Here’s an exuberant, little jewel of a love story (for V-Day) by Connie Gault, a friend, not of dg’s youth, but of his early teaching days when he used to migrate from one summer writing program to another across Canada. For a few lucky summers he taught at the Saskatchewan School of the Arts at an old tuberculosis hospital called Fort San in a dramatic geological trench cut through the Prairie called the Qu’Appelle Valley, which is where he met Connie Gault (long winded sentence). She is a playwright and the author of three books of fiction, including, most recently, Euphoria, which came out in 2009. Chief among this story’s charms are the lightness and quirkiness of its language, its humour, its bold shifts of story line and setting, and its humane generosity of spirit. This is a brand new story, never published elsewhere. DG is very pleased to have it here.
Long ago, so long ago I can only picture myself as the girl I was in early photographs, we lived on rue Rouge. And I wore a blue scarf. It was a square of chiffon, a true sky blue, and Mrs. Waring said to me: You look well in blue, I would never have thought so without the evidence of my eyes. Anyone else I knew would have said I looked good, not well, or more likely would have said nothing at all. I loved the phrase, ‘the evidence of my eyes.’ For weeks I strolled the length of rue Rouge and the streets thereabouts, murmuring to myself: the evidence of my eyes. I was half in love with Mrs. Waring, who wore her ample body blithely, proud of all that belonged to her. Silently I berated my mother for being nothing like Mrs. Waring, for being slender and caring about fashion.
How does it happen that a person, after years of simply living with someone and perhaps taking that partner for granted, falls in love again? Becomes a lover again of the same person? I’d done it many times in a long marriage and it was always a mystery to me. In the plane that brought us home from Paris, I thought of Mrs. Waring and rue Rouge. I was cramped into economy class, sitting between two strangers. One of them was my husband. I was remembering that he had taken my hand as we’d set out to cross a busy street at the Place de la Concorde. He’d guided me through the heavy traffic as it streaked past us, every vehicle shifting lanes and honking. What I remembered was the unexpected warmth of his hand, my trust in his competence to steer us, and my body’s response. Sitting beside me on the flight home, he sighed, his fingers went to his forehead, he plucked at his eyebrow, a nervous habit, and I thought: The world will step on him if it sees that weakness. He half-turned and caught my eye and I flushed, full of paradox. I thought: Paris has done this, and something new in him. There was no answer in his eyes.
In the rue Rouge, there was so much. A church, for one thing, where I sang in the choir. It’s true the choir leader asked me to sing quietly; it’s true I was habitually seriously off-key. But her impartial husband, the crabapple-cheeked minister, made up for her. He thought all singing beautiful.
The church looked medieval, what I called medieval. It had been erected in 1929, of brick that took on the colour of the street’s name in our infrequent rains but otherwise was too pale to deserve the appellation. Still, it possessed a richness no other edifice in the city could match: an octagonal tower. Tower is perhaps an overstatement. Turret might more accurately describe the structure, as it appeared more decorative than functional. I was never inside it. The minister’s office was on the ground floor below it. I do not know who was allowed above, who had the privilege of looking out through the turret’s narrow windows onto the hedges and fences and into the yards and gardens of the houses along rue Rouge.
With such a name to it, we should have lived on a lively street, and it was rumoured that a prostitute inhabited the corner house at the end of the block, but I was never aware of much activity in the vicinity. Often, walking along the sidewalk, I could hear the leaves fall. I almost think it was always autumn on rue Rouge. When I clattered through the dry brown leathery elm leaves, kicking up their autumnal smell in the day’s last and brightest light, I brought housewives stepping up to their living room windows to witness my passing. One lamp was shining in each house, back in the corner of the room, imparting a glow to each woman standing in her picture window. Each alone, in her turn, observed my progress along rue Rouge, in my blue chiffon scarf, tied in a manner to be described only as jaunty, a blue chiffon mist over my bouffant hair, known in those days as a hairdo. I have a photograph of myself taken in that scarf, in that hairdo. Somehow, it seems that I spilled hair dye on the photograph. Or it might be something else. Coca Cola. I spilled something on the photograph, which now I think of as hair dye, maybe because, shortly after that picture was taken, I dyed my brown hair red.
Even when I was young, I cast a critical eye on my own fevers, and a cold side-self sneered at my red hair, at my desire for it. At my small giving in, my self-pleasure. As soon as it was done, I saw that I was – following my mother’s example – trying to improve myself.
Although I said there was so much, I can’t think of another thing on rue Rouge besides the church and the leaves that were always falling or about to fall and the housewives in the picture windows. And once, two blocks from our house, on a day when puddles reflected a sodden sky and the cotoneaster hedges flamed and tattered snow edged the sidewalks, a boy reached out and pinched my breast and then walked past as if he hadn’t. Terrible things happened to him, terrible repercussions, because a week later he pinched the breast of a lawyer’s daughter and she told her father. I could not have discussed the incident with either my father or my pretty, fashionable mother. It was necessary to protect them from the ambiguities of the situation, from the knowledge of an event that they would have viewed as confusing. I told no one, took no part in the gossip or the outrage, never sure I should not feel flattered. Chosen. Perhaps it was my red hair that had made me as good a victim as a lawyer’s daughter.
It’s easy now to see why I was half in love with Mrs. Waring. Unlike my parents and certainly unlike me, she knew what she thought about things. Nothing had ever happened that didn’t have reasons clear to her. I related her assuredness to her colouring, her Danish blondness, her bland blue eyes that took what they saw for evidence.
What did we do in Paris? Just strolled through the streets. Oddly, we seemed to be blocked whenever we tried to do any more. The two art galleries we wanted to visit were closed. The entire Georges Pompidou Centre was being renovated. A strike had shut down the Musee d’Orsay. Yes, we walked about, admiring the luminous rosy sky and not mentioning that it might be caused by pollution. We walked along the Seine, stopped on bridges, observed young people kissing. And didn’t speak of them. We visited bistros we’d visited before. I remember almost nothing of our stay. A week in Paris without memories. One night, in the square outside Notre Dame, I said: “I love you,” and he said: “Look at your shoes.” I was wearing runners with night-light strips, or day-glo strips, whatever they call them, and my feet looked like traffic in the rain.
Afterwards I asked him: “Why were we there, in Paris?”
He said, “I think it was a test.”
“But I didn’t know it was a test,” I said.
He said, “Maybe I wanted you to fail.” Then he said: “Us. I’m sorry, I mean maybe I wanted us to fail.”
This conversation took place at home, in the safety of our home, a few minutes after I had not thrown the moveable furniture through the living room window. Having denied myself that satisfaction. Or having decided it was too wild a gesture for one who’d schooled herself in the expected. I so wanted to heave whatever my eyes fell on, lamps and books and chairs and tables, anything I thought I could lift. Pitch it at the window. Shatter the glass. Let the neighbours see our innards on the lawn. It was all I could think of that would lift the grief that sat like all that furniture on my heart. Instead I cried and yelled silly things. One I remember was: “Why couldn’t you have left me years ago when I was still young?”
I don’t remember the name of the boy who pinched my breast. I knew it then, he went to my school. I can still see his stricken face in the days before he disappeared. No one knew where he went, we were all relieved at his leaving. It was embarrassing to witness his devastation. Didn’t he know what he did was a crime? Didn’t he know that at that tender age pity crushed us?
Of course I will be all right. I don’t want pity and there’s no need to find a crime to fit my punishment. We are, each of us, capable of living on our own. If we only look for it, we can see every one of us has everything we need. As we move forward, the past sustains us.
I do not believe I will always have Paris so I’ve given a French name to the street I’ve been remembering. I don’t think, by renaming the street, I’ve made it or my story less real. On the contrary, for me, the place and the memory are enhanced. Something of that rosy glow so often seen in the Parisian sky, that might or might not be caused by pollution, has brightened my old neighbourhood. And I must admit, this voice in which I’m telling you this story, this is an invented voice. It’s a little accented, a bit French – in my head – I don’t know how it sounds to you. It’s a little like one of those melancholy French songs you might hum if you suddenly found yourself in a pretty slip, staring out a window, if you could suddenly find yourself not one of those small French girls, naïve and lovely in the way their every gesture demonstrates trust, but large-limbed and heavy-lidded, elegant and astute. A Simone Signoret. Anyone who saw you would immediately fall half in love. You would look well in that slip.
Connie Gault is the author of the novel, Euphoria (Coteau Books, 2009), as well as two story collections and numerous plays for stage and radio. Euphoria was awarded the Saskatchewan Book Award for Fiction and was short-listed for the High Plains Fiction award and the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for best book of Canada and the Caribbean. She is a former fiction editor of grain magazine. Currently, she is on the faculty of the Wired Writing program at the Banff Centre for the Arts. She lives in Regina.