Monday, 14 February 2011
Yvette's Short Story Challenge : THE LADY IN PINK
Today's the day for posting stories for Yvette's Fiction Challenge.
This was based on the discovery in France of an apartment that had been sealed up for over 50 years, the rent paid meticulously and anonymously until late in 2010. When eventually opened, the apartment held all sorts of weird and elcelctic items including the portrait of a woman in a pink dress. Read the original news story here.
So, Yvette picked up this story and ran with it, inviting others to contribute a story based on the curious apartment. For my version of events, I have decided to write in the form of a letter! Here you go:
THE LADY IN PINK
A death in the family often brings with it a sad regret for questions never asked or answered. It would be just so in my case, or so I thought. My Grandmother’s passing, two days ago, was the beginning of unravelling a mystery that had flitted about on the edge of family gatherings for as long as I can remember. So often a look or a whisper or a sudden change of conversation meant the moment was lost and once again I was left to quiet and solitary speculation.
However, Grandmother’s letter which was found on the table beside her bed that morning, addressed specifically to me, has shed light on the most audacious mystery. Even re-reading it now, it seems I can hear her conspiratorial laugh……
Le Beausset, le 14 mai 2010
I have been meaning to write this letter for some time. In fact, I have started it on so many occasions but now seems the right time to set to and complete the task, lest my faculties should fail me and this great mystery be forever lost.
Of course, you know what I mean by the ‘great mystery’ – it has been the subject of much speculation on your part for many years, even though my silence has numbed you, latterly, into refraining from asking any more.
Well, I shall tell you what your heart desires and then you must decide whether it must be brought out into the open or, perhaps, remain a mystery forever. To you I pass the baton of responsibility, for I am weary, yet I cannot go to my grave and hear your echoing questions in my ears for all eternity.
The enclosed letters and notes I entrust to you; they will explain much more eloquently than I can tell, for this is not a simple story and my eyesight and the strength to hold this pen will determine whether or not this will be but a brief note!
The mystery, as you so rightly guessed, lies back in Paris. The notes will give you a precise location, an apartment in the Rue de Victoire. As sole beneficiary of my estates you need to understand that there lies my greatest treasure.
You will remember, of course, some of the stories I told you about my Grandmother, Marthe, but there is still much you do not know. For becoming an actress she was denounced by her family, misguided minor nobility who still harked back to the days when such a career would be seen as bordering on the debauched. She flouted their attempts to rein her in and fled penniless from their estates the Voges, forever cut off from them.
But fortune smiled on Marthe. She kept her first name, but having left behind her family she also discarded their name and their cruel threats that linked to her past. Instead, taking the name Marthe de Florian she became an actress and the darling of the stage.
Her beauty, of course, was legendary and she was the subject of much talk but she was punctilious in her affairs so what is said about her is not the whole truth. Even I don’t know the identity to some of her paramours – and she confided much to me as a small child, unaware perhaps that I understood a lot of what she said.
When my mother died in childbirth, father went mad with grief; that or his love of too much fine cognac found his bloated body floating in the Seine. It was never certain whether he jumped or fell to his death. There I was, but hours old and yet an orphan.
Marthe, ‘meme’, took me on and retired from public life, nurturing me with love and care and more than a modicum of taffeta, tulle and eau de cologne. My earliest remembrance is sitting in her boudoir being allowed to try on her hats and her jewellery. I can still hear her voice, low and whispery as she told me the tales of her dresses - which beau preferred this one; the ball she attended wearing that one. But out of all her couture there was one she would never let me touch. She would hold an elegant, jewel-encrusted hand to her mouth, her index finger poised against her closed lips entreating me to silence. Only once did she say a name – Giovanni - but it was many years later that I finally understood its significance.
After her death I found time to go through many of her things, much of it stored up in the attic of her house; boxes and trunks full of books and trinkets and clothes. A lot of it I gave away but there were many things I could not part with, each held the memory of a story she had told me and to get rid of them would have been like throwing her away, too.
It was only when I finally sold the place and prepared to move into the apartment in R. de Victoire that I came across the treasure. I was clearing out the last of the cupboards and in the back of one of her closets I came across something hidden behind an old dust sheet. Only when I pulled away the faded cotton did I realise what lay beyond, as a swirl of pink muslin cascaded out of its bonds. It was the dress she had refused to let me touch all those long years before.
As I pulled it free from the crude wrappings I realised there was something more hidden there. Lifting away the layers of muslin and silk taffeta I felt the hardness of a picture frame. Dragging the whole out of the recesses of the closet and into the light of the room I brushed aside the pink froth and found an image of her, portrayed in the very same dress. The attitude of her pose left me in no doubt that she considered herself adored by the artist for whom she’d sat.
For weeks I passed back and forth around the crowded apartment, glancing at the portrait wondering about the story that lay behind that and her jealously guarded secret that made her unwilling for me to even touch the dress in later years.
It was a little while afterwards as I was unloading yet another box of books and working my way through them that I found, tucked inside the back of a rather nondescript book of verse, three letters and a small card.
I don’t know how long I sat in the window-seat, looking at the fine handwriting. It felt almost voyeuristic to be reading of a love so strong, distilled into so few letters. They were all signed, with notes and entreaties of love, simply – G.
When I turned it over, the business card purporting to announce one “G. Boldini, Portraitist”, explained all and I suddenly rushed back through time to that whispered breathy voice which said but one word – Giovanni.
Why is that so significant, I hear you say? Well, my dear Sébastien, it is time you knew of your heritage. Mémé would never say much about my parents. My father’s family had already drifted into insignificance long before he met my mother and I never remember Mémé saying anything of a husband of her own. One learns to stop asking questions when met with silence; to which you, dear boy, can testify from your own experience, can you not?
Well, it didn’t take too much detective work to see the significance of the dress and why it above all others was deemed so special; she had worn it for one man, her special beau, the father of her only child. If you read the letters you will see the truth of what I say.
Shortly before the war broke out, a few months after this discovery, I left Paris on a trip to Marseilles. I took very little with me, a few pieces of jewellery and some clothes and since I was going to stay with a literary friend, I took along the letters and the pink muslin dress to see what he would make of them. Perhaps, somehow, I entertained the idea of someone writing a tale based on this great love story to which I and now you are inexorably linked.
But then, as Hitler marched unstoppably across Europe and across France, I was trapped. I spent the war years in the south, away from the bombing and the curfews, for my heart was in Marseilles. Gustave, your grandfather, never did get to write about that pink muslin dress - the one I wore as his bride, admittedly altered to meet the fashion requirements of the day. I’d known of his sympathies with the résistance but not the extent of his involvement. He kept that from me until his death, just a few months later, after a reconnaissance mission went wrong.
I wore the dress one last time, to his funeral, shocking the populace for the scandal of not wearing mourning black. Even then, it was tight around the waist, bearing tribute to the fact that Gustave had fathered your mother, Edith. She never knew the story of the pink dress that I packed away, never to see daylight again until now. Only you, Sébastien, know the truth.
So, my boy, I have tried to tell you of the mystery and in return for this knowledge I must ask you to do two things for me. Amongst the papers I have given you, are the details to the apartment and the keys. I made just one trip back, soon after victory was announced. There was some minor damage and a few items had to be moved into the main salon because of dampness; so the place was even more cluttered. I’d intended to go back later to sort things out properly, but age and infirmity and the intervening years have robbed me of the ability to do so. The place has stayed sealed to this day, but now you are its guardian.
It has remained a mausoleum for too long so I am bequeathing it to you, to dispose of as you see fit. Choose something from the jewellery box for Marie and the girls. The boys will find nothing of interest there but I’m confident the sale will realise enough money to purchase an education for all of the children.
Now, the two requests I have are these: you must make sure the painting is given its full provenance; it will increase its yield. I just hope that whoever buys it will appreciate how special it is – or maybe you will decide to keep it yourself?
Lastly, take care with the trunk at the foot of my bed; it holds that precious pink dress. Promise me I will to be buried in it – I want to look my best when I’m reunited with Gustave. I don’t think Marthe will mind too much, do you?
The paper smells of time and old cologne. She told me of portraits and pink dresses, but I wonder what else I shall find in the Rue de Victoire? And this painting, if it hasn’t perished after all these years, will be the first thing I shall seek out!
Perhaps Mémé will get her wish after all. She was always excited as each of my novels was released. Maybe now, I should write the story that she hoped Grandpere Gustave might have written: ‘The Lady in Pink”.