by James Harrison
He ran his finger along the porcelain curve of her neck, and felt the hairs on his own rise in response. It was inconceivable to him that he had only met this girl, this apparition, a mere 24 hours ago but that was the truth; as immutable, as undeniable as the stucco-fronted permanence of l’Hotel du Gare in whose well appointed room – no 65 – they now lay.
The day before had started innocuously enough; a coffee at the drab little cafe on Rue Lafayette followed by the familiar walk down rue du Monmartre, and rue du Louvre, towards the Seine. A funereal but tall man, le Compte, somewhat paradoxically, was rarely remarked upon by his fellow denizens and it was therefore to his considerable surprise when a young woman stood in his path and addressed him with a shy “can you help me Monsieur”.
Help was exactly what he needed now. His father, by nature pedagogic and always sinuously suggestive in his use of language, had warned him of “interactions” often. “The past is inescapable Charles” he would whisper coldly, “our bloodline undeniable”. All of which had left le Compte with a curious mixture of deep mistrust, curiosity and, unavoidably, a degree of contempt for those who typically entered into his sphere of consciousness. However this was an encounter he was unable to avoid, and furthermore felt compelled not to.
He glanced down at her. A jagged star burst decorated her arm from elbow to cuff; nearby a bicycle lay, in distress. “You’re hurt” he said reluctantly and, with a surprising deftness he unbuttoned her cuff and then rolled up her sleeve to reveal the shallow graze beneath. Her blood displayed a shocking array of colours, which momentarily transfixed him: dark, dark red-black where it had clotted; puce where it still prickled to the surface; and a pinkish, weeping transparency at the edge of the injury. Her face was a patchwork: surprise at his cold gentleness, shock of the pain and also, bizarrely, a sliver of attraction.
“This will need cleaning” and with that he pulled her across the road, towards the Eglise du Eustache in whose shadows, overlooking the graveyard, lay an unremarkable restaurant already open in preparation for lunch service.
Le Compte shuddered out of this reverie; dust motes rose into a thin sliver of sunlight as with surprising violence he pulled back the thick, and to le Compte’s taste, disgusting ornate curtains from the unshuttered windows. Outside a winter storm chased Parisian detritus down the street. There was a soft stirring behind him but turning back towards the room he noticed she lay motionless, inert. He stumbled toward the bathroom hot nausea rising up from his stomach: brandy never agreed with him.
The patron had been insistent: “A brandy for Mademoiselle” he proffered, although there were 2 brandy glasses in his hands. She accepted first and out of awkwardness le Compte followed suit. The brandy enveloped him in a warm glow and contemporaneously, he saw her experiencing the same sensation, her face flushing and the warmth spreading into a delta of lattice-like veins and capillaries on her neck.
“Another”, the glasses were refilled. The patron, with a familiarity uncomfortable to le Compte, gave him a knowing grin and squeezed his shoulder as he brought a bowl and cloth necessary for le Compte to complete his foreign and reluctant duty of care.
Soon, however, le Compte realised he was intoxicated. Drunk on proximity to her, drunk on brandy, and somehow drunk on a recklessness he had only rarely experienced before.
The patron smiled, poured, smiled and poured. Morning turned into afternoon, afternoon into evening and the restaurant, almost imperceptibly at first but with gathering pace took on a new, darker hue: the weak November Parisian sunshine could not penetrate the interior more than a metre, so candles, necessarily, were lit for most of the day. On a shelf behind the bar a lurid tableau of stuffed animals leered: a fox with a rictus grin, crouching below a weasel, canines beared. The fox winked; le Compte’s head became blurred. The Patron pulled a red velvet curtain across the doorway, “No need for the Priest to see, eh Monsieur?!”.
Images carouselled through le Compte’s consciousness: a gilded mask; a painted face; rotting fruit in a bowl; claret diffusing through a white tablecloth; an overturned table; the arched vaults of some kind of underground club; her blouse, now unbuttoned on both sleeves. Savagely and suddenly a desire for her tore into his gut.
Darkness, night, the thud thud thud of a heart beat. A greedy, desperate thirst, a soft, silken struggle and finally nothing more, a vacancy, an ending…
Gripping the sides of the sink, le Compte retched. A thin line of blood-saliva spanned his open mouth for a moment before falling into the porcelain curve of the sink. With a shudder he remembered. He remembered her, he remembered his father and he remembered his fate. As he left the hotel via the service entrance he buttoned his coat against the mid morning chill and once more slid, unnoticed, into the body corporeal of Paris.
He knew the gendarmes would be called in an hour or so by a terrified chambermaid; he knew he would never have the crack of police batons on his door; he knew it would happen again; he knew his father was right: he would never escape.