“I’m sorry,” Helena says. “The Metro…”
“Bien. Come in.”
Helena didn’t admit to standing outside the house, nerves jangling, pacing up and down, trying to summon the courage to press on the bell.
She looks around the house. It’s clean, well-kept, neutral colours, open spaces. This is the expensive side of Paris, far away from the cheap hotel she’s booked. The woman leads her into what looks like a living room – pictures of Jean in frames all around the room: on top of the grand piano, the walnut cabinet containing what looks like expensive antique crockery and glassware, hung on the wall. Helena can’t see them well enough to know, but they look like holiday snaps mixed with publicity photos and even newspaper articles.
“Sit down,” the woman says. “There’s a lot of pictures, don’t you think?”
Helena nods, gulps a little and walks over to one of the leather sofas. She sits down, carefully, displacing a sorry looking grey cushion.
“That cushion was Louisa’s favourite,” the woman says idly. Helena looks at it again. There’s nothing special about it. It looks old, worn out.
Unlike her hostess, she thinks. This must be Jean’s wife, Françoise, she thinks. Eight, perhaps, maybe late seventies, but looks fiftyish.
“I don’t smoke,” Françoise says, sitting on a dark green Chesterfield sofa, tucking one leg underneath her and placing a manicured hand on the arm rest at the left. “But if you want, I’ll get you an ashtray.”
“Thank you, no,” Helena shakes her head, smiling gingerly. “And thank you for seeing me.”
Françoise waves a hand, dismissing the comment. “You’re welcome.”
An uncomfortable pause, just for a beat. Françoise takes in this girl. Seventeen, maybe eighteen, and travelled a long way just to ask about a man who died twenty years ago. Inwardly, she sighs. There’s so many of them, so many things they always want to know.
“It means a lot to me,” Helena says. “His music, I mean.”
Françoise waves a hand around. “He wrote most of it in here. Quite a lot on the sofa you’re sitting on.”
Helena looks down at the sofa, as if seeing it for the first time.
“It was never a family room,” she continues. “Not until after he died. It was his work room. But the light was good, and he had some of the newspaper cuttings on the wall, so I moved things into here after he died. It felt like a way to be closer to him.”
She has the tired sound of answers repeated again and again, the sharp edges worn off the words until they stop hurting. The bleeding may have stopped, but the scars are still there.
Françoise stands up, takes a picture from the piano and hands it to her guest. Helena takes it carefully, trying but not succeeding to avoid putting fingermarks on the silver frame. She looks at the picture – Jean with his guitar, surrounded by sheet music paper, and pages of lyrics, pencil tucked behind one ear. It’s a good picture.
“Which song is he writing here?” she asks.
Françoise shrugs. “Paris Match printed it, and they said it was ‘How The Moon Sings’. Perhaps that was even true.”
“If you have a magnifying glass,” Helena says, lifting her glasses and squinting to read the handwriting on one of the papers.
Françoise laughs. “The papers will be in my handwriting, the music paper is in his.”
Helena looks up, puzzled.
“I translated all his songs,” she continues. “I went to school in New York when my father was posted to the embassy there.”
“Your father was a diplomat? I thought you were born in Sudan?”
She nods. “He was, but Sudan was before my time. My father was posted there briefly, but by then I was a year old. I was actually born in Gaborone, in Botswana.”
“Is it nice?” Helena tips her head on one side, interested. “Botswana?”
Françoise shrugs. “I don’t know. I don’t remember and I’ve never been back.”
Helena nods and looks back at the photo, her fingers gently caressing the frame.
“I was standing took that picture,” she says. “Do you like it?”
Helena nodded. “I’ve seen reproductions of it online, but never the original. I didn’t know it was supposed to be ‘How The Moon Sings’, though. That’s my favourite.”
“I never really cared for the romantic stuff, myself,” Françoise says. “Too slow. I like the faster stuff. I always have.”
Helena looks up.
“But then he never wrote any of that for me. None of the love songs. They were always for Louisa.”
The favourite cushion again. “Louisa? Is she your daughter?”
Françoise laughs, perhaps cynically; one of those ambiguous laughs that is hard to read. “She was the love of his life.”
“I thought you…?”
She shakes her head. “I was only his wife.”
Helena sits still, feeling numb. She’s never heard even a rumour of this. She looks up.
Françoise looks back at her, as though enjoying Helena’s discomfort.
“Tell me about her,” Helena says. She wants to know. That’s why she came. Now she wants to know it all, the bad and the good.
Françoise laughs briefly, disdainfully. Helena sits, waiting. Eventually, Françoise continues.
“We found her one night, roaming the streets out here. She was cold and hungry, we took her in… she never left.”
Homeless, Helena thinks. An act of charity, taking in a homeless woman, and it turned into… what, exactly?
“He loved her from the first,” Françoise continues. “Cooed over her. She responded. Slept with us that first night, and every night from then on.”
Helena begins wondering – what was their relationship? What did this woman look like? Suddenly, there was a third person in their marriage. It surprises her how calm Françoise was being; she can’t imagine herself being calm if she were in her place.
“Didn’t you feel jealous?” Helena asks.
She shrugs. “What was there to be jealous about?”
Incredulous, Helena says “She slept with you both. He wrote all his love songs… for her.”
Françoise closes her eyes, shakes her head. “I loved her too, you know. Like she was my daughter.”
Helena’s grim demeanour clouds further.
The hostess stands up, walks over to the cabinet in the corner, and retrieves another photograph. This one is not in a silver frame, but a wooden one – perhaps to match the furniture it sits on.
“This is her,” she says, and hands the picture over to Helena.
She takes the picture and looks at it, for once ignoring Jean, sitting there, singing, with a cat on his knee. There are two woman standing him, and she recognises one as Françoise. The other woman is maybe the same age, the same sort of hair style. She’s less different from her hostess than she expected. She points at her and looks up.
“This is Louisa?” she asks.
Françoise laughs. “That’s my sister.”
Helena looks again at the picture, and back to Françoise. “Then I don’t understand.”
Françoise laughs again, a full belly laugh, and perches on the side of the green sofa.
“Really,” she says. “Look again.”
“There’s nobody in the picture,” Helena says. “Just, you, and Jean, and your sister and a cat.”
Françoise shakes her head, tears starting to form in her eyes.
“You’re looking at her,” she manages to squeak between laughs. “And you’re not seeing her. The cat. Louisa is the cat.”
Understanding dawning, Helena begins to laugh too.
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