The Letters Page Vol. 6, #3: A few words that go up in smoke
In social work circles, the concept of ‘door-handle disclosure’ refers to service users who will – after an hour of carefully-planned conversation and directed inquiry – reveal an essential piece of information just as they are leaving the room. In social circles, some of us are familiar with what the French call ‘l’esprit d’escalier’ (the spirit of the stairs): that devastating riposte that occurs to us just as we’re leaving the building altogether. And in letters? In letters we have the postscript: that studiedly casual afterthought that turns out to contain the true heart of what the writer wanted to say all along.
Sonya Moor, a French and British writer of short fiction who previously published under the pen name of P.V. Wolseley and who holds an M.A. in Creative Writing from Manchester Metropolitan University, travelled from her home in Paris to post us a letter from the town of Chartres. It was a great letter, and a long letter, and we decided to share just the postscript with you here:
P.S. My editor read this letter to you, and wondered if the talk of creative process imposes distance.
How to get closer?
I booked cheap tickets to Chartres.
Then, because my chest was tight in anticipation of pain, a hotel with more stars than my budget allowed.
‘The escapade offer,’ I confirmed, to a silky-voiced receptionist. ‘For two.’
It felt like surfacing for air. Renaissance sumptuary laws, of all things, came spinning through my mind. I sat phone to ear, but in imagination was in the Louvre, reeling before Veronese’s Wedding of Cana. Veronese was the painter who turned Last Suppers and other Biblical scenes into feasts so lavish they caused scandal. Eventually, he had to answer to the Inquisition for indecency – a worrying detail that visits me, and evaporates, whenever I gaze into his skies of lapis blue…
The regional train to Chartres cuts across rich farmlands. They pass in a gold-green blur, interrupted by magpies flapping a piebald landing. I count: one for sorrow, two for joy… Three. For a girl.
At Chartres station is a memorial to wartime heroism. Beyond that opens a wide, clean street, edged by buildings of careful proportions. The di-twin towers of the cathedral dominate the townscape. One is Gothic lace, the other smooth-tiled like lizard skin.
On the way to my fancy hotel, I eavesdrop.
‘He never managed his money…’ says a passer-by.
‘He had it coming…’ tuts their companion.
I quash the spring in my step, and my thoughts turn to your ‘decadent’ social engagements. Music on the gramophone, singing. Visiting-gifts of butter and bottles. You, perched on some officer’s delighted knees… Pleasures made guiltier by the privations of your compatriots.
What effect, if any, did hardships have on your pleasures?
The hotel reception is dove grey and gold. After check-in, the receptionist presses a tourist map into my hands, promising, ‘historic and beautiful sights.’
Chartres boasts a rich patrimony – twenty-three sites, accessible by miniature tourist train, and illuminated at night. Street names commemorate the Resistance – Charles de Gaulle, Jean Moulin… You are nowhere mentioned. However, there is a walking route around wash houses where, in days gone by, washerwomen scrubbed the town’s dirty laundry clean.
Sipping espresso, I shuffle pictures of you, plotting on the map the sites of your Calvary.
Once outside, my feet resist the route.
‘La ville est trop belle,’ I explain to my companion. Boutiques offer artisanal chocolates, cheeses, and perfect fruits in an artfully distressed dresser. At a baker’s, croquembouche tower beneath the glassy veneer of an irreproachable glaze. Homeware stores propose dreams of loveliness to townsfolk feathering nests: broad-backed sofas, linen made to last… An antiques store displays an imitation nineteenth-century oil: Convivial Moment between Persons of Quality.
At Logis Claude Huve, we pause to admire fluted Corinthian columns. Crammed beneath the cornice, a grotesque grimaces between rosettes and curling acanthus leaves. An inscription asserts: ‘Huve built this house to beautify the town and for posterity.’
A beggar with an Old Testament beard squats at the column base, unmoving beside the stream of footfall. He makes a jarring juxtaposition: what is passed on, what is passed by.
I think to give money, but my hand refrains: I cannot graciously retrieve my purse from the jumble in my bag.
We walk on, pass by.
A plaque commemorates a soldier fallen for freedom on August 16, 1944.
Posters welcoming us to Chartres promote its cadre de vie agréable. Signs indicate rue du Cheval-Blanc, where Capa took his shot. ‘Restaurants!’ they say. ‘Shops open!’
We take the opposite direction, only to stumble upon the site of the requisitioned shop where you met with Erich. Behind a gracious shopfront, painted chocolat–praliné, are ranked pastries and aproned ladies with smiles.
Looking for a place to lunch, we pass the site of your family’s failed business. It is shrouded under Christo-like wraps: ‘Refurbishment’ announces a sign.
In such a town, you must have everywhere met with painful reminders.
The cathedral chimes.
We lunch on a terrasse bathed in afternoon sun.
Our host seats us well, asking our pleasure.
Weaving between tables comes the seller of a charity magazine.
‘Not here,’ says our host.
My companion and I joke and chatter throughout entrée, plat and dessert. I outline your story, as best I can. You become meal-time entertainment.
Where you used to live, there is no sound but birdsong. Someone has been mowing grass, and the air is sweet. The neighbourhood doorsteps are very clean.
It is perhaps for this reason that I notice, by the curb, the compacted fluff of a vacuum cleaner. Your mother’s defence against accusations of eavesdropping comes to mind – her assertion that she was not lurking by windows, but emptying household dust.
The intimacy of this human detritus touches me. I think of your attempts to escape into a domestic haven – going about the little business of life as if nothing were the matter, with nowhere to put your pain.
It’s a few minutes’ walk from your old home to the Préfecture.
The Tricolore still hangs above the gateway. The Préfecture itself is bright with new paint. A plaque commemorates Jean Moulin.
At the corner of rue Saint-Même, where you ran towards that lens, a café serves crêpes accompanied by little enamel bowls of cider.
We move up the street to where a shot was taken of you and your mother from behind. The camera’s eye caught both the clamouring crowd and the familial skull shape, highlighting your mother’s ropey trapezius; a cruel reveal of her aged body – and of what yours might have become, had you lived.
‘Wait,’ I tell my companion, feeling none of your suffering.
We stand, stupidly, in melted-butter sunshine.
I let down my hair, thinking to cover your nakedness.
Then tuck my hair into my collar, offended by my ridiculousness.
My discomfort increases, as we approach the site of that famous shot.
I imagine Capa crouching, watching your suffering through his lens, waiting for the moment when all the horror would come together beautifully, for viewers – myself included – who would find aesthetic pleasure in your pain.
Is that what I’m doing? Standing where you stood, I look, attempting to see what you saw.
The cathedral looms. Gazing from a stone baldaquin is the Virgin Mother and Child.
I had planned to write you a message in chalk, or drop a flower.
Instead I stand in silence, listening.
A car door slams. A man asks his phone, ‘When, tonight?’ A child wails for a crêpe with Nutella.
I am here, and you are still somewhere else, alone with your suffering.
It is this thought that moves my hand, later, in the cathedral. Standing beneath the stained glass, in puddles of ruby, sapphire and emerald light, I pick a votive candle: red.
I place it in the middle of the stand, apart from the others, light the wick, and say a few words that go up in smoke.
p.p.s. Editor’s note: the letter to which this is a postscript, ‘Lettre à Simone’, addressed to the ‘Shaved Woman of Chartres’ from Robert Capa’s 1944 photograph, can be read at Adda, the online magazine of Commonwealth Writers.
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