In Chartres

In Chartres

A word rose up in her, from the board she was scanning over the top of her glasses. The vaulted arches above her head were cankered with greying matter, cracks like sea deltas rising up from the columns. Badigeon. What does badigeon mean? Regnauld would know what badigeon meant.

He had always laughed at her poor grasp of French. What could she do? She had tried so hard, twenty years or more, to learn. Fixated on the idea of being somewhere else, being anywhere else in fact, she had left her dull estuary town, and France had sounded so, well, so romantic, and Regnauld had his own wry charm. His own precision. She’d learned how to manage the day-to-day stuff of life. Rituals of bread and salad, her securité sociale, even the complex litigation of la promesse when they had bought the little flat together in Les Lilas, a dull suburb to the east of Paris. She had spent her first quiet days swimming in the unfamiliar smells of the apartment, vastly pregnant, rolling strange vowels around her mouth like a boiled sweet. But when, at last – oh sweet relief! – she began to feel a little more confident, she noticed Regnauld’s smirk when she couldn’t distinguish between tu and tout. You and all. A tiny moue of the mouth, the indifference of a pout, made the distinction, one she struggled over and over to achieve. The twist of delight in the corner of his pale smile became unmistakeable, as he sprung another impossible word on her. A particular aspect of erosion in church buildings. The precise use of an archaic tense. The restraint of well-bred southern France. Sometimes, in the kitchen, while Regnauld was slicing onions with that perfect brisk motion she had never managed to master, she had wanted to press that knife through the small of his back, to cut through flesh, ligaments, nerves, discs, vertebrae, organs, brown fat. Till the tip poked through the other side of him. Wreak the destruction on his body that their daughter’s battle to the surface of life had done to her.

Regnauld was somewhere further up towards the transept, turned toward the statuary of the chapel of Sainte Thérèse. She sighed, and slipped away from the blue signboards full of words that swam in and out of her grasp. The cankered-and-cleaned stripes of the giant pillars either side of her made Chartres cathedral look like a badger. A gothic, revolving badger grown out of all proportion. Lemur stripes where the restored ivory pillars, wet with newness, met with the timeworn, wizened ones. She sympathised with the badigeon, with its demise in the face of the restoration. Sometimes she felt badigeonned, like plaster had been gathering over her face for years, piling on cracks and wrinkles, liver spots and unwanted hairs. She would like to be restored too, to be made new and luminous, like those chaste vaults.

They did look bare, though. All the life of all those hundreds of years had been rubbed out, evacuated. Liposuction for churches. White stripes on a badger’s back. Lemur rings. Which one is it, Dot? Dorothée, as Regnauld would say, you need to decide which one it is. The three don’t go together, do they, Dorothée? C’est évident.

Another sigh. Her back hurt. Her neck hurt too, from all that looking upwards, at all the churches on this grey tour of the Île de France. Regnauld’s idea of course: she’d nodded and looked encouraging, wiping her hands down on the towel after clearing up the dinner things. It seemed like something that couples their age did. The occasional phone calls from Lise, happily leading her bilingual life in Montréal, had given them both the urge to move around a little. There was nothing at home that needed tending. No pets. No garden. Not even any plants. And Chartres was the tour’s pièce de résistance. Though as she closed her eyes, remembering, she could see Regnauld smiling and shaking his head while looking down at the floorboards. The phrase was a broken import from the French; it wasn’t appropriate in this sense.

She often felt inappropriate. Sometimes her foreignness invaded her, reaching up her blotchy English throat and throttling her vocal chords, so all the words that came out sounded twisted and gnarly. Like some sort of chivalric French of Henry VIII’s courts. The English Henry VIII that is, the one with all the wives and the blood and the weeping sore on his leg that never went away. How did his wives cope with the smell? At least it was only Catherine of Aragon who had to deal with it for long. She thought of her, the Spanish princess, dying alone in a cold castle, and shivered.

Blinking, she caught sight of the priest a hundred feet or so away. Though of course that wasn’t the right word either. Probably canon or some such. She watched small groups of people go up to him, mostly dark-haired and brown-skinned. Not visibly French, but Spanish, Italian, Vietnamese. In his white chasuble and golden stole, the canon smiled generously at them, and gently laid hands on the head of each one. She instantly regretted knowing the word chasuble.

She mourned the dwindling of her faith. It had been such a comfort, all the rituals of prayer, the gestures to ward off evil, the shimmering indulgences and patient saints. But an empty comfort, she sighed, if there’s no God in the middle of it all. Or maybe that didn’t matter either. Regnauld would usually tut at her at this point, for her flights of fancy. He was a rigidly modern French man: God was dead, as Nietzsche had pointed out, and these were merely temples to man’s own achievement. She wondered about that too. How did the stonemasons eat? Where did the architects lay their plans? Who ground the powders for the paint and the mortar? All the men and the women, the plants and the animals, the dust and the stone, underneath the men who achieved. Her mind turned idly to visions of church officials selling indulgences like raffle tickets, the town’s communities hosting fairs in honour of the Virgin; priests striding through the country selling the services of Chartres so that the cathedral could be rebuilt after so many fires. So many lives lost, such raging heat tearing through a small community, and the cathedral, gradually rising, indifferent.

The surface of the floor between this corner and the rest of the nave was alternately pockmarked and smooth from centuries of footfall. According to the signs, the penitents and converts-to-be would have assembled at the threshold to her right, centuries ago. Some golden line cut them off from the rest of the congregation: sin or faithlessness. They were divided from the golden ones, themselves gilded only for those quiet moments of service, shivering in the apse. A thin strip of marble separated her from the bruised bent-wood chairs in the middle of the floor. It was cratered like the keloid scars on Regnauld’s cheeks, which he refused to acknowledge. He only let her touch them when he was asleep, or gently waking. They felt like a baby’s dimples. Like Lise’s when she was in her cot, breath quietly whistling, the most terrifying and the most reassuring sound in the world.

The last chair in the front row was unwelcoming, but if she sat on its edges, it stilled the sciatic shiver in her left leg. This close to the sanctuary, she could see more clearly the sepia portraits of a photographed couple, their big poster-sized faces propped up on the top step closest to the altar. Votives beckoned and waved beneath them, throwing a red glow up their throats and spilling out onto the shining floor. The couple were in the process of beatification, according to the placard below their unreadable expressions. Odd, that. They had been dead for a hundred and fifty years and yet the ministrations of the Catholic church had now placed them front and centre in the bureaucracy of becoming a saint. She wondered if they were tired of looking out serenely from those placards. A corner of her mouth twitched at the thought that, in this clean, office-ready Catholicism, the process of saintliness was as orderly as a job promotion.

A young boy with honeyed skin, dark hair swept across his forehead, shifted awkwardly on the bottom step leading up to the enlarged portraits of the two saints-to-be. A man in a leather jacket told him to take one step further, up on to the sanctuary dais, to get a better photograph of his cherubic son. The little boy wrung his hands against his legs, shoulders twisting back into one another. “Mais … c’est interdit,” he half-whispered. It is forbidden. His eyes grew wider and darker as he coiled and uncoiled against the flashlight. She felt a line under her ribs constrict in sympathy with his little downy body, caught between allegiances.

A cold draught bolted her spine back into the upright, and her sneakers yelped away from the central aisle, veering left towards the towering windows of the nave. Rows of candles shimmered on blackened iron racks in front of her, but her eyes tracked up towards the filthy panels of stained glass. They were quite grubby, those polygons of blue. Rimed with the soot of age, the unsweetened breath of thousands of visitors and pilgrims. People like her in navy anoraks and floral scarves and small shoulder bags. People not like her, in cassocks and broken shoes; corsets and trailing fabrics and horned Templars; tights and doublets; top hats and waistcoats and pressed trousers; bustles and veils.

Looking up, she felt, somehow, out of time. Outside her time. Even the cleaned and restored window panels were obscure to her. She tutted at herself for no longer being able to read the stories in them. Joseph here, perhaps a Mary Magdalene up there, and then down to the left John the Baptist. Only the most obvious figures. She hadn’t expected to find herself sitting down, vertiginous, as her eyes roved over the panels. It wasn’t like she could read them anymore.

Somewhere beyond the crusted walls, pale sunlight poured in. The cobalt widened and shone, and passed over her lap with a faint hum, like a feather on glass. Her eyes had settled back in her head somehow, not unpleasantly, as if she was looking from the nape of her neck. Weak lapis light shimmered across the slightly damp, crumpled linen of her lap. Gauzy, the lazy touch of a lover at dawn. Regnauld’s ministrations had always been precise, clinical. But … still. Candles sidled into stillness in their red plastic pots. Watching them, and the strange ceruleans of figures she could not read, her hands unfurled gently over her knees. After a time, her jaw slackened, the mouth she normally kept protectively shut opened a little. A warmth spread over her cheeks.

It took her a few minutes more to notice the film of tears streaking her face.

“Sad lady,” said a voice to her side.

She would normally have leaped to attention, busied herself with the scrunched-up tissue kept in the sleeve of her cardigan, smiled and shaken her head, thanked the stranger and marched away. The voice was the boy’s, the one with the shining black hair on the steps of the sanctuary. He stood by her shoulder, screwing up the corner of his jacket and pulling it up to his mouth. There was a silvery film of saliva covering his chin.

“Not sad, I don’t think,” she murmured. “I was looking at the light. It makes me feel peaceful. I don’t know, just, peaceful.”

The child looked bored with this answer. He twisted from left to right for a few moments, chewing his coat, then turned and ran off in the direction of his family.

A wash of sapphire spread across her body, shimmered and failed, before returning. She closed her eyes, and lifted her chin, letting herself bathe in it. Then the light dwindled, and cobalt lineaments fell away from the backs of her eyelids.

Regnauld saw her imagination as a weakness of the mind. On their brief honeymoon in Noirmoutier, so many years ago, she had sat at dawn, watching the rising tide over the causeway that linked the island to the coast, and held her belly, whispering to its half-formed visitor the story of a fire-eyed man of ore who strode across land and sea. When she closed her eyes, pink clouds warmed her eyelids, and the scent of camomile ruffled her breath. Regnauld had appeared soundlessly. Scowling, hair wet from the shower, he hauled her up by her wrists and scolded her for sitting on cold cobbles. She recalled the sharpness of his clipped English, which he only ever used when enraged. Since then she’d never gone anywhere on her own.

Gripping the back of the chair, she hoiked herself upright. Sitting for too long had its cost. As her sneakers chirruped beneath her, the ache in her left hip began reluctantly to subside. Regnauld was up ahead, propped quietly against a straight-backed pew. She hurried forward. But her body turned and lurched, and a stabbing pain cut through her shoulder. She flailed outwards, and her hand latched instinctively onto something unyielding and reassuringly cold. As the floor revolved, she gripped the statue tighter and breathed. In and out. In. Out. She pressed herself into one of the crevices behind the relief of the nameless saint. The flesh of her breast squashed into his eroded nose. How wonderful it would be, she thought, to disappear into the hole that was not a hole from which all these busts emerged. To be inside the stone, inhabiting the eyes that took the place of the dead.

Clearly it was not yet her time. The throbbing subsided, moving away like a tide. The pitted blackness behind her eyelids gradually drew back to reveal the flickering air of the apse, and the Chapel of Sainte Thérèse. The flagstones righted themselves under her feet.

During her very first attack, Regnauld had squinted at her, nostrils flaring, surprised and demeaned by her lack of self-control. As she had lain panting on her side, he’d propped the kitchen door ajar with a woven stool and disappeared into his study, waiting for her to finish whatever imagined thing she was undergoing. Later, once she could move again, he seemed angry at her for being in pain, a pain that he could neither foresee nor believe in. Pain did not need belief to sustain it. But it did need belief that it would stop. And it did, eventually. The doctors had put it down to “women’s problems”, though the attacks didn’t end, not even after the thin trickle of her last menstruation had halted finally and forever.

The pain stopped, gone as quickly as it had come on, and she allowed her grip to slowly unfasten around the saint’s headpiece. The stone left reddened imprints on her hands, and there was a small graze on her knuckle from where she’d floundered. She was surprised not to have been approached by an invigilator, that she hadn’t been reprimanded for touching what she should only have looked at. Perhaps her face had been too drained of colour. She smoothed down the rumples on her anorak, dabbed her bloodied hand with a tissue, and squeaked neatly away.

Regnauld did not come to her. He wouldn’t have noticed. The chairbacks faced away from her, and she’d learned to stifle the noise of her attacks. Screaming didn’t seem to help, so she kept herself quiet. Since the pain had gone away for a while, the thought of the blue light and the softness of her mouth came to her again, and she sighed. No-one had sat down next to Regnauld.

She took up the empty seat next to him, and gently rubbed the raw skin of her knuckle against his pockmarked cheek. She longed to pick him up, to embrace the heft of him in her arms, but his deadweight was too much. His head seemed to be the heaviest part of him; it lolled to one side of the headrest. A narrow band of cloudy drool cleft his lopsided frown in two. His lower lip dragged in a jagged V-shape, almost touching the concertina tube that had replaced his Adam’s apple, taped securely in place. His breathing was even, and he rolled his eyes upward in the direction of her touch. In the last, rasping days before his voice finally departed, he’d made her promise, promise to take this lifeless tour of the Île de France with him. She leaned across and stretched her chin out gently over the thin skin of his skull. She felt Regnauld’s clipped voice buzzing in it still, like a trapped wasp in an upturned jug, deep within the vessel of mottled skin. She ran her fingers up the leather back of the wheelchair, and breathed. In and out. In. Out. She hummed softly, as her fingertips met the soft down of his nape.

Jenny Chamarette spent most of her twenties in various parts of continental Europe, and loved it so much she did a PhD in French cinema and philosophy. She now lives in South-East London with her partner and cat Juno, Protector of Women. She is working on her first short story collection.

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