So I found the poem to the unknown woman in Avignon. It was August 1987. Memory is not an exact time until you find the evidence. A bit like emotions. I’m quite struck by the last two lines, because I have never stopped telling the story. And this morning my mind is more like – she probably left it on the table, or took it home and ripped it up. Who knows? Who cares? It’s a good story, regardless. Excuse any mistakes in the French. This was the 27-year-old boy whose second fiancee had just split up with him.
Strange and illuminating to see I addressed her in the polite form, vous instead of tu. I have always been backward in coming forward. I even had to add a sex scene to Dead Men because my publisher thought the love was lacking without the consummation.
Ironic that her poem was written on the half of the menu with the main courses on it, and I scribbled my copy onto the dessert half. Note, though, that the poem was written with a fountain pen. I travelled round Europe with a fountain pen?
Would you accept a poem from this man?
Excuse this reflection, but for me, it does point at my roots, the emotion and impulses (and most of them good, surprisingly) that have always driven my writing. Perhaps this is why there hasn’t been a bestseller, because I allow myself to be driven rather than calculate.
On this grey and rainy morning, these are good memories to be having, memories of that hot summer in Europe in 1987, when my best friends, as always, GT, MW, and GA, carried me and my broken heart around France and Italy carefully, and nurtured me back into some kind of health.
Memories of friendship, cigarettes, and coffee.
AGGIE’S ART OF HAPPINESS – CHAPTER 83
‘The Scarlet Pimpernel?’ Aggie says. Has to hold on to the piano to stay upright. A hurricane of memories and visions. Holding that book in her hand, one of the few pieces of fiction she’d been allowed to read. Turning the yellowing pages, glancing up from it at the chessboard waiting for the mentor to appear, unbidden, out of the shadows, out of any one of the doors hidden in the wood panelling, the wide window behind her and the greenery of the garden, freedom so close and yet so far away, the electrified fence somewhere beyond the trees. Reading about some mad English aristocrat saving undeserving French aristos from the revolution. Danton. Robespierre. Idealism misguided. She gasps.
‘Her favourite,’ Robert says, hasn’t even noticed that she’d disappeared into another hole in her time. ‘But she changed it, you see. In her head. She wouldn’t be saving aristos, she’d be leading them to the guillotine whilst pretending to save them. And she changed the Frenchies in the original to whoever she thought were our enemies at the time. At one point she even changed it to Valentine.’
‘Before she married him,’ Aggie says, her breath now recovered, and soft and slow and deep again.
‘Oh yes,’ he says. ‘Before she married him, before she left me, before … before all this.’ His gesture encompasses so much pain and regret and unhappiness that Aggie wants to go to him and hug him. But she can’t. She may not be able to kill, she may not want to kill, but she has forgotten the gestures of compassion, if she ever had them.
‘That’s why I don’t understand this.’ He waves the paper in the air. ‘And how it got into the Minster. Some trickery, surely.’
‘How much do you really believe that whatever those cameras have shown is the work of the Devil?’
‘I believe it absolutely,’ he says, and looks at her, a look so straight and hard she feels it bore right through her, and seek out the part of herself she has always kept hidden.
‘It’s an impossibility,’ she says.
‘So what did you see, in that blackness?’ he says.
‘My eyes adjusted.’ She hears the click of the change in her vision. ‘But everything was very grainy. A familiar shape and a scent. And when I went to touch the shape my hands went straight through it, when I dived for it, it had gone. And the next thing, you’ve lit a candle, and the box is on the floor next to me.’
Robert shakes his head, gets up, the paper still in his hand. ‘There is no explanation except for the supernatural.’
‘Your religion is all about that, isn’t it?’ She keeps her voice passive, neutral.
‘Isn’t all faith?’ he says. ‘I should burn this.’ He puts his hand into his pocket and pulls out his matches.
‘Wait, wait,’ Aggie says. ‘Have you got any candles in here?’
‘In the other room, by the fire.’
She bounds across the hall into the living room, snatches one of the candles, and is back before he manages to complete his next breath. ‘Light the candle.’
He puts the candle onto the top of the piano, strikes a match, lights the candle.
‘Now use the old pretend spy trick, so simple no-one uses it any more.’
‘That’s ridiculous,’ he says, and starts to pass the paper back and forth over the candle’s flame, far enough away not to catch fir, close enough to absorb the warmth.
Hand-written black script appears below the short verse.
‘What does it say?’ Aggie says.