I am alone, as I walk along a cobbled back street in the small french market town. A solitary snowflake drifts lazily to earth, melting on my collar. I round the corner, and see a green neon sign announcing, La Poire d’Argent. Hoping to get out of the chill of the evening, I head towards the bar with the flickering light.
With effort, I push open the scarred door which slams behind me. In the shadows of the drab room, which reeks of beer and smoke, two men are engrossed in a game of pool. I sidle up to the bar. Lounging at the far end of the dark-wood counter is the bartender. He nods his head.
‘Une pression, s’il vous plait, a beer please.’ I venture.
The beer pump hisses, slowly filling the dusty glass, plucked from a shelf above the man’s smouldering cigarette, with the golden liquid. He bangs it down on the counter. I place a five euro note on the bar, from where he snatches it with his pudgy fingers replacing it with a few sticky coins. I hitch myself up onto a bar stool and sip my beer.
‘La Poire d’Argent, that’s an odd name for a bar?’ I try to engage in conversation.
He shrugs and puffs on his cigarette.
Rebuffed, I drink my beer. I am thinking about ordering another one, when the door crashes open. Curiosity getting the better of me, I turn around. A wintry blast heralds the entry of a wraith; white hair, white skin, fragile. Her black eyes dart around the room like a nervous animal; her scarlet lips are small and full, pursed. Early snow sparkles in her cropped hair. I slide from my bar stool to help her with the door which threatens to trap her with its lethal spring.
‘I’m John.’ I smile.
She ignores me.
‘Where’s Marcel?’ Her question flies across the room like a shrill bird released. The bartender polishes his brass beer pump. The pool players become fascinated with their game. No one answers. The silence is punctuated by the clack of the pool balls, as they kiss.
Her skirt is short and black. White tights mold themselves to her spindly legs. A large rip stretches across her knee like a gaping mouth. Green glass eyes flash from the face of a black cat embroidered across her thin white sweater. She is not wearing a coat despite the cold outside, and goose bumps are visible on her thin arms. The slight shiver of her shoulders makes her tiny breasts jiggle under their flimsy covering. She turns to me.
‘Do you know where Marcel is hiding?' she demands.
It’s my turn to shrug.
‘I’m a stranger here,’ I mumble, turning my face away.
The girl gives me a withering look, scans the room then exits in another blast of chilly air, the door swinging behind her. The conversation between the pool players starts again. I climb back onto my stool and beckon to the bartender.
‘Another pression please.’ The pump splutters. Another five euro note disappears into his grasping fingers.
‘Who’s the girl?’ I gesture towards the door.
‘That’s Lisette, Marcel’s girlfriend,’ he mutters. I nod.
‘And who is Marcel? Is he here?’
‘Non! He’s not here.’ He runs his girlish white fingers through his sparse hair.
‘How do you mean?’ I peer at him, as he tries to avoid my gaze.
Shifting on my stool, I press my point. ‘Gone where?’
‘It is a long story, monsieur.’
‘I have the time.’ I buy him a pastis and myself another beer and a cognac. He leans forward, his elbows on the bar.
‘Marcel and Lisette were childhood friends. Everyone thought they would marry.’ He waved his arms in the vague direction of the town. ‘When Lisette was seventeen and Marcel twenty, they fell out. No one knew why.’ He raised his eyebrows. ‘Marcel left St Jean de Luce the next day.’
He drains his drink and I mine. I gesture for him to fill the glasses again. The pool players turn to listen.
‘Lisette was heartbroken. Then she met Jean Paul Bouvier, the doctor’s son, and married him within three months.’ He pauses for breath. The pool players appear at the bar, and I feel obliged to fill their glasses too.
‘The marriage lasted less than a year, just long enough for her daughter to be born. People talk. Jean Paul left her. Her family disowned her. The townsfolk ostracized her. She tried to live on the meagre maintenance that Jean Paul gave her for the child. The baby died. Jean Paul and his parents did not attend the funeral.
‘Did Lisette return home?’
‘Non, monsieur. She scratches a living as best she can. I know some men visit her when their wives are not looking.’ The fair headed pool player looks shifty. ‘Grief overwhelmed her; her mind began to wander. Every night at 7.30, she comes here looking for Marcel.’ Pierre examines his hands, and the pool players go back to their game.
‘Is that it, Pierre?’ I say feeling let down by the abrupt end to the story.
‘That’s all monsieur.’ Pierre turns away.
I get up to leave, almost falling off the stool. I throw my loose change on the bar. Pierre nods in acknowledgment.
I wander back to my hotel in the bitter cold. It has now stopped snowing, but the wind is fierce. A light frosting of the earlier snow sparkles on the cobbles. I pull up the collar of my thin overcoat and hurry past the cemetery thinking about Lisette. Grand mausoleums loom oppressively in the darkness. Through the fence, I catch a glimpse of a white figure splayed across a sloping gravestone. It’s Lisette, I’m sure of it. She must be freezing. Finding the nearby gate locked, I rattle the chain; maybe someone is still around. No one comes. I’m now desperate to rescue Lisette. Nothing for it, I’ll climb the railings. The gold tips glow like flames in the halo of the streetlight. I place my foot on a cross bar and haul myself upwards. My hands slide on the frosty railings, but I manage to get to the top and throw myself over. The points of the railings catch my overcoat. As the overcoat rips, I fall into a heap on the glittering leaf mould. The thud of my landing echoes around the silent cemetery. Disturbed creatures scrabble in the grass. Brushing the leaves from my ripped coat, I struggle to my feet,
The marble monuments scare me, taking me too close to death. I begin to shake, my teeth chatter, and my hands glow moon-white in the dark. Lisette’s in here somewhere needing help. Fighting my way through the dark ivy and overgrown brambles, I search frantically for the little white figure.
Tripping over roots and branches, I stumble along. The streetlight is no longer visible. Threatening darkness folds itself around me, as I watch snow clouds scud across the waning moon. The foetid smell of death and rotting flowers engulfs me. A glimmer of white moves behind the overhanging branch of a large yew tree. Just a flash, then it is gone. Scrabbling towards the blackened tree, I call,
‘Lisette, where are you?’
My voice echoes then is absorbed by the stillness of the dead. By a towering stone angel with outstretched wings, I glimpse a white flash. I head in that direction, but again, the white wisp evades me. I continue to follow, until at last in a clearing I see the girl perched on the edge of a moss-covered grave. Dark shadowed eyes bore into mine, the cropped white hair a beacon in the night. I can smell her sweet perfume.
‘Marcel?’ her thin voice trembles. I reach out, and as we touch, she fades leaving me face to face with the inscription on the tomb. I trace the words with my frozen fingertips.
Here lie Marcel Ducamp, died in Angers, March 20th, 2001and his daughter Marcelle Bouvier died January 6th, 1999, aged 2 months.
Also, Lisette Bouvier neé Guyot, murdered on this spot by unknown hands, December 20th, 2001. Requiescat in pace
But the spirits do not rest.
My mind drifts, as I lie there on the icy ground huddling close to the cold gravestone, my arms embracing the freezing marble.
I am awoken by loud voices and struggle to open my eyes.
‘Over here Alain, look what I’ve found.’ Branches rustle, and I hear the thud of heavy feet.
A grey-haired man leaning on a garden rake looks down at me. I lift my head, trying to focus, as he pokes my frozen body with his foot. Pale sun penetrates the low branches of the glittering trees, where a robin sings his full-throated song.
‘It’s a wonder he’s still alive lying out here all night in this frost, Denis.’ Two burly gardeners are now looking down at me.
‘You OK, monsieur? How did you get here?’
They begin to help me up from the floor, but my legs buckle. A strangled sound like a rusty nail across metal forces itself out of my frozen mouth.
‘I was in the Poire d’Argent last night,’ I gabble. Lisette came in looking for Marcel. On my way back to my hotel, I saw her in the cemetery. I thought she needed help.’ They look at each other, and then at me with pity.
‘Monsieur, that’s impossible, you must have been drunk, La Poire d’Argent was demolished ten years ago to make way for the new road system.’
‘That can’t be true. It’s just around the corner from my hotel - on a back street. It has a green neon sign.’ My voice falters.
‘No monsieur, I assure you it is no longer there.’
‘But Lisette was there.’ There’s that look of pity again.
‘No monsieur, I’m sorry, you are mistaken.’
The gardener has called an ambulance which arrives siren blaring. Two paramedics push their way through the bushes, wrap me in a thermal blanket, strap me into their chair and steer me along the pathway to the waiting vehicle.
‘What day is it?’ I ask.
‘It’s Tuesday monsieur, the 20th of December.’
I strain my neck to look back and see a tiny figure with cropped white hair standing in the grass by the old yew tree.