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Valley of Grace
By Marion Halligan, Rosanne Fitzgibbon
Allen & UnwinCopyright © 2009 Marion Halligan
All rights reserved.
THE MASONRY DANCER
Sometimes on mondays Luc would have lunch with Julien. They liked to go to a cheerful cafe on a corner where they could sit in the sun under a plane tree. The most popular dish was steak tartare. Enormous mounds of raw red meat glistened in the sun. Luc preferred the planks of salad: wooden chopping boards loaded with ham and cheese and greens and tomatoes.
Opposite was a handsome empty building that one day turned into a building site. It was rather grand, with sober decoration on the facade and elegant spaces glimpsed within, all gradually becoming derelict. Windows were removed and gutting seemed to be going on inside. A snake of linked bottomless buckets carried rubble from the top floors down to a skip on the ground. There were muted crashes and puffs of dust. Several ladders were propped against the facade and a young man ran up and down them. He stepped on to windowsills and jumped inside, then darted out and somehow swarmed over the face of the building, down a ladder, up again.
Luc and Julien admired this performance. The man was very beautiful, lean and fit with olive skin and dark curls. Mediterranean man, Julien called him. A Greek god, transported to the Roman province, said Luc, for sometimes the man shouted instructions at his workers and they heard the melodious pure notes of his southern accent.
Luc said, It's a performance, you know. Street theatre. We're the audience, we the cafe customers. We come and go, but the performance runs its course.
You mean, it has no other meaning? Like a trapeze artist? An exhibition of skill and daring, for its own sake.
Yes, said Luc. Of course, some building gets done, I suppose, the building is being renovated, but mainly it is the sheer joy of the act.
They could have gone to another cafe while the works were happening, avoided the rattle of debris crashing down the buckets, the dust, the rapping of hammers and the whining of saws. But they didn't. They sat in the sun and ate lunch and admired the beautiful man running up and down his ladders and dancing across the facade of the building.
It's like all such performances of daring, said Luc. It's dangerous. There's the fear he might fall. I don't think we want him to, but how exciting is the thought that he might.
The exhilarating fear of falling. For watcher, for performer.
For watcher, for watched.CHAPTER 2
VALLEY OF GRACE
Fanny Picart works in an antiquarian bookshop. She takes the old books off the shelves and smooths the leather bindings with her palms. Old books die if you don't handle them, says the bookshop owner, her boss. Luc is a thin and transparent young man, with pale spiky hair. He looks like a silverfish. Fanny thinks perhaps he would like to be a silverfish and live all his life in a book. Except of course that silverfish are his deadly enemies. When there are no customers she takes a volume down, rests the spine in her hand and sometimes reads what's in it. Le Vieux Latin, the shop is called, it specialises in books about the Latin Quarter, and old prints, like the sixteenth-century engraving of the church of Saint Etienne du Mont and beside it the Romanesque church of Sainte Geneviève, just round the corner from the shop.
Demolished, says her boss with huge sadness. A jewel, and demolished. Soufflot got the job building the replacement. That's the Panthéon, you know that. Meant to be a church. No sooner finished than the state pinches it for a monument to great men. It's certainly pompous enough. Luc doesn't like the Panthéon. Fascist, he says. Not Soufflot's idea, of course, to have no windows. That's the Revolution stuffing things up.
Fanny has climbed up and walked on the roof of the Panthéon, on the galleries of the roof. She was terrified, they seemed to plunge and roll and try to tip her over the edge. Even though there were low balustrades to hang on to she felt a vertiginous panic, as though the building did not like her and wished her ill.
I think it's a malicious building, she says to Luc.
Malicious, eh? I like that idea.
She agrees with him that it is a tragedy that the church of Sainte Geneviève should have been demolished. Sainte Geneviève is her birth day saint, January 3, as well as the patron saint of Paris. From her fourth birthday Fanny has known the story, how Geneviève was all her life a virgin, and especially holy even as a small child, that it was her praying that kept Attila the Hun out of her beloved city, which was called Lutèce then. Fanny carries a little shiny card in her wallet with a photograph of a statue of the saint on one side, her face pink and blue-eyed, her expression pensive, her robes and the niche she stands in painted in gold Gothic patterns. She's holding some big gilt keys. On the back is a prayer which recalls her success at praying and vigil.
Luc buys a set of eighteenth-century watercolours of different views of the church, inside and outside, possibly done when it was known that the building was to be knocked down, as a kind of record. Fanny would like to own them, but there is no way she can afford such a treasure. Works on paper are not like old books, they must not be handled else they will crumble, or be exposed to light, when they will fade. She has to look at them as little as possible, in the dim back room, even dimmer than the shop itself.
Luc is a friendly person to work for. He comes from a prosperous family. His parents own pharmacies in Lyon, and several apartments in Paris and Vichy, and a villa in Biarritz. André Picart would like his daughter to marry him. Fanny is twenty-five, and no prospects. Her mother says she is timid, gentle, she'll come to it sooner or later. Leave her alone. Fanny is a slender aristocratic looking girl; André considers the stockiness of himself, the round fleshiness of his wife, and wonders how they produced her, her small bones, her narrow waist and hands and neck, her pale brown smooth hair, the plain slightness of her. Her willowy graceful manner. He drops heavy hints at her about marrying Luc. He's not the marrying kind, she says. Marrying kind, sniffs André. No man is the marrying kind. It's women who make them. Do you think I'd have got married if it hadn't been for your mother making me want to? You've got him all day to yourself in that bookshop. Show us what you're made of, girl.
Fanny knows Luc isn't the marrying kind because she's seen him in the cafe with his friend. A man as pale and thin of skin as Luc, with the same fair spiky hair. Sitting on opposite sides of the table, not touching, but the curve of each body so conscious of the other, so responsive, that their connection was plain. Their voices were soft and their eyes locked. Fanny envied them their singleness, their stillness, their occupying of their own private place, in the noisy cafe.
He's a silverfish, she says to her father. I couldn't marry a silverfish.
Now you're being frivolous, says her father.
* * *
Fanny likes the bookshop. Her friend Séverine started work in a chocolate shop, with a family making and selling chocolates. Any that were not perfect enough for the sharp eyes of the master chocolate-maker were put in a bowl and the staff could eat them. After a while you're just not interested, Séverine said; at first it's marvellous, but then you couldn't care less. Séverine married the son of the chocolate-maker and still works in the shop sometimes; it makes a change from minding the baby all day. She ties bows in her curly black hair and paints her face and wears tight bright clothes; she sings her welcome to the customers. In the pink and gilded space of the shop she is another delicious confection, with her rosy cheeks and black curls and eyes like amber toffee. Sometimes she brings Fanny chocolates but still doesn't care to eat them. Fanny thinks how different the bookshop is. She doesn't get sick of the books, she's addicted to them. To their leather, smooth but slightly grainy to delicate fingers, the weight and solemn bulk of them in her hands, their throat-catching smell, and the sense of them as porous, dense with the knowledge they contain but also soaking up not just the body oils but some more ethereal essence of the people who have held them. Their souls, spirits: there ought to be a word.
She and Luc are their own best fans. Not many people buy things. People browse, sometimes the same ones, over and over. Like the young man who reverently turns the pages of volumes, gazing at the pictures. He's handling the books, says Luc. Keeping them alive.
He should buy, says Fanny.
I don't think you ever exactly own books like this, Luc tells her. They have their own life. They just stop in certain places at certain times. Then they hold court, you might say.
Fanny thinks of the books sitting graciously on their shelves, waiting to hold court with their admirers. With their subjects. It's a charming idea. And exasperating.
They come from before us, says Luc. And go on after us.
Most of the transactions are with sellers, especially people who have inherited. They bring along boxes of old books, as junk they no longer want but expect to get a high price for. Fanny thinks Luc is too generous. When he isn't in the shop she offers paltry amounts; the sellers protest but nearly always accept.
Both the bookshop and the chocolate shop close for three hours over lunch. Sometimes Fanny and Séverine meet. Séverine skips the large matriarchal midday dinner, which does not best please her mother-in-law, but she loves Séverine and the baby so lets her go. Fanny loves seeing Sylvain; he is a most beautiful child, with stiff straight black hair like his father and his mother's rosy golden complexion. She is his godmother, she hugs him, buries her nose in his neck, drops kisses on his little scented head. The two young women eat salad and talk about inconsequential things. Her family may make comments about Fanny not being married yet, but Séverine never does. She is happy to let Fanny enjoy Sylvain whenever there's a chance. Fanny doesn't ask Séverine what being married is like. She has on a number of occasions met her husband Thierry in the large apartment above the shop, which is also pink and gilded, but she has never been conscious of them making that same dense and quivering space for themselves in the world as Luc and his friend in the cafe, but maybe that is because they can fill the whole apartment. And maybe Sylvain kicks his way out and lets the outside world in. And there is the doting mother-in-law, and the father-in-law, the famous chocolate-maker, whose skills Thierry has inherited as well as learned, though whether he has his genius only time will tell.
Fanny sees that maybe that oneness can only happen in solitude, of the kind that is possible in a large noisy cafe but not in the bosom of family and friends. This is the public face of marriage, even when it is in the privacy of its own home.
Gérard Tisserand is a builder. His father is a builder too. Gérard began by being apprenticed to André Picart. Then for a while he worked for a friend of his father's who'd got the job of repairing a church. Gérard was moved by the complexity of the medieval building, its weight and yet its lightness, the simple ingenious skills with which it was created. He discovered he had a knack, a flair, for this kind of restoration, and more than that, a kind of gift, maybe spiritual would be a word for it, as though the structures communicate to him their original intent and substance. It is not to do with the religious intent of this first building, the church, but of its essential nature as a construction of the human spirit.
So Gérard became a restorer of old buildings, working at first for other builders. Then he bought a ruin, a wreck — He's mad, said his friends — he borrowed heavily, mortgages and high interest rates — What a fool, he's crippling himself for life.
In fact, it is a success. He rips out partitions and lean-tos and false walls, renews the rotten and returns the wreck to its original eighteenth-century elegance of pale stone and panelled walls and high glittering windows. He rents out the apartments and buys another wreck, starts again.
André Picart usually comes along when buildings like Gérard's have been knocked down. He puts up new ones, concrete, steel, good quality, no shoddy workmanship, very modern and comfortable, spacious even, though with today's lower ceilings you can get an extra floor in the same space as those extravagant old places. In his early days Gérard often worked with him, but not any more.
At dinner with his wife and daughter André Picart speaks of Gérard Tisserand, his gift, the knack, it's uncanny. He is a figure in Fanny's mind before she meets him. The young man who senses buildings. The stairs, the panelling, the balustrades, all just right, either the original uncovered and restored, or a new one made to fit exactly with the old, or else pieces recovered from demolition sites. He has a gift, no doubt, says André. And patience. And he's a skilled craftsman, oh, no doubt — I taught him all he knows. Well, not quite all. But there's no money in it, not like that, he'll not make even a living at that rate.
André speaks as people do when they are obsessed with someone, full of disapproval, full of envy. He sits in the spacious dining room of the apartment he built exactly as he wanted, with every modern convenience, in the block he constructed on the site of an old grand house, a magnificent old building, but no good in modern times, it had to go, though he saved a sliver of the garden.
This new project, he says, it's a sink to pour money down. He'll come a cropper for sure.
Where is it? Fanny asks.
Some crooked old street in the Latin Quarter — down near the Institute for Deaf Children. Towards Port Royal, somewhere.
He looks at her. Oh no, my girl, don't go getting ideas, he's not your type. One of those nuggety swarthy characters. A gypsy, I wouldn't be surprised.
At least he's not a silverfish.
More like a cicada.
His wife and daughter laugh. He has made a joke, and it's important to recognise it.
The building is not in some crooked street but in the rue St Jacques. Fanny walks through the small oval place in front of the Val de Grâce and just past it is the building, eighteenth-century, five-storey, classical. It is a wreck, in the process of being gutted. A segmented orange worm descends from the top floor, a set of elongated bottomless buckets chained together, through which rubble is poured into a hopper in the street. It rattles and crunches all the way until the final clanging arrival in the hopper, and quantities of dust rise. Gérard Tisserand Builder, says a banner hung from a balcony.
Against the facade is a ladder and she sees a man she supposes to be Gérard though not so swarthy, not so nuggety, run up it, balance on a windowsill, sway, lean out and look up, climb in. Fanny pauses to read unseeing a plaque on the wall of the building next door. Gérard appears again, walks along a windowsill, teeters. Fanny's heart teeters too.
One day she comes home from work and finds the man from the ladder sitting in the drawing room and it is indeed Gérard Tisserand, and he is, close up as well as dancing over a building, by no means so nuggety and swarthy as her father would have her believe. His skin is sun-tanned a coppery colour but is fine in texture; she thinks of the books in their elegant bindings that desire to be handled. He has black curls and dark eyes. André sends his daughter to fetch the tray of apéritifs. She puts olives and small salty biscuits in bowls, ice in a bucket. The men drink Suze, bitter herby yellow, made from gentian, the smell even is too sharp for Fanny. She has an Orangina. Her mother will have a small vin doux when she comes in. These apéritifs speak of the south; she wonders if Gérard comes from there as well.
The men talk shop. Neither pays attention to Fanny. She has plenty of time to look at Gérard. At his long fingers, very clean, the nails short and stubby but scrubbed. He's cleaned up after work, he wears fresh jeans and a white linen shirt, turned up a little at the cuffs so she can see his brown wrists and the black springy hairs. At the neck, too, no tie, but buttoned quite high, there is a glimpse of smooth skin and just a suggestion of black curls. His cheekbones are broad and carved, the skin slides into a slightly shadowy hollow beneath them, and above are the deep velvety sockets of his eyes, with straight generous brows. The black curls cropped, but not too short. Square chin, with a dimple. Gérard does not appear to see Fanny at all.
As she is not listening to what they are talking about. Something about finishing the job earlier, borrowing a couple of André's workmen, reinforcing the structure, needs modern engineering principles, all formally done of course. Fanny sits not drinking her Orangina and imagines holding Gérard in her hands as she would a rare book.
André Picart says he will have to think about it. They will talk further. There needs to be more precision about figures. Of course, says Gérard.
André Picart is wrong about the unprofitability of Gérard's work. Gérard knows exactly what it costs him to restore his buildings, the money borrowed, the interest rates, the labour of his team, the raw materials, the time. He factors in a considerable return on his own expertise. The resulting figure is a large one, but his apartments are so desirable he has no trouble finding clients. Certainly not at so good an address as the rue St Jacques. The building will have a large apartment on each floor, with the main room running from front to back, so there are windows at both ends. Had Fanny stood at the first floor windows of the building opposite she would have been able to look across and see the trees in the garden behind. There will be a shop on the ground floor. Gérard plans to rent out all the floors except the top one, where he will live.
Excerpted from Valley of Grace by Marion Halligan, Rosanne Fitzgibbon. Copyright © 2009 Marion Halligan. Excerpted by permission of Allen & Unwin.
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