a view of the sea

There’s a three-quarter length, black and white portrait of Madeleine on the shelf behind her: a young woman in her early twenties, I’d guess, in a French beret and raincoat, sitting in the driving seat of an open-topped sports car. She’s resting her left elbow on the door, right hand on the steering wheel, staring at the camera in a wry and open-faced way, as if she knows – and the photographer knows – that any moment now she’ll be tearing off that beret, throwing it aside and racing off down the road in a scattering of gravel.
Seventy years have past, and much has changed, but Madeleine is looking at me with exactly the same expression.
‘I suppose you’ve come to jab me again,’ she says.
‘I’m afraid so.’
‘Let’s get on with it, then.’
She watches me whilst I fill in the Tinzaparin chart and check the syringe.
‘Married?’ she says.
‘I am, yes. Eighteen years.’
‘Marvelous,’ she says. ‘I was married twice, you know.’
‘Really?’
‘Both times for exactly thirty years. To the day.’
‘That’s – consistent.’
‘My first husband was alright, I suppose, but I think essentially we just didn’t mesh.’
‘Thirty years. That’s a long time not to mesh.’
‘One put up with these things. Unlike today, of course. Today it’s like cancelling the papers. George was terribly romantic to begin with, but that petered out and in the end we were more like brother and sister. Until he went bankrupt, and started to drink an awful lot more, and then life became rather sticky.’
‘In what way?’
‘He became bitter about everything. The fact we never had children. The constant moving about. He didn’t like what I had, you see, which is a very strong sense of self. I think he was really rather threatened by that, and I’m afraid he became something of a bully. He hit me, you know.’
‘I’m sorry to hear that.’
‘’The first time I said to him George. You do that once more and I’ll be off. And although he did make an effort to change his ways for a week or two, the writing was on the wall in jolly big letters. He hit me again. Hard, across the face. So hard in fact that I fell backwards into a rose bush. Scratched my stockings and my legs. I was in a frightful state. Anyway, I picked myself up with as much dignity as I could muster, walked myself back into the house, packed a suitcase, and I left him, and I never went back. And there! That was the first thirty years.’
‘So then what happened?’
‘I thought that was that, of course. I was off men for good. But actually what I was off was marriage. And I started to have quite a nice time of it. No responsibilities. I like to think of that time as my golden period. Then I met Pierre. Lovely, sad Pierre. French, y’know. From Paris. I told him I didn’t want anything serious, but he kept on and on in that terribly sad and attractive way he had, and eventually I said Look. We can live together if you like. But that’s as far as I’m prepared to go. So that’s what we did. We lived together for a year or so, and then I thought, well – what the hell? Why not? And we were married, and everything changed again. You see I’d been worried I’d end up with someone like my first husband. What I wanted was someone who was so unlike me there wouldn’t be any clashes. And Pierre and I were certainly different. He was from a terribly poor background, you see. During the war he’d lived out in the mountains, with the resistance. They didn’t even have any shoes, and had to tie newspaper round their feet, creeping into the valley at night to scavenge whatever they could, and lay traps for the Germans. He was captured, I’m afraid, and ended up in a concentration camp. And that was a frightful business. I’m certain it was the source of all his sadness’
‘It’s hard to imagine how awful it must have been for him.’
‘Pierre didn’t ever talk to me about it, though, and I think in the end that was the problem. One day he came home, and instead of walking through to give me a kiss, he went into the bathroom and locked the door. Well I knew straightaway something was wrong, because we didn’t ever lock the door if it was just the two of us. So after a while I went to the bathroom and knocked. He wouldn’t answer, but I kept on and in the end he told me to go away. I did – for as long as I could bear. Then I went back to the bathroom and I knocked again. Pierre? I said. What on earth’s the matter? And he didn’t answer, and he didn’t answer… so I just kept knocking, and I said if he didn’t let me in I’d break the door down. Which sounds pretty hot stuff but it was only a token kind of lock. So that’s what I did. I pushed the door in, and there he was, sitting on the toilet, his head resting against the wall, looking into space. You’re scaring me I said. What’s wrong? But he couldn’t or wouldn’t say, so I called the ambulance. They took him away, and he died three days later.’
‘That’s awful! Do you know what the problem was?’
Madeleine slowly gathers her blouse an inch so I can inject her in the abdomen.
‘They were never terribly specific and I was too upset to inquire. Men’s trouble, something of that nature,’ she says, flinching as the needle goes in. ‘So there we are. That was the end of it. Thirty years to the day. And now here I am, an old woman being jabbed in the tummy, wondering what on earth all the fuss was about.’
She lowers her blouse and settles herself in the chair again.
‘But there are always compensations,’ she says.
‘I suppose,’ I say, posting the used syringe into the sharps bin and peeling off my blue gloves. ‘That’s a very balanced way of looking at it. What sort of compensations?’
‘Well – in my case, a simply marvellous view of the sea!’

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