‘Marvellous!’ He shook his head, as if he were still having trouble registering my presence. ‘Marvellous. Come in, come in. Let me find you somewhere to sit.’
He seemed bigger, his body clearly visible through the fine fabric of his shirt. I stood clutching my bag awkwardly as he began clearing piles of newspapers from an old chaise longue until there was a space.
‘Please, sit. Would you like a drink?’
‘Just some water, thank you.’
I had not felt uncomfortable on the way there, despite the precariousness of my position. I hadn’t minded the dinginess of the area, the strange studio. But now I felt slighted, and a little foolish, and this made me stiff and awkward. ‘You were not expecting me, Monsieur.’
‘Forgive me. I simply didn’t believe you would come. But I’m very glad you did. Very glad.’ He stepped back and looked at me.
I could feel his eyes running over my cheekbones, my neck, my hair. I sat before him as rigid as a starched collar. He gave off a slightly unwashed scent. It was not unpleasant, but almost overpowering in the circumstances.
‘Are you sure you wouldn’t like a glass of wine? Something to relax you a little?’
‘No, thank you. I’d just like to get on. I … I can only spare an hour.’ Where had that come from? I think half of me already wanted to leave.
He tried to position me, to get me to put down my bag, to lean a little against the arm of the chaise longue. But I couldn’t. I felt humiliated without being able to say why. And as Monsieur Lefèvre worked, glancing to and from his easel, barely speaking, it slowly dawned on me that I did not feel admired and important, as I had secretly thought I might, but as if he saw straight through me. I had, it seemed, become a thing, a subject, of no more significance than the green bottle or the apples in the still-life canvas by the door.
It was evident that he didn’t like it either. As the hour wore on, he seemed more and more dismayed, emitting little sounds of frustration. I sat as still as a statue, afraid that I was doing something wrong, but finally he said, ‘Mademoiselle, let’s finish. I’m not sure the charcoal gods are with me today.’
I straightened with some relief, twisting my neck on my shoulders. ‘May I see?’
The girl in the picture was me, all right, but I winced. She appeared as lifeless as a porcelain doll. She bore an expression of grim fortitude and the stiff-backed primness of a maiden aunt. I tried not to show how crushed I felt. ‘I suspect I am not the model you hoped for.’
‘No. It’s not you, Mademoiselle.’ He shrugged. ‘I am … I am frustrated with myself.’
‘I could come again on Sunday, if you liked.’ I don’t know why I said it. It wasn’t as if I had enjoyed the experience.
He smiled at me then. He had the kindest eyes. ‘That would be … very generous. I’m sure I’ll be able to do you justice on another occasion.’
But Sunday was no better. I tried, I really did. I lay with my arm across the chaise longue, my body twisted like the reclining Aphrodite he showed me in a book, my skirt gathered in folds over my legs. I tried to relax and let my expression soften, but in that position my corset bit into my waist and a strand of hair kept slipping out of its pin so that the temptation to reach for it was almost overwhelming. It was a long and arduous couple of hours. Even before I saw the picture, I knew from Monsieur Lefèvre’s face that he was, once again, disappointed.
This is me? I thought, staring at the grim-faced girl who was less Venus than a sour housekeeper checking the surfaces of her soft furnishings for dust.
This time I think he even felt sorry for me. I suspect I was the plainest model he had ever had. ‘It is not you, Mademoiselle,’ he insisted. ‘Sometimes … it takes a while to get the true essence of a person.’
But that was the thing that upset me most. I was afraid he had already got it.
It was Bastille Day when I saw him again. I was making my way through the packed streets of the Latin Quarter, passing under the huge red, white and blue flags and fragrant wreaths that hung from the windows, weaving in and out of the crowds that stood to watch the soldiers marching past, their rifles cocked over their shoulders.
The whole of Paris was celebrating. I am usually content with my own company, but that day I was restless, oddly lonely. When I reached the Panthéon I stopped: before me rue Soufflot had become a whirling mass of bodies, its normally grey length now packed with people dancing, the women in their long skirts and broad-brimmed hats, the band outside the Café Léon. They moved in graceful circles, stood at the edge of the pavement observing each other and chatting, as if the street were a ballroom.
And then there he was, sitting in the middle of it all, a brightly coloured scarf around his neck. Mistinguett, her associates hovering around her, rested a hand possessively on his shoulder as she said something that made him roar with laughter.
I stared at them in astonishment. And then, perhaps compelled by the intensity of my gaze, he looked round and saw me. I ducked swiftly into a doorway and set off in the opposite direction, my cheeks flaming. I dived in and out of the dancing couples, my clogs clattering on the cobbles. But within seconds his voice was booming behind me.
I could not ignore him. I turned. He looked for a moment as if he were about to embrace me, but something in my demeanour must have stopped him. Instead he touched my arm lightly, and motioned me towards the throng of people. ‘How wonderful to bump into you,’ he said. I began to make my excuses, stumbling over my words, but he held up a great hand. ‘Come, Mademoiselle, it is a public holiday. Even the most diligent must enjoy themselves occasionally.’
Around us the flags fluttered in the late-afternoon breeze. I could hear them flapping, like the erratic pounding of my heart. I struggled to think of a polite way to extricate myself, but he broke in again.
‘I realize, Mademoiselle, that shamefully, despite our acquaintance, I do not know your name.’
‘Bessette,’ I said. ‘Sophie Bessette.’
‘Then please allow me to buy you a drink, Mademoiselle Bessette.’
I shook my head. I felt sick, as if in the mere act of coming here I had given away too much of myself. I glanced behind him to where Mistinguett was still standing amid her group of friends.
‘Shall we?’ He held out his arm.
And at that moment the great Mistinguett looked straight at me.
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