Saturday, 26 November 2011
Cakes and Wine with Mademoiselle X
There are some people who live with little or nothing. There are others who live with too much of everything. There are those who live with a little of one and too much of the other. There are those few, who by the instinct that leads them to dream, live with what they find or are given - either by others or by an unthinking fate.
At the turn of the last century there was a young woman who was undoubtedly a dreamer. I do not know where she came from or for that matter where she was going to. It did not matter to me nor to those of us few who knew her. She was known to us as X, pronounced 'Ix' and most definitely not 'Ex'. I was young myself then (weren't we all?) and I had a tendency to frequent flea markets looking for books mainly and strange clothing. I was studying Art History and English Literature at the University with the intention of becoming a writer and hopefully a collector of art.
One day I chanced upon some 18th century English wineglasses with their stems filled with fine spiral threads. I fell in love with them and was about to buy them when a charming voice asked the stall-holder the price of them. He smiled and I turned to see my rival in love for these wineglasses. She was a little shorter than me with a slender figure but a slight plumpness to the stomach that spoke of eating unwisely but well. Still, it was her face that captivated. Green eyes that darted about like a bird trying to take in everything, a heart-shaped face with the pale clearness that redheads often have and freckles that became that face beautifully. Her mouth was small and constantly moving even when she did not speak. She seemed to be tasting everything the world was as if she could not quite believe her luck at being in the 'best possible of all worlds'.
I was bookish and on the way to becoming peevish and narrow, but something in my young self seemed to awake and I found myself smiling. She made a moue on hearing the price and I took my wallet and bought the glasses. To my surprise and slight queasiness I asked if she wanted them very much.
"Not so much cherie, only they are rather pretty," she said, her eyes already having moved on.
I felt a slight disappointment mixed with triumph. After all if she did not want them that much, I should certainly keep them. I was about to buy a rather beautiful travelling wine cabinet complete with the decanters and glasses and padded rather elegantly in pale green watered silk when she leaned over it. Her mass of heavy red-gold hair fell forward and I gasped in astonishment at the sheer beauty. She reminded me a little of a woman from a Levy-Dhurmer painting, yet she was very physical and real. She was also very down to earth, asking for a set of cutlery. The stall-holder indicated a rather beautiful set, monogrammed with 'LS' in flowing copperplate capitals on the handles. She asked him how much they were and he shrugged and grinned,
"Ah for cheering up my day, you can have them," he said gathering them up in large hands, red with the cold.
She protested rather beautifully I thought, but he laughed and wrapping them he handed them to her. No doubt the LS was perfect for her I reflected pettishly, it would stand for La Sauvage. Even as I thought it, I recanted it, for she was undoubtedly beautiful and full of charm. I did not trust charm I had decided and was asking the price of the travelling wine case when she placed a hand on my arm. I tensed automatically and my eyes flashed for I did not like to be touched by strangers. I am less fussy now, for I am older and less fraught. She did not seem to notice my tension, instead she said brightly,
"Oh yes, you must have that, it's quite lovely. And you must use it too and travel somewhere with it."
There was something of a command in her voice that I did not quite understand, then she had released my arm and I paid for the case and took it. I turned then towards the bookstalls and began to head to them when I was conscious that she was still with me. She walked alongside me without talking as if we were a couple. Only couples used to each other's company do not feel they have to talk to each other incessantly, they are comfortable with each other's company. She somehow managed to make it look just like that, though she was a stranger to me then. Near the first bookstall I turned to her and asked a little peevishly,
"Madame, who ARE you that you follow me?"
She smiled and held out her hand then and without thinking I took it in mine. Her fingers were fine and strong and cool.
"Enchante my dear, my friends call me Mademoiselle X," she said and added confidently, "And you are Monsieur March of course. I know you quite well."
I was astonished. A thousand questions arose like a swarm of butterflies in me but all I could say was,
"I am Jacob March and my friends call me Jacob."
I did not at the time ask her how she knew me well given that I had only just met her. Instead she leaned forward clutching firmly yet kindly at my arm and kissed me with cool lips on my face. She gazed into my eyes with her intense green eyes and said warmly,
"You must come and see me. Of course you know where I live, it's not far from you in fact. Come and I will give you cakes and wine and we will sing of wonderful things."
In the same instant as I was about to protest that I did not know where she lived I found that I did. That I always had known in fact. She grinned and laughed,
"Well I have things to do and people to see and you must go back to the books which is a shame. Forget them for once and go to the fashion stalls. You need a new coat after all. Buy two then when one wears out you can wear the other one," she said, kissing me again and leaving.
I was young and I was easily led by my feelings - to be charitable to myself. I turned away from the books and headed to the clothes. She turned away then and left and when I looked back she had gone, lost in the crowd of the market. I bought two long coats - I still have one of them, the dark blue-grey one with steel buttons. I left the market and went back to my rooms. I fell in with a crowd about my own age and we talked about art and literature of all kinds. I wrote articles about art and slowly gathered a bit of money with which I bought some small works of art and lived on vegetarian menus for their cheapness.
It appeared as I talked among friends that many of them knew Mademoiselle X and yet none of us knew anything about her. Somehow it did not matter. We would visit her when we could and she would indeed feed us cakes and wine and there would be music, talk and happiness. I only once saw her unhappy. A young man called Simon whose parents were ardent Catholics had given him a steel crucifix to wear. He, rebelling a little against them had grown used to the crucifix so did not think anything of it. But when he came near her she seemed to become nauseous and ran to her bedroom bidding us all, 'eat, drink and be happy' and that she had a sudden bout of sickness that would doubtless pass. The day after, Simon could not remember her at all and refused to come with us to visit her.
I thought nothing of it then. None of us did. We loved her brightness, airiness and lightness. There was something solid and yet intangible about her. Someone once asked if they might call her Holly Golightly, but she gently refused. She was not, she said, fictional after all. She seemed to mean everything to us, she was the centre of our crowd and we loved her passionately as one loves a goddess rather than an actual woman.
She laughed at the idea, she was no goddess she said, but something more lasting.We did not know quite what she meant, but she turned it into a witticism that I later forgot. Things seemed to come to her as if, like us, attracted by her company. After the fine cutlery came a set of fine Sevres porcelain dinner plates that she insisted on eating off, much to my horror, so they were very beautiful. An art nouveau wardrobe by Guimard, original posters by Mucha, framed in black lacquered frames decorated her rooms. The very apartment was a large elegant affair. And her clothes were the envy of all the women I knew. Clothing by Dior, Balenciaga and later Alexander McQueen seem to come to her without her spending any money at all. Food was given to her by shopkeepers and neighbours and welcomed in with charm and laughter.
Then one afternoon we arrived and she had gone. The door to the apartment was open, but it was empty and she had gone. There was not so much as a note to explain her passing. One minute she was there and then she had gone. I noticed with astonishment the rest of my crowd shaking their heads and wondering why they had come. My remonstrances were looked on in bewilderment, Mademoiselle who, they asked?
I gazed at them in astonishment but they went back down the stairs and into the street as if they had woken from a collective dream and did not know where they were. I entered the apartment and walked around it. There was the faint scent of perfume and in the kitchen a potted plant on the window ledge, vividly green but with no flowers. I took it and went through the cupboards and drawers. In one of the drawers I found one fork left of the cutlery she had been given that first morning I met her. I took that and put it in my jacket pocket as a souvenir. The plant and I left the empty apartment and I never saw her again, but when I eat a meal, I set two places. I fill two wine glasses and I turn the fork with it's tines downward on the cloth in memory of my time with Mademoiselle X.