Monday, July 09, 2012

Persephone's children

The sunlight moved gently on the grey face of the lake,  shivering and glittering in the breath of the breeze which slid off the haze-hidden mountains. The late morning sunshine blinked softly through a cowl of mist but the day had dawned bright enough to ensure that the canvas blinds had already been drawn on the hotel verandah.
A slim, angular woman, crossed the road and stood for a moment, watching the move and crush of people before threading her way carefully through the crisply dressed tables and neatly placed chairs.  Dressed in black, loose trousers, a long black jacket and white silk shirt she did not stand out for long but was quickly swallowed by the distracted embrace of the crowd. Sunday lunch at the Beau Rivage was for her, as it was for many of those around her, a necessary ritual, maintained as much for appearances as for pleasure.
She settled herself at a table near the window, removing her sunglasses as she did so and placing them carefully into her handbag. Many years before she had left an expensive pair of sunglasses in a Zurich coffee shop; it would not happen again.  She was not the sort to make the same mistake twice and regarded sensible habits as the foundation of  an ordered life. As she had also done so many times before, Jennifer then placed her bag securely on the seat beside her and turned toward the mountains, waiting for that moment when they would emerge from the mist.  Always she was moved by them and this day would be no different; there was no reason at all why it should be.
The mountains had been cast with a brave hand in a shade of rich, deep blue and the fine-honed edges of ancient stone bore testament both to substance and a sense of security.  It was this unchanging quality which pleased her most.  She ordered coffee and then sat back to wait, watching as the sparrows hopped soundlessly among the granite-topped tables and cream cane chairs, searching for dropped crumbs. They were ordinary little birds, with no particular talents, except a capacity to adapt to changing circumstances.  They were unremarkable but they endured where perhaps others would not.  She could admire them for that.  Making the most of life, that was what it was about.
The hum of cars passing along the lakefront made its way up the hill and mingled with the steady sound of the fountain which trickled in the garden.  A promise of summer drifted in through the open doors, holding tight to the wings of Spring, and  brought with it the heady tang of crushed pine needles.  She breathed deeply, invigorated  by her recent exercise and excited at the prospect of lunch.  It was a short but refreshing walk down the steep hill from her small and always immaculate flat, to the grand old hotel and one which she enjoyed.
There was no preference for either direction.  The going out, she told herself, had a special quality, not only because of the enjoyment which lay ahead, but also because she savoured that moment of perfection when, freshly dressed and with every hair in place, she closed the door behind her and knew with comforting certainty that she was going forth with all in order.
The returning home stood just as solidly upon its own merits with the steepness of the hill demanding enough exertion to aid the process of digestion without raising too much of a sweat, and yet, at the same time providing an adequate amount of exercise for the day. All in all, Jennifer decided each Sunday, as she double-checked that the door of her apartment in the Jordils Residence was securely locked, this was the best of days.  By the time she had properly settled herself into the plump comfort of the restaurant chair on this particular Sunday, there was no reason to change her mind.
The Jordils Residence had been her home for many years, ever since she  fled England and her husband after discovering he was on the verge of leaving her for another woman.  It had seemed easier and much more discreet simply to leave him before he had the opportunity to leave her.  It provided her with some measure of self-respect, if only because she was then able to say with perfect honesty that she  had done the leaving.
She reminded herself frequently, that while John was generous enough with his first offer of settlement, it was she who had been smart enough to act quickly.  It was important to take full advantage of the initial state of guilt.  Such attacks are only ever of temporary duration and, in many cases, remarkably brief.  It was the practical side of her nature which told her that his feelings of guilt would not last. They were no more than a gut reaction to the dramatic changes which had overturned the structure of his life -- changes brought about by his own actions.  There was little doubt that as John adjusted to his new state, more rational responses would emerge and it was vital that her future be well and truly secured before that point was reached.
This was of course exactly  what did happen but by the time Jennifer felt the first brisk winds of a changed attitude she had already gained for herself enough money to maintain a modest but perfectly adequate lifestyle as far away from England as she could sensibly get.  He  would never  be able to pay her enough to compensate for what she now saw as the wasted years,  but at least the time  she had remaining would be spent in security and modest comfort.
 Choosing to live on the continent had also meant that she was able to avoid the unpleasantries associated with divorce.  Distance provided a barrier between one's self and the source of memories,  not to mention the uncomfortable questioning from family and friends.   All in all, she told herself once more,  moving to Lausanne had been quite the most sensible thing to do.
She had had no desire to see him again but she wrote one quite scathing letter which she felt he deserved and which, surprisingly, made her feel much better than she thought it would.  After that, with the past tidily folded up and posted off she had settled down to life in Switzerland.  Her French was enough to manage but she was not so fluent as to risk the loss of privacy.  This was an important consideration for a woman who had things which she did not even want to remember,  let alone discuss.
There were times though when she did think of him, whether she wanted to or not.  His face would rise before her  --  with its sharp hook of a nose, high round forehead and head abundant with thick, black hair which rose at the crown and fell heavily to the edge of his collar.   It was how she had first seen him that day in the shop and,  while time had thinned the hair and sharpened even more the edge to his nose, it was how she remembered him and the image she found hardest to put from her mind.
It all started with the  Indian statue. She had been visiting Wells to see friends and had taken advantage of the long wait before her  train left to explore a little of the cathedral city. She saw  the antique shop from the  other side of the road and hurried across for a closer look.  It was not that she expected to buy as there was little money to spare.  She had just completed a Fine Arts Degree and was hoping to find work in a London gallery, and for the moment the only money she had came from working part-time in a coffee shop.  It was enough though to look; she had learned early to make the most of what she had and antique shops offered pleasure even when one could not afford to buy. They also offered the possibility of promise and the chance to dream of a treasure to be found; something exotic and wonderful but surprisingly unappreciated  --  and therefore available for a ridiculous price.
The figure of the dancing girl took her eye as she pressed close to the window.  She knew instantly, even through the thick glazed glass that it was reproduction and therefore no unappreciated treasure.  It was hard to say what drew her to it and even now, many years on when she chanced to look at it, standing as it did on a small side table in her bedroom, there was no denying that it was a rather mediocre piece of sculpture.
At the same time though, it  had appealed to her. There was beauty locked within the confines of the ordinary. She reasoned that it was this innate and unexpected quality which had taken her attention.  It was only later that she wondered how beauty could be such an intangible part of something mass-produced and in essence so common-place.  When she first saw it, she merely liked it and had been young enough not to bother about wondering why.
The statue was of bronze, richly carved with short, looped skirts, breasts wrapped in a ribbon band and with the hair tied, curled and dressed at the back with an ornate cap. It  was no more than ten inches high, knees crooked in semi-bow, hands together in front with the fingers pointed outwards and the eyes, long lines drawn from the fine ridge of the nose  almost to  the ears.   It had been exotic, enticing and, as she discovered, relatively inexpensive.
The young man  had emerged from behind a curtain at the rear of the shop as she entered. Smiling broadly, he had taken the statue from the window and placed it in her hands.  It was surprisingly heavy and icy cold to the touch.  It came from India, he told her.   It was a minor goddess, but an important one for it was she who stood by the door to welcome guests.  Her hands were together in the traditional greeting of Namaste and her small smile represented the reserved delight that her hosts would have in the receiving of any guests.  But even if one were to be alone forever, destined never to have a guest, it was still a very pretty piece, he  added.
 There had been no choice but to buy it. He was handsome and charming too, with the air of someone who knew far more of the world than she could yet claim.  He was exotic like the statue, but he was not cold to the touch as she discovered when he reached out to take her hand in an unexpectedly familiar gesture of  farewell.  His  hair  moved as  he talked,  silken-black, and  his dark  eyes teased.  Jennifer did not at  first realise that she had in a very short time lost her heart to this dark-haired stranger.  She thought about him all the way home on the train and had not a moment's hesitation in accepting his offer of dinner when he wrote a few weeks later to say he would be in London on the following Friday.  It began as  easily as that, but the statue  proved to be more enduring than the man.
At first she thought he was Jewish and felt strangely relieved when he told her he was Armenian.  It was not that she had anything against the Jews, but rather that she  remembered her father's words.   He had often warned against the dangers of unsuitable marriages.  While it was unwise to marry out of one's class,  he said, it was foolhardy in the extreme to marry out of one's culture.  Mixing religions was even worse and could only end in disaster.  Most religions, he had instructed her, were cults in essence and those from the non-Western world were amongst the worst as the religious and social  beliefs were so intertwined.  The adherence to a rigid mix of customs, ritual and ceremonies meant  that they could not be  adapted to suit the complexities of mixed marriage.   Each would  consider their religion to be superior and so the marriage would begin and remain a power struggle.  There was no reasoning in such situations; religion would always be beyond  reason.  There was enough struggle in marriage without those sorts of complications.  It was better to keep to one's own kind.
Jennifer had reasoned that since both the Armenian and Anglican churches were Christian the only differences could be cultural.  She found that comforting.  There were in fact too many positive aspects,  even apart from love,  which necessitated  that she do away with  the inconvenience  of doubt.  There was also the question of money.  He had a good income.  Money oiled many things in a relationship.  Something else her parents had taught her.  With a little effort she could make the positive aspects stack very nicely.   Not only did  he have money, but it was secure and could only increase.   He and  his parents owned the antiques business where he worked and over the years had built  it into one of the most respected shops outside London.  There were only the three of them and they seemed always to be in agreement.  His only brother had emigrated to Australia many years before.
It had appeared,  or so  she  thought at  the time, almost perfect.   In later, possibly wiser years,  she would consider the appearance of perfection to be a danger signal.  One's ability to view the  world more clearly, was, she could reflect, something which actually  improved with age.  It was almost  as if  the young  were meant  to be  half-blind; were meant to  make mistakes.   How else could she have believed that his looks and his money were  a sound  basis for  her choice?
It did not  take long for her to begin to see the world through  different   eyes.    The  learning  began almost immediately and it took a mere matter of weeks, sometimes she thought days,  for her to discover that it was the cultural differences which were the most difficult to bridge simply because they were so heavily disguised as habit.  Even money, after a time, could not lubricate the rusted remnants of their marriage.  She had been misled by many things aside from her own dreams.
  The fact that John, while being born in Jerusalem,  had come to England as a small boy had led her to believe that he must be  more English than Armenian.  She suspected at an early stage that his parents might create problems, but believed in the sanctity of their relationship and hoped that it would overcome all difficulties.  What she misjudged, however,  was the power of the unlived dream and what truly shocked her when confronted by it was the energy of inherited hatreds; that bitter legacy which,  when handed down from generation to generation, kept minds and souls in bondage to the past.
John and his parents,  she discovered,  were tied to a country in which they had never lived and were inexorably bound to a  culture which demanded homage because  it was all that remained of a shattered nation.  She had thought that he was hers, but learned soon enough that  he belonged  to his parents, to his  community and mostly to a  dream which lived only in  the minds of  the world's scattered  Armenians.  His country, or rather that country  which he called his, and one which he had  never seen, was strangely enough  a place which he had no wish to see.
Jennifer  wanted,  at least  in the  early days,  to understand the man she had married, had sought to find common ground on which they could work.  She was, at times, at least in  regard to  others if  not  to herself,  capable of great insight and while she was not  a  particularly  intuitive person,  she could travel far in the realms of reason and generally find safe passage. She had set a formidably rational course through the wild and windswept ocean of John's cultural inheritance and,  while it carried her some distance, it  failed,  in the end,  to carry her far enough.
She came to see that there was no place for the real within the framework  of their dream and it was on this that all reason foundered.  It  became painfully clear that John and his parents needed to hold fast to their particular world perspective in order to survive.  It was not mere choice but destiny. They needed to believe in their own unique suffering so that  they could continue to hate the Turks for the genocide which had been carried out against their people in the early years of this century. The hatred gave them a reason for being.  Without it,  they were nothing.
 Hatred gives people the power to survive but, once survival is assured,  it serves little honest purpose... except in a life without meaning,  and then it becomes the meaning, maintains the belief that one has a role to play.   It was within the horror that the Armenians, like so many displaced and abused peoples,  had a sense of their own importance.  It gave them something to claim in the stead of a country.  Their's was no country of rock,  earth and  tree,  but an  eternal landscape of grief and agony.
Like so many before them, and so many to come, John and his family had been seduced by suffering. Agony may dress in torn, foul robes, but she has a winsome smile.  The heel of oppression is cruel,  but it  leaves a vivid impression of life. Suffering as victim can be a heady draught,  for even in the depths of misery one feels special,  singled out and,  as a result,  truly and vitally alive. It is that sense of aliveness which humans crave and will cling to,  no matter the source.  As often as not it is the sheer,  endless ordinariness of life which keeps people chained to their hatreds.   In the arms of rage,  their rightful inheritance,  John’s ancestors, like so many others before them, had felt once again the salty kiss of power. They wrapped themselves in the cloak of victim and stayed warm and safe, calling foul when the chill winds of reason blew and claiming innocence as their own. 
This inheritance they had then handed down to their children;  at first in memories fired with pain and passion and then in stories well fertilised with rage and hate.  Those children when grown had in turn given it to their children and so it had been passed on to John and his brother,  like some sacred relic,  remnant of a rich and glorious past.   It held such power that,  in time,  it came to live its own truth,  to create its own reality and was written into the genetic code to be  inherited by each and every cell so that the capacity for hatred would remain undiminished throughout the generations;  undisturbed by reason and reality.
Jennifer had not been able to share him with that hatred,  nor to share the hatred  with him and so had remained what she had begun... the outsider.  There was not within her the power, nor  perhaps the will, to break  the bloodied bond which held him tied to his parents and the past.  He had been handsome and loving and that helped for a time,  but eventually his  anger had exhausted her,  even though she did not necessarily bear the  brunt of it.   It was sharing him with the anger,  sharing life with the anger, sharing energy with the anger which wore her down.  She removed herself from his passion in order to remain safe and in time he removed himself from her.
"Best forgotten," she murmured quietly to herself as she straightened  the cutlery in  front of her.
 Today  was a special occasion because for once she was not eating alone. She had made one friend in Lausanne, and Monique, with whom she had a  warm but disciplined friendship, agreed from time to time to meet her for lunch.   Jennifer budgeted quite carefully for the regular, if infrequent event.   It always cost more to have lunch with someone else simply because she felt herself less able to be frugal in her ordering of the food.   And there was wine. When she ate alone, she was perfectly happy to drink water, but when lunch became a social occasion, it was expected that one would drink wine.
  Monique at least expected it and her tastes were expensive.  She had a private income and that made her circumstances rather less constrained.  There were times though when Jennifer wished that her friend would either order something cheaper or offer to pay for the wine herself, but it never happened.  Monique always ordered something absolutely excellent, but unfortunately expensive and the bill was always split exactly down the middle.  For Jennifer, the only consolation could be in the drinking of the wine which thankfully helped to numb the sense of irritation which she invariably felt.
Living costs in Switzerland were high and while she had adequate funds they were only enough for moderate living.  Lunch at the hotel was something of an indulgence.  She knew that, but it was also one of the few expensive outings which she allowed herself.  She guarded her privacy and yet at the same time did not want to be seen as unsociable, nor as someone who was living the life of an impoverished hermit.   Lunch on Sunday at the Beau Rivage went some way putting both fears at rest.
She had met Monique one morning while taking a brisk walk along the lake front.  Rather, she saw  her from a distance, resolved to ignore her, failed in her intention and was forced  to participate in a meeting of sorts.   She had seen a figure,  tall, but somewhat askew standing at the water's edge, the right hand  raised  in firm grip upon a walking stick which rose and fell in frenzied waving.
Jennifer had stiffened her resolve as she neared.  She would walk past, re-affirming to herself that she had absolutely no desire to have her morning interrupted and more to the point, not the slightest need to know why this stick of a woman was so outraged.   Compassion and the situation did however combine to overcome her rather flimsy resolution, because as Jennifer had drawn closer, the waving and shaking brought the woman dangerously close to falling and she hurried across the lawn just in time to prevent her from toppling into the lake.
Settling her on a nearby bench,  she had then felt obliged to sit and talk with this seemingly well-bred but somewhat dishevelled creature, all the while acutely aware of the effect that this disruption would  have  on the day's routine.  Surprisingly she soon relaxed and even began to enjoy the  conversation and before farewells were taken each had agreed they should  meet again.  It was only later that evening as she lay  in bed, turning the sods of the day over in her mind, that she realised there was little that would stand as a satisfactory explanation of Monique’s behaviour. What cannot be understood by reason is best dismissed and before too long she  turned toward sleep convinced that most people were a little odd and that some were more odd than most.
When she woke the next morning there had been a strange and troubling sense of something not quite right settled heavily at the back of her eyes.  It was only when she prodded at it for a time that she remembered the events of the day before and found the source of her discomfort. The foundations of a new friendship had been marked out in her life; stark, solid and demanding; they cluttered up space which had previously been open and free.
Jennifer had sighed and turned over in bed, unsuccessfully attempting to find a more comfortable position beneath the badly rumpled sheets.  She was a restless sleeper at the  best of times  and this new commitment  had obviously weighed heavily on her as she slept.  It was not that she did not like having friends,  it was more the making of them which was unnerving.  It was  so important to be  careful in the making  of friends, she had  told herself with a  pang of regret at the hasty promises made the day before.
Friendships should only be established after one had made very, very sure that the other person was suited to one's own situation and  that shared  attitudes and values ensured the relationship  would generate no conflict nor embarrassment. How terrible to make a friend of someone who turned out to be unsuitable and then to be stuck with them forever. They would be a part of one's life whether  one wanted it or not!
Jennifer had shuddered at the thought.   In a way she could not believe that she had acted so rashly.  It  was so unlike her  to agree to meet again on the basis of thirty minutes conversation with a stranger.  In this instance,  it was even worse because this particular stranger did not come into her life through any normal route, but had been found teetering and foaming beside the waters of Lake Geneve.  A sour expression settled into the folds around Jennifer's mouth as  if she had just tasted something very unpalatable indeed.
"How could you have done it?"  she had chided herself with pursed lips, muttering the words into a limp gathering of sheet as if hoping both they and the new friendship would disappear.  As another sigh settled on the air she began to feel  the emergence of the practical,  as opposed to agonising, Jennifer who would take  the situation for what it was and  make the  most of  it.  It was  done.  That  was all there was to  it and anyway, it  might turn out to be a very pleasant  friendship indeed.   Such  thoughts had proved comforting and the lines on her face softened as she embraced this new and rather more comfortable approach to her changed situation.
As fate would have it,  on this occasion anyway,  the friendship did prove to  be a suitable one  with  mutual satisfactions provided for both parties a great majority of the time. Monique was rather older than Jennifer, a comforting fact in itself and  one which no doubt contributed to the pleasant but passive, almost diluted form which their friendship took.  Monique did not talk very much but then she appeared to  conserve much  of her energy for  the important functions of eating, breathing and moving whatever small distance was required of her in the life of a day.
She did not waste time nor precious energy on the asking of questions, neither of herself nor of others.  Her greatest focus  of  concern was her small, silky-haired terrier, Maurice, which invariably accompanied her wherever she went and ate neatly from an ashtray held discreetly by Monique's side after she had completed her own meal.  Maurice was in the main a pleasant natured little dog,  although even his temper was  tested on the days when Monique's  hand was a little less than steady and he could occasionally be heard to growl, decisively but discreetly, as his dinner rocked and shook in front of him.
Jennifer usually attempted, and frequently succeeded, in ignoring such things which she perceived as lapses in taste if not hygiene.  She was in fact more than a little revolted by the European habit of taking dogs into restaurants and found it quite appalling the way they would secretly feed them under the table; tidbits held out for nibbling by the same fingers which would shortly be breaking a bread roll for human  consumption.  Jennifer had to admit to herself once more, a frequent occurrence in  fact, that really the English were rather more civilized than their  European colleagues. It was not that one judged other races, but more that one remained clearly aware of their shortcomings!
She shuddered at the awakened memory of a long forgotten trip to Spain when she had been  forced to share her railway  compartment with three Germans and two enormous Dalmatians.  She was not  a particularly tolerant  person at the best  of times and she was pleased with her  ability to acknowledge this fact while  refusing to do anything to rectify it,  but she had  to admit  to herself with  a little smile  that it  was  a toss-up  between  the Dalmatians and  the Germans as to  which she had found  to be the most unsatisfactory travelling companions.
The Germans were a dour lot,  she determined,  and arrogant into the bargain.   Not only were they tiresome company,  but they seemed to have an inordinately high opinion of themselves and their race.  They took everything  so seriously and themselves more than anything.  Such formality and so many rules about how things should be done as if they possessed the ultimate in ability and knowledge.   It was as if they  really did  believe themselves to be superior as a race!  Ridiculous really when one considered they had been soundly beaten in two wars,  both of their own  making.  If anything, mused  Jennifer, they were slow  learners and while there was  a great deal made of their economic success, she was convinced that far too much had been done to  help them after the  war.  They  could never  have done  it themselves.  She sniffed gently at this thought as if to settle it firmly where it belonged and looked at her watch in order to check the correctness of the time and make an informed judgement as to whether or not Monique was likely to be punctual.
That  Jennifer  herself came  from  a  family which  was strongly rooted in German stock,  on her mother's side, was a recognition   which  she   successfully  kept   consigned  to oblivion.  The  fact that she  had never been to  Germany and had  come no  closer to  establishing a  relationship with  a German than the exchange of a few polite words over the backs of the Dalmatians was also  considered to be incidental.  One did not have to eat a sheep's  eye to know that one would not like it!  No,  Jennifer was quite comfortable  with the depth of her knowledge in this instance and knew that her views sat quite amicably  beside  those  attitudes  which  she  had inherited from  her family  and her  society.
 That  the very traits which she so disliked in  the race as a whole were the same things  she had quietly  detested about her  father, and most  of  his  family  for   that  matter,  was  but  another inconvenient fact which was unlikely to be illuminated in the cruel bright light of understanding.  The recognition that those same traits flourished in her own nature was equally destined to remain yet another unappreciated irony in the rich and paradoxical pattern of life. 
Jennifer would never have considered  herself to be a bigot.  God forbid.  John had been so full of hatred for so many people in general and the Turks in particular that she had purposely pushed herself toward a level of tolerance that would  in other  circumstances neither  have been  sought nor attained.  But no  matter what anyone said, and  she had been wise enough to  say very little, there was  no reasoning with John over the issues.  His parents lived in the past and  they taught him to do the  same thing and so he was never  satisfied with the present.  What  made it doubly aggravating, she told herself, as an old and forgotten twist of rage turned in her stomach, was the fact that it was not even a past which they had lived, but one which they had inherited, and one which they had tried to hand on to her, and even worse, on to her children.
Well,  she had put a stop to that very quickly indeed. It alienated his parents, but she found their company tiresome anyway and did not regret the considerable rift which developed as a result.  She had her own life to live and her children to look after and all this Armenian silliness, she had told them, did no-one any good at all.  If they felt that strongly about it, they should go and live in Armenia, instead of talking about it all the time and making life difficult for other people. As for John, well, she had quite clearly and reasonably pointed out to him that his beliefs were his own and were not to be handed on to the children,  who after all were quite British and better off for it.
She did not altogether mind when her thoughts were interrupted by the appearance, if not actual arrival of Monique; perfectly punctual, of course, which was one of the things Jennifer most liked about  her.  She herself always made a habit of leaving home a little earlier than necessary. One never knew what was in store and she would find it entirely unacceptable to arrive late, especially since it was she who had offered the invitation for lunch.  It was a rule of life that the hostess should always be relaxed and waiting when the guest or guests arrived.  Jennifer had many rules in her life and found great comfort in every single one of them.
She watched intently as Monique shuffled slowly, if elegantly across the terrace with young Maurice trotting nimbly by her side.   She was aided and abetted in this somewhat demanding task by the use of a walking stick; one of many  which she possessed.  It was something  which Monique preferred to regard as a fashion accessory rather than a dire necessity.  She  looked every  bit of her seventy-six years and yet,  while her age was  relatively easy to pick  she was immaculately dressed  and coiffed and a  glowing example of the benefits which taste and money can bestow.
As Monique negotiated her way along the terrace Jennifer was forced to admit to a feeling very close to admiration for the grace and style which her  friend was still able to offer to the  world.  While  Monique had long  ago lost  the battle against wrinkles she  managed  to maintain a certain sheen to her  skin and  a semblance of  vitality which  enabled her to  remain in  the aged  rather  than the  old category.  She wore little makeup; perhaps just a tinted brush to the brows and a breath of colour on the faded cheeks with the crepe-limp lids of her  eyes left bare and unadorned.  A sensible decision, thought Jennifer, who never ceased to be horrified  at the sight of older women blinking blindly at the world through bright blue wrinkles.
Lipstick however was totally acceptable for well-worn lips and really rather necessary if one were to avoid the bloodless look.  Hair required  special attention and Monique was lucky to be blessed with  a good and healthy head of hair which had stood up remarkably well to the  onslaught of time and which now swept back from her high, grand forehead in an incongruous display of something which could almost be called youthful vigour.
Monique was proud of her hair, vain really, Jennifer corrected herself, while regarding  with envious eye the rich and vigorous mane of silver-grey  which rose royally atop the misshapen  figure of  her  friend.  Hair  was  her own  weak point.  For her  it was a daily battle to  bring some sort of order to the lethargic strands which framed her face.  It was a confrontation  in  which  she always  demanded  victory  of sorts, briskly  pulling her hair  back into a  controlled and tidy bun,  but one which  she resented  all the same.   To be challenged  by others  was  always an  irritation  but to  be challenged by her own body was particularly annoying.
Aggravated by  this remembering of her  own inadequacies, an unwanted distraction, Jennifer  turned to concentrate more fully on  a thorough  assessment of Monique's  toilette.  She was dressed in  a pale blue linen slacksuit  and had sensibly chosen a cowl-necked white silk shirt, which swirled gracefully to the chin and decorously hid the once slender neck, now too awfully collapsed into its own drape of skin to be revealed to  the world at large.
Slacksuits were a great boon to elderly women, decided Jennifer, as Monique made her interminable way down the terrace.  While she had more than twenty years to her favour in terms of an age comparison with Monique, she felt  quite firmly that women over sixty should not bare their legs, no matter how well preserved they were. In fact it was because they were often so well preserved that she felt they should be hidden.   It seemed to her to be the most  cruel of jokes to see a  pair of shapely legs and  to follow  them  up past  trim hips,  slim  waist and  a respectable  bosom only  to  be confronted  by the  collapsed remains of an aged face.  It  was a little dishonest to offer an illusion  of youth  to the  world,  when in fact the truth resided quite close by.  It was preferable, surely, to maintain a sense of neutrality... the better to lessen the eventual shock.
Jennifer sighed deeply.  Getting old was quite a trial and not at all what  she had thought it would be.  Except on the very bad days, and there had been far too many of them lately, when she grappled with an assortment of aches and  pains and a general sense of weariness, she always felt remarkably well, and in fact, just the same inside as she had  done at eighteen.  It was a nasty little joke really and she set her  face disapprovingly the first  time it occurred  to her but quickly realised that it  called for  yet another sensible  rule.  She  made a point from then  on of taking a good long  look at herself in the mirror twice a day; once  in the morning and again in the evening just before dinner.  The latter was the more pleasant experience as  she treated  herself to  a comforting  shot of whisky  and  her one  cigarette  of  the  day after  she  had completed what she called her 'dose of reality.'
This reality treatment  had become necessary a few years earlier  when she  realised  to her  horror that  she was entertaining thoughts as to her possible attractiveness to men.   It had been ten  years since she fled England; ten years of peaceful if painful life-rebuilding.  She was quite certain that she was much better off without men and so was doubly horrified by the  direction which her thoughts had taken.
 Even more distasteful was the realisation that there was someone inside her head who felt like a teenager and who was too wilful  to recognise the realities of age - at  least until  reminded.   The mirror  soon  put that  to rights, especially when she  confronted herself naked.  There was something about the removal of one's clothes which forced a return  to perspective.   She  grimaced at  the thought  of seeing herself  naked and was thankful that it  was  only necessary from time to time when she  had to be especially firm with herself.  By the grace of fate, Monique chose this point at which to finally  reach her destination and Jennifer heaved a quite sincere sigh of relief.
Monique, of course,  assessed it as a sigh of irritation at her prolonged if graceful arrival and in other circumstances  it  may well  have been.  A   flicker of satisfaction unfortunately fed itself into her greeting smile as  she  savoured the  thought  of  upsetting Jennifer's  icy reserve,  even for  a mere  moment, but  thankfully, in  this instance anyway, Jennifer was  simply too grateful to notice.  There  was an  unexpected warmth  in her  greeting and  for a brief moment  Monique thought she  may have been  mistaken in her  assumption, then  just as  quickly decided  that it  was irrelevant  and there  were  more than  enough past  accounts remaining  unsettled   to  be  partially  assuaged   by  this incident.  
 Jennifer   and   Monique  had   an   interesting relationship  to say  the least  and while  it may  have been difficult to discern,  each held for the other  what could be called  a  grudging respect.   The  fact  that this  discreet appreciation occasionally blurred  into something dangerously close to affection was assiduously ignored by both of them.
Monique eased herself into the rigorously upholstered bench and allowed herself a decorous sigh of relief.  Maurice was simply delighted to have arrived and scratched vigorously at the fabric  before settling down at Monique's  side with a little bounce of  excitement.  He at least was  at peace with himself and  found little  with which to  take issue  when it came  to the  world at  large.
 Not  so his  companions.  For Jennifer it had been a morning untidily  littered  with generally unpleasant  memories and  for Monique,  yet another battle between  will and  body with the  former putting  up a valiant if exhausting effort to make  a modicum of use of the latter.  Still, she was here and the prospect of a good lunch soon put paid  to any sense of irritation.  She  even had the sense that  Jennifer was keen  to talk.  Perhaps  today there would be fewer of those moments of crisp  silence which were such a feature of Jennifer's social repertoire.
Sometimes Monique  found it very hard  to understand why she had  made a friend  of Jennifer.   Perhaps it was a sense of shame at making  such a spectacle of  herself, that day beside  the lake, then  again, it could simply have been because she was lonely and Jennifer had been so gracious.  But she  had always been lonely and never bothered with the making of  friends.   Acquaintances were enough when company was needed.   But friendships were not really made even though people talked about the importance of making friends,  in most cases they simply  happened  and  this friendship  existed for no other reason than  that one  day their  paths had  crossed  and something  happened  which the  world called  friendship.
 It  was easier  to see  it as something which had created itself rather than  something  purposely made,  if only because Monique had a sense that to  strike up a friendship in  her seventies, when she had spent so much of her life alone, was somewhat odd and even more so because it was with such a formal even cold woman.
She was not  at all sure that she liked Jennifer, but she did respect her,  yes, and perhaps even at  times admire her. That was enough.  She made a more than adequate companion and Monique  never   felt  confined  nor  committed   within  the relationship; the  formality and  reserve of her  friend took care of that.   It was one of the few  things which she liked about the English.   They were very careful about relationships.  One knew exactly where one stood.  If she did not understand why the friendship  existed, she was more than content with the suitability of it.
How have you been, Monique?" asked Jennifer solicitously.  It was a safe question simply because Monique was never well, had never been  well in fact, at least so far as most could  recall.  Now  that she  was old there was  a wealth of material  on which  she could  draw to  provide an. answer to that commonly asked question.  It was a query which enabled the  needs  of each to be admirably met because Jennifer was most secure when  she could sit and listen while others  talked  about themselves  and  Monique,  if she  were called to converse,  enjoyed  no subject  more  than her  own health... or more to the point, her lack of good health.
“It has been a very bad week," replied Monique, shaking her head  with an air of  weary sadness.  "This is  the first day I have been  able to get out of my bed.   The pain was so great I simply could not bear  to put on my corset.  For four days I  was in the bed  and luckily the housekeeper  said she would heat  a little soup for me each lunchtime and  leave a buttered roll and a thermos of  tea by my bed in the evening.  Each morning she would help me to the toilet and then bring a warm cloth  with which  I could  wash my  face and  hands.  I could do nothing, every movement was agony.  Such agony!"
The final word was launched with all the necessary force required to lodge it prominently in Jennifer's mind.  It was accompanied  by  a  quick,  pointed  look from Monique who always had the sense that somehow her friend  was not really listening but rather was receiving the words that she offered and placing them neatly to one side.
In this  she was  closer to the  truth than  she allowed herself  to admit  despite  the fact  that  such a  sorrowful story, in most circumstances, would  hardly fail to touch the hardest of hearts.  Jennifer, however, had been blessed with a heart that was harder than most and she did no more than nod in  acknowledgement before biting briskly into a heavily buttered piece of bread  roll.  There  was nothing more for Monique to do but to send forth a little sigh and turn to the task of breaking her own bread and,  as she did so, to drop a crumb or two to the ever-grateful Maurice, who thankfully had a very soft heart indeed.
Monique had  worn a  prosthetic corset  for much  of her life.  She  had suffered an  assortment of ailments  over the years  which necessitated  operations on  her spine  and while one would have thought that  the ratio of steel to bone would have  rendered her  ramrod stiff by now,  the fact was that the  more steel she gained on the inside,  the more she seemed to crumple  on the outside into a shapelessness which could only be brought to order when encased by  her corset.
What amazed her acquaintances however was the fact that, once corseted, she seemed to gain a terrifying amount of energy and when armed  with her walking stick would set off at a decisive pace, even at times leaving those who were sound in body and limb more than a pace or two behind.  It was only in the past few years that the proportion of pain to incapacity had gained any real relevance and the corset, while still a necessity, no longer seemed able to wreak its miracle of transformation.
 Not that anyone would  suggest for a  moment that Monique made rather more of her disabilities than necessary,  for the surgical assault on her body was all too real, but there  were those who,  over the years,  had begun to suspect that in a way the corset was her armour and the medical treatment a painful but welcomed  crusade.  Whether  the crusade  was for  herself or against herself  it was hard  to say  but there was  no doubt that Monique saw  her illness as an offering to  God and that her unfailing strength and energy came because she  saw her suffering as her salvation.
Such  an attitude  grated noisily  against the  smoothly polished walls of Jennifer's  belief structure.  To her mind, it represented yet  another of  the excesses  of a  Catholic education and therefore she made  a point of never discussing illness with her friend to  any great degree.  Jennifer had a much more practical attitude to suffering in general and God in particular and believed that one should deal with illness if it came and not  allow any  indulgence into  invalidism.
There was no denying that illness was a burden but it was not one which was meant to be shared and neither was it something which should be waved like some spiritual flag, signifying to all and sundry that one had been singled out for suffering and therefore stood more clearly in the sight of God.  It was an offensive notion, a travesty of faith and quite simply nonsensical.  One  could find  far more common sense in the Church of England  than one could in the Church of Rome. Common sense, as she had always been told, was the one vital ingredient for a life well lived and was not surprisingly to be found in abundance in the blood of those who came of English stock.  Her country and her faith were absolute and they held her sure in herself,  even now as she lived the life of a stranger in a foreign land.
There were times though when she pitied Monique and it was not because of her lack of English blood, nor for her misguided theological views.   It was partly the corset,  because Jennifer knew the importance of good health, having nursed her own mother through many sickly years, but more than  that, she felt pity for her friend because she had never had children.
Marriage was incidental and men were very unreliable, but if there were nothing else at all, at the end of a life, one could look to children as a worthwhile offering; a substantial 'something'  which one could claim to have given the world.  It was not that she took such enormous pleasure in her own two children,  but rather that she could see in them tangible evidence of her achievements  as a woman and mother.
She was quietly  proud of what they had become,  although deemed it unnecessary to tell them  so and in her own way she loved them, although  that too was something which was to be accepted as a given,  rather than a stated thing.  If she had a preference it was for her son,  if only because her daughter had  inherited rather more from her ex-husband's gene pool than her own and she found the girl not only wilful, but impossible to understand.  Tom was different ... much more like her own people.  He was open and straight-forward,  not at all moody like Sara.  A difficult, dark and sullen sort of girl,  she was and had been, even as a small child,  her father's daughter without a doubt.

Lunch proved to be a satisfying experience for all concerned including  Maurice, who snored safely through the initial stages,  secure in the knowledge that he would not be forgotten and  that, at some stage,  the tidbits  would become rather more of a reality than the tantalising smell which now played around his nostrils. 
 There was agreement between the two friends that  a  main course by itself was more than adequate on such occasions, although  both were tempted by the fresh shrimp salad offered  as an hors  d'oeuvre.  It was important,  they reasoned with each other in rejecting the temptation,  to eat well as one aged in years, but discretion should be the better part of valour when it came to quantity.  It was also more economical  and there were plenty of the wonderfully crisp bread rolls to be spread lavishly  with German butter should either be left at all unsatisfied.
"The lamb  chops were  very nice,"  Monique said  as she settled  back against  the bench  seat.  "They  remind me  of home. The lamb we had from the Ardennes.  The best of lamb,” she added as something of an afterthought, almost  as if she had suddenly realised there might those who had not yet heard of the wonders of Belgian lamb.
Jennifer did no more than murmur in seeming agreement,  replete as she was with the  meal and the moment.  If she wished to be honest she would have said that tasty as the meat had been,  it was rather too gamey for her liking.  But then that was how the French preferred it ... or the Belgians ... it was all the same.  John  said the difference in flavour came from the grass which the  sheep ate.   He preferred the French lamb with its tang of perfumed grass and had insisted that she buy it.  But then the Armenians had a thing about lamb ...  well, they were obsessive about a great many things and lamb was just one of them.  It was considered to be  something of  a national dish, her mother-in-law had insisted, although  it seemed to Jennifer that since Armenia was made up of not much more than mountains it must have been very stringy lamb indeed which they produced.
Whenever John went away on buying trips however, she indulged herself and bought New Zealand or Australian lamb,  both of which had  a succulence  and  a subtlety  of flavour which  she much preferred.   Not that it  mattered so much these days  because it was all  too expensive regardless from which country it came.  She remembered a time in England when it had been more affordable, but those days were gone. The Commonwealth links  had been strong then and Britain could still draw the best of produce from the remnants of its Empire.   Now it was all  from Europe  and on  those occasions  when she  went back  home,  it  seemed that quality deteriorated relative to the rise in price.  But then few things seemed as they had been when she returned home and for that reason her trips  had become increasingly infrequent and something to be regarded more  as duty than desire.  The only good thing about going home was seeing Tom.
The heady aroma of  freshly brewed espresso preceded the waiter and ultimately  found its way onto the  table in front of them.  Both stirred their  cup although neither took sugar and each slowly broke open the small packaged chocolate which came with  the coffee.  This was  the best of times.   A good cup of coffee, a full stomach, no great need to speak and the sound of Maurice in slow, satisfied chew by Monique's side. It was for moments like this that  they came together more than anything.  To eat alone in private was a necessity, but to eat alone in public made one feel even lonelier.   If it could be shared,  it was better.  To eat out when one could, gave a savour and a set to life which could be remembered and re-lived.  To have food set before one was always a delight and, even though the content might be known,  there was inevitably a surprise to be had in the presentation and the accompaniments.
  One of the worst things about living alone and cooking for oneself was that there were no surprises to be had, neither in the process nor in the finished product.  Without the element of surprise there was a sameness and a dullness to the meal and the day.   Neither woman was a particularly good cook and therefore eating out from time to time became something of an imperative.  That they gained both a good meal with its fair share of small surprises and a sense of being a part of something greater than the smallness of their individual lives was undoubted.
The coins counted on both sides and the bill paid with only the smallest of tips offered,  they made their way through the noise and movement of the lunchtime crowd, registering its passing only as they reached the street corner.   It  was here  as  they  faced  each other  for the required kiss upon each cheek that Monique spoke,  as if suddenly remembering something which needed to be said before they parted: "You know that day at the lake, when we met? You must have thought me strange.  But I would  like to tell you why. We have become  friends and  it is  good that  you know."
 “Do not feel that you must tell me,"  interrupted Jennifer,  who was not at all sure that she wished  her relationship  with Monique  to progress  to such  a level  of intimacy.
"No, no!   It is  better to  say.  It  will just  take a moment.  It was on that day I heard a friend of mine had died in India.  I  had not expected it.   So sudden.   I was raging you see,  raging at God.  It was so unfair,  her death. It made me feel so useless,  as if my life were wasted.  It was for her I suffered, you see.  It was because of her that I could say my life was not a failure  --  that it had purpose.  She was a nun in Calcutta and I prayed for her every night.   I offered  my suffering for her strength,  my pain for her health.  It was my bargain with God.  She knew that as long as the suffering was in me,  then she would have the strength to go on.  And now she is gone and for me there is no  purpose ... no reason  ... my life is  as nothing ..." Her words had slowed, faltering even more as she reached into her bag  for a  handkerchief,  stopping as she dabbed at the corner of each eye.
“I'm sorry,"  said Jennifer, in a voice which was rich rather more with embarrassment than sympathy.   If she could have shuffled then she would have,  but she knew that it was not yet the moment to signify her leavetaking. She recognised the need for consideration and offered her friend a sincere if restrained pat,  which in outcome, resembled more of a brisk tapping on one bony arm.
"I am fine.  I am fine," said Monique,  snuffling back the last of her barely born tears.  "I have done my grieving. There is no more to do.  Now my suffering is mine alone.  I can ask no more of God, but I wanted you to know   --   so that you would not think me strange."
“Of course I do not think you strange,"  replied Jennifer, wishing the conversation was at an end. "All perfectly understandable.  Very important to get things out of our system.  You must have loved your friend very much.  I can understand that." She did not in fact understand it at all and neither did she believe  in much that she was saying,  but she did appreciate the need to sound sympathetic in such circumstances and to that end she could respond admirably.
“Goodness, I must be going," added Jennifer, glancing at her watch with a frown.  "I had not realised it was so late.  Now, you must promise me to take care of yourself.   I had meant to tell you at lunch that I will be away for a time.  I must go  to England.  I have  received a letter from  my son. There are some family matters, but I will be in touch as soon as I return."
Farewells said, neither looked back as they set off in the direction of their respective homes; Jennifer  in brisk stride up  the hill and Monique  in a slow shuffle  along the main street, with Maurice pulling out at the front in a burst of energy  which could  only have  come from  being well-fed, well-rested and significantly younger than his mistress.
It took but a brief time for Jennifer's speedy pace to slow, weighed down as she was by thoughts of both her forthcoming visit and  the substantiality of lunch.   She blamed the French lamb.  It was easier to blame the lamb and yet she knew,  even as she did it, that the creature was probably innocent.   It was more likely the letter.   It irritated her even to think about it.  There were problems with John.   The message from Tom sounded urgent.  She couldn't see what it had to do with her.  She had left all that behind long ago and now,  Tom was asking her to come over and help with his father. She would go but she wasn’t happy about it. It was only for Tom’s sake that she had agreed to go. If her son needed her,  then there could be no question of not going.
Something settled into the pit of her stomach with a depressing sense of permanence.  Whenever she made plans to visit England, for whatever reason, she would feel unsettled and a little sick.  It was as if she were leaving the safety of her small home for some strange adventure from which she might not return.   There was always that problem of leaving with which she had to grapple.
 Even as a child it had been the same, especially when her  mother went on one of her many trips to the hospital and she was sent away to stay with her grandmother, a prim and waspish woman, who was neither kind nor welcoming  and who was always happier to see her leave than arrive.  Now,  as an adult,  there was still a sense that having left what was known, she would never be able to find it again;  that walking away from the security of her life and her home would leave her both homeless and helpless.


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