December 18, 2018

Mallarmé Matters

Contributed by: Robert Fraser
Themes:
Categories: Short story

Study a long silence” – John Webster.

 

When the ‘phone cried out, he lifted the receiver without thinking. With the clarity of someone addressing him in the same room, a woman’s voice cooed into his left ear “Hamish? Chéri?”

There was an abrupt lurch in the area of his solar plexus following by a tingling sensation across his scalp and down the back of his neck. Somehow she’d always made his name sound Arabic.

“Hamish. Tu es là?”

“Je suppose,” he managed at last.

“Comment, tu supposes que tu es là? Tu supposes que t’es à Edimbourg?” Incredulity was etched into her voice, along with an irritated amusement.

He waited a few seconds before repeating, with feigned nonchalance, “Je suppose.” In the depths of the house, his teenage daughter Isolde was practising a Bach Sarabande on the ‘cello. He wondered if Wafa’a could hear the tentative music.

There was a throaty pause before she remarked with the old scornful affection, “Hamish, t’es stupide! How can you suppose your existence?”

Pensively he examined the cornice above the curtain rail. The Sarabande seemed to be in its earlier stages, so he risked speaking in English and replied “Well, you know I’m a fan of Descartes. In a manner of speaking.”  Even to himself, his voice sounded pompous.

The Sarabande had danced to its final cadence before she growled, “Hamish, stop making out that you’re an Oxford philosopher. You’re a Scottish poet, aren’t you?”

A key crunched in the door lock. Holding onto the edge of the table, he murmured a little desperately, “Phone again some time? Some time on? Just say ’Mallarmé matters’”.

 

ii

This problem of doubting one’s existence was a familiar snag, only solved at rare moments. He’d experienced one of those in his study downstairs a few weeks previously when coming across a notebook with fraying jade-coloured covers that had been lurking in a bottom drawer. Opening it, he’d discovered a eulogy to her beauty, set out  in verses like a psalm:

Her hair extremely dark, so black that it glistens.

Her eyelashes long and curved.

Her face as full as the moon. Her cheeks full finely moulded, falling away from the bridge of her nose straight towards the lobe of the ear without superfluous fleshiness, suggesting the possibility of scarification without any mark in fact being present. Arab, but also African.

Her lips full, and cupped like a fine vessel – sensuous but also elegant. The lipstick smudged now.

Her tongue large and agile. As she kisses, it moves across her mouth like a slow fish. Her saliva wet and pure.

Her neck stately, the twin tendons at the front pronounced but slender. Her larynx  smooth and tender, as all women’s are.

Her shoulders silken and fleshy, the padding covering them evenly like a well made coat.

Her back downed with almost invisible hair, the curve of it perfect.

Her breasts pear-shaped, swaying ever so gently as she walks, but gathered when she turns or leans on her side. As she lies on her back, they subside into the continuous curve of her chest. Her nipples small and dark, the aureoles crisped with delicate hair.

Her upper abdomen a flawless slope, the edge of her rib cage clearly visible through the flesh. Her stomach delicately contoured, the muscles rippling beneath the skin. Her navel a perfect declivity, like a dimple naturally occurring.

He recalled scribbling these observations one March morning six years before as she’d slumbered beside him in the small, meanly furnished hotel bedroom in the Place Sainte Cathérine. There had been one chair, and the en suite bathroom had been cramped into a cubicle the size of a British telephone booth. Above the plywood wardrobe had hung a reproduction of a château near Tours.

He had dozed off about three in the morning. At half past five they had woken together and made love again. Then they had dressed, gone downstairs and drunk coffee in a neighbourhood bar, chatting about Mallarmé. Afterwards, they had strolled arm in arm along the quais overlooking the Ile Saint Louis. As they had approached le Pont de Sully, she had murmured “You walk quickly. But when you make love, you take time.”

 

iii

 

Her letters had started arriving not long afterwards, provoked – so he had flattered himself – by the slender volume of his verse that he had given her upon parting. The third letter had read “Tu ne peux imaginer à quel point tu me manques. Tes poèmes m’ont beacoup aidée à découvrir le genre de personne que tu es. Ce que j’apprécie en toi c’est ta sensibilité, ta spontaneité et ta façon de concevoir les choses…”

The letters and her photograph were now secured with an elastic band in a discreet bundle that lay beneath the jade notebook at the very bottom of the study drawer.  On the afternoon of his discovery, he had looked at her likeness with fond melancholy. It had been taken at a village de vacances near Aigues-Mortes a few months after he had met her, and showed her wearing glasses and clutching a fizzy drink. Beneath the jet-black hair her features looked more pinched than he recalled, but she was smiling gaily. She looked studious but carefree. Uncannily young:

Her shoulder blades widely spaced. Below the vertebrae her back flattens out to form a smooth plateau.

The two clefts or indentations just above and behind each knee joint, serving as a vestibule to the full sumptuousness of each thigh. Sensuous, and yet sublime.

Her knee joints lean. Her calves slender, the curve of the tibia clearly traceable beneath the skin. Her ankles firm and small, like tiny molluscs. Her feet long and straight, the toes splaying ever so slightly, bending at the joints. The soles of her feet so sensitive that she winces and cries out when touched there.

Her monograph Mallarmé et les Ėcossais now enjoyed pride of place on the bookshelves in his office at the university: next to the window beneath a potted plant. He had occasionally pointed it out to visitors as the work of a promising young scholar from North Africa. Accordingly one or twice a graduate student, anxious to please him, had asked to borrow it. He had always resisted these requests, fearing that, like so many well-intentioned loans, the book would never re-appear. For two or three years he had included it on the reading list for his graduate course in the nineteenth- century fin-de-siècle, before a colleague had pointed out to him that it had been superseded by the work of an American critic. So he had taken it off the list for a year, then replaced it for the next session.  Before he had done so, he had pulled it down from the shelves and turned to the Preface, reading her acknowledgement to his “ouvrage critique”. He had then started combing through her first chapter. One sentence struck him particularly. It read: “Si on veut bien comprendre la poésie de Mallarmé, il faut écouter ses silences.” He marked it, then turned back and read the acknowledgement. Then he read the sentence again.

iv

“So you’re Hamish MacBryde!”

“Yes, yes,” he had replied, fidgeting with his wineglass. “I suppose you could say that.”

They were jammed together between a photocopier and the wall.

“You mean that you are him..”

“Well,” he had replied, starting on another half-disclaimer, and then upset the wine all over his shirtsleeve.

She had pretended not to notice. “Well, hell-o!  I’ve read your book on Paul Valéry. The first chapter, anyway”

“Oh,” he had apologised, “I’m sorry about that.”

“Don’t worry,” she had responded sympathetically, dropping the pretence of not having noticed, “It’ll dry out”.

“Yes, I know. But it’s a terrible waste of Entre-Deux-Mers.”

The young woman had been solicitous but amused. Something about her reminded him of his younger sister. “Never mind about the wine,” she was saying, indicating the British Council Representative on the other side of the room. “They can afford it. The shirt’s another matter. If it had been red, I would have advised cold water. You would have had to strip off immediately in front of all these important guests. But as it’s white, you can remain decent for a while.” She touched the damp cuff, then withdrew her hand, inquiring brightly, “So what attracted you to Rimbaud’s sugar daddy?”

“No, no, no,” he had stammered, regaining his composure along with his authority. “That was Paul Verlaine…”

At first he had not noticed her among all the other guests. He had just squandered two hours listening to a turgid paper on Saint John Perse given by an Associate Professor from Kansas. It had absorbed much of the late afternoon and dispersed many of the conference delegates, who one by one had sidled back to their hotels to change. Drinks at the Institut Britannique constituted a mere preliminary to dinner. By seven o’clock the wine bibbers were busy nobbling dining companions. Most were on expenses, and not inclined to stint themselves. “I say,” Hamish had just heard a well-dressed Englishman – a Dean of Arts remarkable for his invisibility throughout the formal proceedings – drawl to his neighbour, “Do you happen to know of a good place for guinea fowl?” A few minutes later, they would be bowling down the Rue de  Constantine in search of provender, probably going in the wrong direction.

A mood of mild cynicism had stolen over Hamish. “Pitiful, isn’t it!” he lamented in an undertone as she refilled his glass, followed by her own. “All these profs are in Paris for the ride. I say,” he added, perking up, “Do Muslim girls drink this stuff?”

She had looked pensive and said, “Some do.” Then she had explained to him about fundamentalism and secularism, liberalism and tradition. “Alcohol’s an Arabic word, you know. Besides, it helps you to fly…”

“So it does, so it does,” he had repeated. Repetition and quotation were Hamish’s conversational vices. A little tipsy now, he began spouting his favourite Mallarmé sonnet:

La chair est triste, hélas ! et j’ai lu tous les livres.
Fuir ! là-bas fuir! Je sens que des oiseaux sont ivres
D’être parmi l’écume inconnue et les cieux !…

He tried to remember the rest. Instead, faltering, he leant across, stooping slightly. She was a couple of inches shorter than he. “I say, Wafa’a,” he had whispered, just as pitiful as the others, “Do you happen to know a good place for couscous?”

 

v

 

“Is it Isolde who’s playing the music?”

“Oui, oui, c’est Isolde.”

“Elle joue bien.”

“Assez bien, oui..”

There was a momentary pause before she put in hurriedly, “Hamish, listen. I passed my agrégation.  I’ve got a job in Grenoble.”

His eyes were on he door as he whispered “Excellent!  C’est bien!”

He could hear her softly breathing. Her voice dropped and she murmured, “Hamish, je pense souvent à toi”. Then there was silence.

When the door knob started to turn, he said “Wafa’a, il faut que je m’en aille maintenant.” Then he whispered “Mallarmé matters” before slowly replacing the receiver. Fifteen minutes later, he was sitting down to High Tea while Isolde was playing with her ravioli and asking “Hamish, have you sent the money to the Music Centre? They need it by Thursday.”

He looked across at her quizzically and asked “What money?”

“For the exam in June. I’m taking Grade Five ‘cello.”

“Aha!” he retorted, dangling his fork. “Hence the Sarabande

“The what?”

“The Bach. Johann Sebastian, I assume,” he expatiated fondly.  “Not one of his sons, was it? How many sons did he have, exactly?”

She looked embarrassed. “Whatever…”

“Hasn’t your mother got any cash?” he asked hopefully.

“She told me to ask you. Please.”

“I will, don’t worry,” he promised.

She lifted her eyes from the plate. “Sure?”

He took a sip of tea, swallowed hard and nodded. “Sure.”

Isolde’s mother Moira came into the room, carrying a tray. He took a mouthful of pasta, chewed twice and stopped. “Hang on!“ he exclaimed in mock fury. “What have you put in this ravioli?”

“Stuff,” Moira shrugged.

What stuff?”

“Ravioli stuff.”

He laid down his knife.

“Anything wrong, Hamish?” Moira asked with habitual concern.

“It’s tasteless!

Moira looked contrite, then defensive: They had been living together for fourteen comfortable, quasi-marital years. She murmured “Well, it’s the same as I always make,” then added in Gaelic, “Cook it for yourself next time.”

Hamish stared into his plate, remembering the Moira of yore, striding along the pavement in Buccleuch Place, the plaid crimson of her scarf a lone stab of protest against the December cold. Two years out of Hawick High, where they’d presented her with the Nelson Poems of Burns for “rendering a song”.

He tried hard to concentrate on what was around him: this kitchen, this bowl of pasta. Instead his mind kept on repeating:

Rien, ni les vieux jardins reflétés par les yeux
Ne retiendra ce coeur qui dans la mer se trempe
Ô nuits ! ni la clarté déserte de ma lampe
Sur le vide papier que la blancheur défend
Et ni la jeune femme allaitant son enfant.
Je partirai ! Steamer balançant ta mâture,
Lève l’ancre pour une exotique nature !

Isolde was laughing at him, daddy the clown again. Then she waved her hands in front of his eyes and yelled “Daddy, where are you?  The money! Tonight!”

 

vi

 

She had known an excellent couscous restaurant, the very best in Paris. But she had, she explained, to cook for a cousin from Agadir at her tiny studio out in Belleville that evening. She would meet him later at a bar called La Tartine in the Rue de Rivoli. Hamish had eaten indifferent Vietnamese food with a Phonetics expert from Calgary, made his excuses and fled, hurrying across the Pont Neuf towards the Marais. Far too early and far too eager, he had positioned himself near the window of La Tartine, nursing his wine, watching the theatre of the street.    

After ten minutes surveying the crowds swishing back and from the Métro Saint Paul, he had caught sight of her figure wrapped up in a raincoat against the chill, early Spring evening.  She was wearing her hair up, which made her look serious. As she waved at him, a smile of recognition and wellbeing had flooded across her face. She swept in calling “Bon soir, Monsieur Mallarmé!” Had he told her that he wrote verse? Regretting his indiscretion, he rose and offered to get her some wine. “Non merci,” she had responded, removing her coat and placing it across the back of the chair, “I’ll have a Diabolo Menthe, please.”

After Hamish had fetched the drink from the bar, he had sat watching her delicate  hand as it poured the soda into the viscous green peppermint liquid.  Slowly it had thinned to a satisfying pale emerald. He had raised his eyes and looked at hers. They were smiling beneath her discreetly pencilled eyebrows. As the childish drink went down, she rehearsed the details of her life. She was the youngest child of a large family from Rabat. Both of her parents were dead. She had studied in Tangiers and had recently completed her Doctorat  de Troisième Cycle at Amiens. She had, she told him, no desire to return to Morocco where “they will marry me off.”  Not possessing the agrégation degree that entitles a teacher to a permanent post in France, she was eking out a living giving language instruction at a local lycée, paid by the hour. She lived alone in a chambre de bonne overlooking le Parc des Buttes Chaumont. The chestnut trees were slowly unfurling along the radial paths now, and she had a ring-sided view of them.

She was evidently lonely, often wretched but sometimes glad. The French, she told him with guttural concern, were all racists – with some notable exceptions. Three months previously a boarding house round the corner from her in the Rue de la Villette had gone up in flames. The conflagration had killed a Canadian student who lodged there, but most of the residents had been from Casablanca. The police had turned a blind eye to this atrocity, insisting that the fault lay with the wiring. All this sounded, Hamish sinisterly thought, much like Glasgow or South London.

It struck him forcibly how much she appreciated French poetry and culture, whilst distrusting those who produced it. “The Parisians are sexists as well,” she had added at one point. “Just walk round to the Rue Saint Martin and look in the video shops within a stone’s throw of their celebrated Centre Georges Pompidou. When people pass you in the street, they don’t look at you properly; they just examine your cul.  Even the women do it!

Hamish swallowed back his wine. “Your quoi?”

She sniggered, indignant still but also joking, pointing in the direction of her chair seat. “Your cul. Your arse.” She pronounced the English word in a sibilant way, making it sound like a beast of burden.

They had sat silently for a while, and he had thought of her personal courage in this hostile city, but also the quality of Puritanism that was in her, something integral surviving migration and freedom, a distaste for public displays of sexuality that reminded him of Moira. Did Calvin and Muhammed have the same effect?

  They had walked to the hotel arm in arm, past blatant advertising hoardings and  bistros with barmen stacking chairs. Approaching the Rue Saint Paul, she had suggested a final drink in the Place des Vosges.  They had turned up a side street. On the terrace of a late night restaurant overlooking the square, she had listened to him describing the modern-sounding arrangements of his household: his long time girlfriend Moira, their daughter Isolde, his deep love for the latter and tense fondness for the former; the comfortable, undemanding routine.  When he had finished, she had asked him, “Et t’es content?”

“Oui,” he had nodded, without taking his eyes from his Crême de Cassis.

Her expression did not change as she asked, “Et la petite Isolde? Elle est aussi contente?”

He thought for a while. “Je pense que oui.”

She smiled. “Peut-être elle a besoin d’un Tristan.”

“Oui, oui,” he said, laughing. “Tout le monde a besoin de ça.”

Her legs long and well shaped. The cornice beneath the vulva distinct, the upper thigh arching outwards so that the greatest fullness is attained at mid-thigh, from where the fibula tapers slightly towards the knee joint. The semiotics of the thigh-bone.

Her crotch shaved. Her taste like the sea.

The pursing of the labia. The hood within like a Venus fly trap. Or like some rare species of orchid.

She slips her tongue into my mouth, sucking hard while taking each of my nipples between the thumb and first finger of each hand, and subjecting it to a lingering friction just this side of pain.

She scratches my shoulders and upper arm with the nails of each clenched hand, her two hands moving in concert down to the elbow, and then up. She pinches and pummels the flesh to each side of my neck.

When the clock above the Musée Victor Hugo started indolently droning midnight, he had leant across the table, and brushed her lips with his own.

 

vii

 

Neil Strang placed his elbows on the seminar table, opened his eyes in challenge and said “So you want to know what a culture is?” It was the term following the Easter conference, and bees were collecting pollen outside the window.

“I’m not sure that I do, in general terms,” said Hamish, stretching his legs under the table. “Culture’s a metaphor from botany. And in any case, aren’t all cultures different?”

“Their outer forms, yes. But looked at with scrutiny and detachment, each is like a system in which energy is contained and recycled. To keep them from overheating there are resistances built in, inhibitions if you like. Call them taboos.”

Hamish thought about this a moment. He respected Strang, but could never quite persuade himself to take his habitual sociological categorisation seriously. It was all too damnably neat and tidy. “And if the taboos get broken,” he asked, “What then?”

“That’s a complicated question,” replied his friend. “If taboos were continually violated, the culture would rapidly cease to be itself. It would turn into quite another thing.”

“Is that desirable,” a third voice put in from the other side of the room, “or regrettable?”

“Well, from the point of view of those who maintain the culture, it is clearly reprehensible. What most decent cultures do is to incorporate safety valves. These can take the form of events, rituals if you like, or people. The events are things like carnivals, regular and tolerated violations of the norm. The people are chaps like you, Hamish.”

Hamish came to with a start. His attention had lapsed during all of this generalisation. “Me?” he said, with mild incredulity.

“Artists, poets, call them what you will.”

Hamish sat forward in the chair. He was thinking of Bach, and his sober life in Leipzig: all those church cantatas and hard-working sons. Surely Strang, with his passion for models and perfection, had got it horribly wrong. Surely his disruptive events and exceptional people were less like safety valves than irritants which any decent system would shrug off. Hamish was about to continue with this rewarding train of thought, when he became aware of an atmosphere of embarrassment in the room around him.  Suddenly he realised that he had not been expressing his thoughts out loud, just internalising them. The group was waiting for him to speak. “Hello, Hamish,” Neil was calling in affectionate reproof. “Are you there?”

Hamish came to with a start. “Oui, oui,” he said, recalling a tête-à-tête in a distant bedroom. Oui, je suppose.”

 

viii

 

Late the following afternoon, they had lunched at a café facing Notre Dame. Flower sellers were busy at the street corners, and a man outside the West Front of the cathedral was selling religious pictures. Near him hung a poster announcing a performance that evening of Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater. Like a habit dimly recalled, Hamish had remembered that it was Holy Week.

After they had paid the bill, he had walked her back in the direction of the hotel. Near Le Châtelet they took a short cut and found themselves standing outside the conventual church of Saint Gervais.

On an impulse he suggested they go inside. They found themselves facing a truncated nave flanked by chanting monks and nuns robed in white. A service was in progress; probably, thought Hamish with Presbyterian vagueness, this was Vespers, or else the office for Holy Week known as Tenebrae.  Every so often, a tonsured priest came forward and censed a bowl of lilies before the altar. At intervals, a nun stepped out into the aisle from among the intense rows of women, and prostrated herself in the sign of the cross. There was an extreme sanctity, a self-effacing reverence, about the way in which all this was done that Hamish found oddly moving. He wondered if the girl at his side was responding in the same way. In a transept to their left, a middle-class woman in evident distress was consulting a nun of extreme frailness, whose serenity of manner seemed to Hamish to include the woman’s pain and hysteria without rebuke, converting them into offerings like music.

They went out into the street, and found it flooded with light. For a few seconds Wafa’a had stood still with an expression of tranquillity on her face, absorbing the sun. Then she had turned, looked up, and said softly but distinctly, “You know. My brothers in Rabat. If they knew about us, they would kill you.”

 

ix

 

The afternoon before his departure for Scotland, she had placed her finger on his lips and said, “Hamish. I will show you a special place.” They had taken the Métro to la Place Monge, and strolled up la Rue Lacépède towards le Jardin des Plantes. Opposite the Natural History Museum in Rue Geoffrey St Hilaire, she had taken him by the hand and led him into a lamp lit enclosure: a womb of sumptuous and scented darkness. Cushions were placed in alcoves beneath Moorish arches. Decorated brass plates a metre across were set on trestles as tables. Groups lounged in the semi-darkness. Waiters circulated, lethargically carrying trays with glasses of steaming thé à la menthe, and piles of serried change.

“Where are we now?” he had asked stupidly.

“Don’t worry,” she had replied. “It’s the mosque.”

He looked round in appreciation and astonishment. To his unaccustomed eyes the place seemed like a unisex diwania. This is a mosque!”

“Not the place of worship. That’s next door. In here it’s a café. Look” – she indicated an inner sanctum with gleaming artefacts behind a sandal-wood screen – “You can buy some things to take home.”

He had ordered a glass of mint tea, and she coffee. When the drinks arrived, he savoured the smell of the sweet mint steaming from the glass, consulted his watch and said “Four o’clock.  If I’d been was a sassenach, I’d have been pleased with your timing..”

“A what?”

“A sassenach. An Englishman. Tea sharp at four.”

“And the non-sassenachs?”

“Well, I can’t speak for other Scots. At home we eat High Tea at six..” He stopped suddenly, worried about the “home” and the “we”.

“And if you’re late?”

“Nothing much. My friend is pretty tolerant.” He always called Moira his “friend”. “Partner” seemed too formal, and  “lover” melodramatic. “If I upset her, she scolds me in Gaelic, a lot of which is incomprehensible to a Lowlander like me. That’s why she does it, I expect.”

Wafa’a smiled softly and took his hand. Not for the first time, he noted how completely she took his private circumstances for granted. He did not know whether to think of this open-mindedness ancient or precociously modern.

Afterwards they had entered the shop with its hanging lamps and stacks of leather and brass goods, where he had bought a pair of earrings for Moira, and a fez cap for  Isolde. On his return to Edinburgh, he had presented these gifts a little guiltily, though with a flush of pleasure at their quaintness. He still had photographs, slightly out of focus, of Moira smirking at him – incomprehensibly – between the earrings, and seven-year-old Isolde sticking her tongue, the fez slantwise across her scalp. They had been the last two frames on the reel.

 

x

 

A few months after the Paris trip, his third volume of poems had come out; he had dedicated them to Wafa’a, using her initials: “ W.J ”. Opportunely these were identical to those of his recently deceased supervisor from Saint Andrews, a man of impressive reputation whom he was widely thought to have revered, but whom privately he had always thought of as something of a bore. The subterfuge had taken in everybody including Moira, who had been touched by his loyalty.  The sleight-of hand, and its undeserved success, was a relief to him, and yet there was something in him that wanted intemperately to blurt out a confession. One lunchtime the following Autumn, he found himself eating lunch with a Hebraist from the Department of Divinity, who mentioned that he had read the book and enjoyed it. Since he knew the man only slightly, Hamish had taken the risk and confided the identity of the dedicatee. The man had dissolved into male chauvinist mirth, and avoided him ever after.

At first her letters were voluble and frequent, addressed to his department and clearly identifiable from the Paris postcode. She was, she said, swotting hard for her agrégation whilst converting her thesis into a book. He did not quite know how she endured her life. One bleak January night there had been another racist arson attack in a neighbouring arrondissement; in March a woman in Les Halles had turned and berated her openly in the street.

Moroccan men avoided her for the most part, reluctant to strike up a conversation. She wished that she could explain this residual inhibition in a strange land, which puzzled and disappointed her.  She had, she told him, embarked on an unsatisfactory relationship with a divorced lawyer from Rennes. On balance, she found that she preferred poets – even Calvinist ones. Sometimes, she told him, she wept in front of the mirror, then fumbled in the desk for his letters which, with their irreverent though cautious wit, always cheered her up: at least for a while. Did he remember their tea in the mosque, and the chanting in Saint Gervais? Sometimes, in the dull stretches of mid-afternoon, she would go and sit in the nave there. She had an impulse to pour out her sorrows to the kindly, serene-looking nun who, however, had never re-appeared. He replied consolingly and affectionately, telling her about his life. One month, she wrote back in English:

Hamish, you are unreachable, really. You live behind the Hadrian’s wall of your contentment. Do you know how it is with your little barbarian? My brothers from Rabat trouble me. They do not travel here to France; they only send letters and yet they hound me inside. Did you say the “wee Isolde” was learning an instrument? The viola, was it?  I know so little about Western music. In Rabat, we had violins. I have a cousin who has played in an orchestra in Fez. Nsa Allah, I shall see you soon.

Eventually her letters had come less often and, when they arrived, seemed calmer. She had finished with the unrewarding lawyer, and was dating an economist from Innsbruck. “We don’t make love, “ she wrote, practising her English wordplay, “we make investments.” In any case, Hamish knew that she was getting on with her exam revision and her book; he also thought of her less and less as his own horizons narrowed. Once or twice a casual sight or sound – a Moroccan item on the radio, the turn of a student’s head – reminded him of her, and a stab of pain would unsettle him for an instant. When her book came out, she sent him a copy with an affectionate inscription. He noted it with pleasure, including her acknowledgement of his own scholarly endeavours and the occasional advice that he had dropped in his letters. Every so often a phrase reminded him of her conversation: an acuteness of observation, a particular levity running beneath the solemn, academic prose. How much of this, he wondered, was individual to her, and how much derived from her culture?

He had never set foot in North Africa, but from confused impressions he had built up a mental picture of a place soft and somehow unassertive, though given to squall-like outbursts and riddled with subliminal pain. He did not know whether this view was an accurate one. At times he had to remind himself that he was interpreting a whole nation principally through one person. Insidiously, she had become her country:

She scratches my shoulders and upper arms with the nails of each clenched hand, moving in concert from the shoulder down to the elbow, then up. She pinches and pummels the flesh to either side of my neck.

When I move down to administer cunnilingus, she lies on her back, faintly moaning “C’est beau! C’est beau!” As she comes, she moans again and then turns sideways, hugging herself in foetal position.

She lies on her front as I massage her from the root of her hair to the balls of her feet, paying particular attention to the base of the neck and the buttocks, which clench as I touch them.

As I enter her again, she says, “You needn’t come inside me. I’m not taking anything. Do you want a Moroccan child?”

The months passed, yet something of her – an ironic turning up of the lip, a refusal to be taken in by his professional bluster – had lingered in his mind and grown there. From curiosity and nostalgia he had started reading the little Moroccan literature that he could find in the university library, either in its French original or in translated Arabic. The insights in these books had helped him to appreciate the tensions in her mind. Despite this, she had remained exotic as much as familiar to him. Then the ‘phone rang.

The week following her call, he received a letter from his social philosopher friend, now Dean of the Arts Faculty, suggesting that he apply for promotion. Turning his indifference into a virtue, he replied “Dear Neil, Thanks for the flattering invitation. I think, however, you fail to appreciate that promotion and status are matters I regard with some suspicion. Think of this as my failing.”

Instead, he threw himself into a project that would take him back to France: a study of the poet Gérard de Nerval. He explained to the Dean Strang, and anybody else who inquired, that he had been intrigued with Nerval ever since learning, at the age of sixteen, that this writer had taken a daily walk through the Luxembourg Gardens, leading a crayfish on a leash. The proposed book, provisionally entitled Lobster on a String, won the favour of a publisher and a grant from the research funding committee, headed by the new Dean, who perceived in the title a teasing allusion to his own submarine skittishness.

He wrote to Wafa’a, and received an e-mail: the first that she had sent. It read, “Paris, Six o’clock, July 26. Mallarmé matters. Tea at the Mosque”. He decided to give Moira a break from family chores, and air Isolde’s intermediate French. Moira would join them in Fontaine-de-Vaucluse in early August. In the meantime he would compromise with freedom and travel to Paris with his daughter.

 

 

 

xi

 

He spotted Wafa’a straightaway in the perfumed half-light, sitting against a pillar with a light shawl draped across her neck. She looked thinner, but her smile as she raised her face to him was radiant. When he leant across, her arms came around his waist and hugged him. Then she released him and gazed into his eyes for two or three seconds before pecking him on both cheeks. He introduced her to Isolde.

“Ah, la musicienne!.”

Isolde’s eyes were ranging around the room. She had never been to a mosque before, or into an Eastern café. She looked overawed and a bit lost.

Wafa’a ordered tea. “You like tea, don’t you?” she asked Isolde.

Isolde nodded and sucked her lower lip. She evidently didn’t know what to make of this person with her dark swept-back hair, and her accent that seemed French yet not- quite-French.

When the drinks arrived, Isolde examined her glass suspiciously. She had expected a cup. “It’s mint tea,” he explained.  Isolde left it untasted.

As Hamish savoured the mint and sugar, Wafa’a told them about the reviews that her book had belatedly received in Arabic journals, about her new job that was to begin in September, and about her agrégation. “Do you know what?” she exclaimed. “I had to pick a subject to speak about out of a hat. You will never guess what I got: Paul Valéry. I nearly ‘phoned for assistance.”

“What, from the examination hall?”

“No. They gave me three days to prepare. I was worried, but I didn’t want to disturb you.”

“Ah, c’était stupide.”

“Oui, oui,” she agreed, “Stupide. But I passed. J’ai réussi quand même.”

He did not know how much of their French Isolde was following. So he swopped over to English for “And what did you tell them?”

“About Valéry’s sadness. His days watching by the sea. I said he just wanted to be alone, and to think.”

Hamish took a sip and remarked sardonically, “Well, at least you didn’t lecture on Verlaine by mistake.”

“That was a slip of the tongue, you know it was. I was nervous when I met you.”

He put down his glass, and started drinking from Isolde’s. “Nerveuse de quoi, ou de qui?”

“Oh, of meeting a real writer like you. I was…” She stopped in mid-flow and demanded sharply “Hamish, pourquoi es-tu comme cela?”

“Comme quoi?”

“Tu bois trop vite. Et quand tu me regardes, je pense que tu vois  Mallarmé ou quelqu’un. Tu n’étais pas comme ça auparavant.”

He settled back on the rich cushions. “Non. Je suppose…”

There was a lull before he asked, “Where are you living? Still out in Belleville?” He did not want to ask about her Austrian economist.

“No, no. I’ve moved. I’m not so far from l’Odéon now. Rue Racine. You must both come and visit me.”

“Of course.”

A waiter arrived and asked if they wanted refills. Hamish shook his head, then peered across the low brass tabletop. He was sure there were tears in Wafa’a’s eyes. She smiled affectionately and remarked, “Hamish, we never enjoyed that couscous, did we?”

“The first joint in Paris?”

She laughed out loud. “The first quoi?”

“Sorry.” He recalled her fallibility with British idiom. “I didn’t mean hashish.”  Isolde was sniggering by his side.

Wafa’a was bubbling with amusement. “You made it sound like a film about junkies:  First Joint in Paris.

“Sorry, “ Hamish repeated, straightening his expression. “I meant the best restaurant.”

Le meilleur,” insisted Wafa’a, resuming the thread. It’s near the Rue d’Alésia.”  She looked across. “Do you like couscous, Isolde?”

Isolde was at a taciturn age. She blushed and mumbled “What?”

“Couscous, darling,” Hamish glossed. “ It’s made of semolina“.  Isolde looked apprehensive. She was thinking of school lunches.

Wafa’a  looked at Isolde fondly. “We’ll go there on Thursday. There’s somebody I’d like you to meet.”

Afterwards they showed the girl the shop. He thought of taking Wafa’a’s hand, but resisted.  “Do you remember your fez?” Hamish asked Isolde.

 

xii

 

Werner’s boy had just upset Fanta all over the table. Wafa’a was mopping it up, purring “Hans, Hans oh là là!”

“Never mind,” said Hamish. ”I’m sure they are used to children. He swilled some Algerian rouge into Werner’s glass. “Come on, wash those brochettes down.”

Werner was the maligned economist from Innsbruck. Her surveyed the battery of plates: the sunken pile of couscous, the remaining chicken leg; the cooling sauce. “No more brochettes. And please, this is the last wine.”

Wa’fa was still fussing. “You know, “Werner confided, “When I first met Wafa’a, she used to go on manifestations. How do you call it in English? Po-lit-ical demonstrations.” He made them sound like eruptions of the skin. “She thought that she would bring down the government.” He chanted manically, banging the table and sending spoons jumping: “A bas le plan Jupé! A bas le plan Jupé!  But now..” Werner shrugged. “Now she is more sensitive..”

Wafa’a glanced at him reprovingly. “I think, Werner, you mean sensible..”

“Yes, perhaps. Sensible, yes. You know what her next book is to be? It is about Balzac. Balzac! She will end as a fat Professor, and keep me. Not that I need keeping.” He suppressed a burp.

“I will keep nobody”, protested Wafa’a, settling back in her seat and taking up her fork. “Except possibly Hans.”

Isolde was eyeing her carefully. She looked from Werner to Hans, then back to Wafa’a.

Wafa’a took a sip from her glass. Hamish said, “I will tell you about my first encounter with Wafa’a. It was at a British Council: an inauspicious beginning. We were drinking vin blanc.”.

“Entre-Deux-Mers,” prompted Wafa’a.

“I was very daunted to meet this brilliant student, so I spilled half a bottle all over my shirtsleeve. And then I went and asked…”

Wafa’a imitated his drawl: “I say, do Muslim girls drink this stuff?”

Werner was priming a cigar. He snipped off the end and asked “And how did she reply?”

“She delivered an historical-cum-theological lecture.”

Werner looked serious and asked “And you recovered from this?” He was the variety of person who dresses irony in solemnity.

Wafa’a hid her embarrassment by asking “Talking of lectures, how is the research?”

“Slow,” Hamish replied. “The new Bibliothèque Nationale is a monstrosity. The computer book ordering system has reduced me to total illiteracy. And,” – he was tidying up Isolde’s napkin – “of course, I haven’t much time during the day..”

“Don’t worry,” offered Wafa’a. “We’ll look after Isolde.” She prodded Hans’s ribs playfully. “Won’t we, eh?”  

 

 

 

xiii

 

Hamish called round at the Rue Racine at six the following evening. He had spent the whole day toiling over difficult manuscripts out at Tolbiac. Nerval, it transpired, was indecipherable as well as a lunatic. He slumped in an armchair and asked “And how were les enfants?”

“Not bad”, replied Wafa’a, arranging tulips. “I think Isolde’s decided that she’s Hans’s nanny. Well, she’s practising being that, anyway.”

Hamish bit his lip. “I’m not making much headway with Nerval.”

Wafa’a turned round and faced him.” You should stick to sane authors…”   A key scrunched in the front door latch, so she added hurriedly. “Hamish. I’ve got to see you alone. The mosque, tomorrow. Please.”

“Alors…” he said softly.

Werner bustled in. He offered Hamish his hand, which was large and sweaty, booming “I’m sorry to be late. I’ve just been in a meeting that was both – how do you say? – interminable and inconclusive.”

Hans raced in, and Werner swung him in his arms. He carried him into the next room, making bumbling noises.

Hamish felt a jealous stab of pain in his stomach. Turning back to Wafa’a, he felt an old impulse to gather her in his arms, but stopped himself just in time.

“Well?” she inquired, her eyes an open question.

 

xiv

 

Hamish had ordered coffee for a change. The dregs clung to the cup.

“Hans is my son, isn’t he?”

She smiled wanly and replied, almost voicelessly, “Mais oui…”

He tried to chew the dregs, but after a few grains thought better of the idea.

“Why name him Hans?”

“ I called after Hans Christian Andersen. I read Andersen’s work in Arabic translation as a child in Rabat. They’re quite Arab in feeling, anyway, those tales. Like Alif Laila wa Laila

“Wafa;’a. But why?…”

She seemed not to have heard his question, but continued. “You know he’s very bright. Good with puzzles, Lego, things like that. Perhaps one day he’ll be a physicist. Or he’ll read obscure books and become, how do you say, a classicist?”

“Well at least he won’t muddle up Valéry and Verlaine…”

Her eyes danced at this paltry joke, then darkened.

We sleep all night in one another’s arms, her head placed on my chest so lightly that there is no need to alter position. We are comfortable together, and stay clasped like that, from three in the morning until half past five. The ethics of touch. The momentous sanctity of love, even of a stolen love.

“Why did you never write to me about it all?”

“I did write. I instructed you about your happiness..”

“Yes, and about your misery. But you never mentioned a child…”

Slowly she started,  “Si on veut bien comprendre la poésie de Mallarmé…”

His voice was all but inaudible as he went on: “il faut écouter ses silences.”

Her eyes looked moist, but there was no break in her voice as she pleaded “Hamish you were happy. You are happy. ‘The Hadrian’s wall of your contentment’, do you remember?”

“Does Werner know who the father is?”

“Yes,” she replied without hesitation. “He’s not a fool. He’s also a lot nobler than you suspect. And a lot richer.”

“But, Wafa’a beloved, how did you manage?”

“I managed.” There was a pause of half a minute, then she shrugged, murmuring “Men do as they wish.”

Hamish wondered yet again whether this tolerance and longsuffering of hers were traditional, or else very modern.

“Do your brothers know?”

“They will know some day.”

“And they will murder you?”

She snorted.,“Hamish, dear. What do you take us for?”  She added softly, “You can tell Moira that Hans is Werner’s son, by the way. And you must see us all as much as you can. We will tell him sometime.”

Outside, the muezzin was calling. Wafa’a said “Hamish, I have the evening free. Shall we try to find that old church?”

But Hamish was far away with the impossible sea breezes, a house and boy of their own and – for him at least – a different quality of regret.

 

Robert Fraser has published biographies of twentieth-century British poets, and books on Marcel Proust, Sit James Frazer, and international print culture. His poetry sequence around Royal Holloway’s priceless collection of Victorian paintings was published by the college last year, and a memoir is forthcoming. He has been a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature since 2007.