him about the light, the wonder, the particled bloom. We talk about draw distance and focal length, linear gradients and subaquatic dusks. We talk, in English, and he laughs again and smiles, and it’s impossible to know if he understands what we mean. Except: shortly, he brings us two vodka shots, on the house, each specked with swirling blue. “Curacao,” he says, as we hold up the glasses and gaze at the blue. “Tastes like orange.”

It’s a game we play, a way to pass time. Or, that’s how it began. Now, it’s become quite serious, in its own way, a task requiring a great patience, diligence, technical expertise. As it’s gone on, we’ve got better at it; and as we’ve got better, it’s become more complex; and as it’s become more complex, it’s come to want more, from us, from the pictures, from the place. It’s, now, in its way, an irresistible force, an urge, a powerful command; and a pleasure, too, but fading, but a satisfaction, still.

Place Masséna is a good place to work: wide and busy and proud, three of its four edges enforced by square- shouldered neoclassical arcades, their fronts painted red; the fourth edge opens to La Fountaine du Soleil, a statue of Apollo, nude but for a crown of four horses, water arcing from spouts below, the Sun God’s moon-white body against the blue nothing sky. We catch him from many angles, always referring to the cards, doing our best to not be annoyed by the people wandering into frame, the people who, really, by no fault of their own, are not in the postcards and so are unwelcome in our work. Shoppers stream up the nearby Avenue Jean Médecin. A plump middle-aged man is spinning on the spot beside the tram platform; round he goes, round and unsteady, no attempt at grace, grounding a foot to push at every half-turn, wearing one sequined white glove, and yelping, in time, at his portable stereo. Nobody pays much attention. He attempts the Moonwalk.

There’s a balance of sorts to what we are trying to achieve—one thing, once again, in some kind of accord. An accurate work does give satisfaction: a cancelling effect, a smooth wheel of time, the Earth’s very curve felt under your feet.

Place Garibaldi gives us many works, at the top of the old town, where four neighbourhoods meet. Chairs and tables are set out from the restaurants nearby. There’s a good angle that gets both Garibaldi’s monument and the chapel behind. Even the newer buildings look like hotels from old films. We look up from the place at their multicoloured fronts, at their detail and frills, like icing on a cake. We expect dark glasses, white suits, luminous drinks in slender stem glass, drinks sipped, urbanely, from a crescent balcony. But we see no-one, much—no luxury or life, just wooden shutters in rows, rows of slats in the shutters, dark rooms between each slat. A tram tolls at us standing dumbly in the road.

We take the 17 bus up the hills to Cimiez, to the monastère gardens and musée d’art. The climb is smooth, the apartment blocks clean and bright, the houses grander the further up we rise. We walk the gardens first, like so many others in a two, above the city in a high tender quiet. Dahlia, rose, aster, oleander. There are ten-foot trees trimmed into lollipop shapes, box hedges proceeding in perfect straight lines, a rake left leaning against its shadow. We find a coin-operated telescope and point it out to sea. We trace the coast along and upwards to the valley’s other side, to the big white homes in amongst the trees and the cliffs and the pylon-wires like pencil marks scratched over the view. Despite the beauty, the work here isn’t good. It seems that plants have been moved, or re-planted, or simply grown since the time our postcards were produced, and they no longer match each other, the image and the place. The musée is no better—under refurbishment, encased in scaffold and advertising drapes.

The floor of our apartment looks like a modern photo lab. We have cameras wired to laptops wired to printers and to scanners, and image editing software on the laptops so that we can improve the works, if we need to, once we’ve seen them back at home. There are wires everywhere, going between rooms, and pictures, printouts on the floor, scissors, tape, a ruler and scalpel, and sheets of zigzag hand- writing ripped from our books.

I can’t sleep. I move a chair to the front room window and smoke, looking out; our rental is on the second floor. There’s a small park opposite the window, on the corner where our street curves round and up the hill and a side street branches off before ending at a flank of the nearby school. There are palms and stone benches, and it attracts, exclusively, drinkers and dogs needing to go. The park sits where the end of the block would have stood. But the end is cut crudely short, and so what faces me at my window looking over at the park, is not powder yellow and pink, or shutters peeling blue, what faces me is raw stone and cement, brickwork protrusions ringed with patches of damp. I can see clearly in the moonlight where the rooms were in this phantom block, and where they are in the apartments survived on the other side of the wall. Some windows have been added to the wall, not uniform in size or position and unmatching our own. Near the top, an upright rectangle is cut into the wall, and inside is a small statue of Madonna and Child. She carries the child at her chest on her left side, her right hand offered out before her, index finger upturned. Her face is round and blank. It is a modest statue, and similar, or perhaps the same, to many others I’ve seen in town. There is no inscription or plaque that I can tell—just the statue, high in its hole.

Rain arrives as irrefutable fact. My partner frets over breakfast and shares the bad news: this rain, forecasted non-stop. I am sluggish and tired from no sleep, staring at the fruit I’m rotating in my hand. Rain is bad. It means no work. It means a day at the laptop, eyes seared by the screen.

I wake to screaming hammering rain, thunder and washes of radiant light. I get up and fasten the shutters and latch the window firmly in place. Water is quick to puddle on the ledge. The tiles under the window are wet. I take some roll from the kitchen and fold it over into thickish pads. The storm is over us, light and sound reporting as one. On all fours I mop and curse—How does he just sleep and sleep? I’m on ten-mg of diazepam a-night and the most he stirs is to turn the pillow over. Again, the big white and boom. I think of the statue nestled in its hole, of rain whips and lashes, rain on round cheeks and child, rivers of rain pouring off her robe. I go back to bed and listen and watch, the lightening so bright I see it through eyelids, the thunder so fierce and loud I can never hope to sleep.

It rains without stop for four nights and three days, and for four nights and three days we stay, never leaving our rooms. I work, at first, but then slip into other things. I watch the TV and flick channels unable to understand much of what anyone says. I gawp at any overdubbed advert I recognise from TV back home. On the second night I find an English film with French subtitles. It’s a bad film, but I understand what’s what, and when, to who, and why—although the why doesn’t make sense and bears no further thought. I’m tired, afterward, and semi-satisfied, and it’s only later in bed when, unsleeping, I remember I’ve seen the film before.

It’s the third day, and I want to see the works. My partner is unhappy; he says it’s too soon. He does the frown that makes me feel like a fool. He is nine years my senior and increasingly adept at this frown that makes me feel like a fool. But he sees how I am, not bothered even to properly dress. He sees how I am and relents, and we pick and print the works, spreading them with the postcards on the table and the floor. Wheels of time, specimens in ice. I am restored by our accurate works and their neat little meanings. It is hard to tell which are the postcards and which are the works. I feel, not for the first time and pleasantly so, the unbounded similarity of things, the ceaseless sameness of experience and place.

I am watching and listening, in and out of sleep, when I hear it: the endless rain coming to an end. I wait for it to begin again and when it doesn’t I get up and splash cold water on my face. Nineteen minutes past four, shipwrecked eyes and heavy tan. I am looking for my cigarettes in a daze. I am finding and lighting when I hear voices outside. There’s a crowd in the park opposite the window. I count seven heads and more arriving. There is some commotion. They are stood in a circle around something I can’t see. They are eleven now—three women, eight men. They are trying to whisper but one woman screams and falls to her knees, a woman in pink pyjamas, on her knees. I stub out the cigarette and put on my shoes.

People tut and look up at the sky. I’m staring at voices I do not understand, words as sounds, smooth and unheard, a stream of sounds, as one as water and as soothing to the ear. The fallen woman is being helped off her knees by a man in slippers and bathrobe. Everyone is in some form of nightwear. She leans on him, unable to stand, and he takes her slowly to one of the benches to the side. I get closer and see the centre of the group: the broken statue of Madonna and Child. Mary’s left side has come away in one piece, and with it the arm holding Jesus. The two pieces are inches apart, but the figures have fallen to face away from each other. Both faces are blank and serene. A man turns to me and talks. I have to tell him I don’t really understand.  I ask him about the stature, and to the best he can understand the question and me understand his reply, he says “original, original,” and starts to shake his head. He is a handsome man, greying, in stripes. He looks, in fact, exactly like a man in one of our postcards. If I could go inside and grab the phrasebook, or better yet, find a person to translate— “Original,” the man says, again, waving his hand in my face. A new man, less suitable, puts an arm on his shoulder, nods, and looks at me.

“Anglais?” the new man says.

“Oui.”

“Do you know this place?”

“I’m staying there.” I point. “I live there.”

“This is very important to us,” he says. “My friend’s mother, she made this, after the war. She is dead. He is dead. Families in the houses and they are dead.” He nods at the broken statue. “And today this is dead.” He stamps his foot.

I look at the mourners, and Mary and Child.

“Could you fix it?” I ask, wanting to help, cupping my palms to make a ball and moving them apart and together in a clap to help them understand. “With glue?” He scowls and shakes his head. “Or you could make one? All of you, a team.”

“Non,” he says, “non, non, non.”

So the pieces are untouched and unmoved, in the places where they were fated to fall, and fell, breaking into two.

I’m telling my partner about the statue and the crowd, and either there is something wrong with my telling or he is just uninterested. I am describing the statue, the crowd, the noise, the language, the pieces on the floor, and he is looking at me and then at the table, at me and then at the table, again. I think he’s thinking, how does this relate? It needs a punchline or some neat twist, a revelatory thought that draws the matter to a close. But the truth is I don’t know what to think—those faces, the words and their sound, the men arm-in-arm, the woman sobbing on the floor—I can feel it all in front of me.

My partner is unhappy that I don’t want to work. The sky has cleared, the sun is high and bright, the light is dusty, again, the colours fresh. He says there’s no reason why I shouldn’t want to work, that that was the deal, we work, something we agreed to to do together, and that I’d never mentioned not liking it, or losing interest, or feeling as though it’s something I no longer want to do. I do want to work, but that’s not what I say. I say nothing. He talks, examines, explains, asks me to talk and explain. But he’s asking me to explain something I cannot. I cannot explain why I can’t get out of bed, nor why my head is buried in a pillow face down, nor why as he talks I pull the sheets over my head and curl up into a ball. I cannot explain why I’m not talking to him, at least saying I can’t say, I don’t know, it will pass. And so I am silent on the bed and curled into a ball, a lump beneath white sheets, while the sun is so proud. He say’s he’s had enough, that it’s too hard, that he can’t do this again. I hear him packing as he talks. I hear his suitcase zip. I hear his final words at the doorway, and then I hear the door shut.

I am standing at the beachfront, watching the waves and the moon. The moon is a third of the way up the sky, it’s light looms in the water, across to me and the beach, and there’s a boat with it’s lights on in the distance to the right. I take my eye from the viewfinder, and find the view just the same. We wanted to capture and contain the new, the new that is not new and is in fact foreseen; the new in the postcards and in the camera lens, and in memory, another revolving moon, it’s reflected light not light, but light all the same.

 

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