Girl in the Afternoon: A Novel of Paris

Girl in the Afternoon: A Novel of Paris

by Serena Burdick


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781250082671
Publisher: St. Martin's Press
Publication date: 07/12/2016
Pages: 288
Product dimensions: 5.70(w) x 8.30(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

SERENA BURDICK graduated from The American Academy of Dramatic Arts in California before moving to New York to pursue a degree in English Literature at Brooklyn College. Her passion for theater, writing, the visual arts, Edouard Manet and the Impressionist movement combined to inform her debut novel, GIRL IN THE AFTERNOON: A Novel Of Paris. She lives in Western Massachusetts with her husband and two sons.

Read an Excerpt

Girl in the Afternoon

By Serena Burdick

St. Martin's Press

Copyright © 2016 Serena Burdick
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-250-10668-1


Aimée was never told why Henri came to live with them. She was never told anything that mattered. She used to think it was because she was a girl, and only boys got to know the truth about things, but eventually she came to understand that some things are better left unknown.

* * *

On that cold December morning when Henri disappeared, Aimée lay on her bed with her face buried in a pillow. In her right hand she held her stone necklace, smoothing her thumb and forefinger over the cool surface.

It was raining the day Henri found the stone. It was the size of a thimble, clear as crystal and flecked with pink. They were children then, and with his head bent against the rain, Henri showed her the perfect hole in its center. Later that night, he strung it on a piece of string and tied it around her neck.

Aimée lifted her face from the pillow and dropped back onto her cheek, covering her nose and mouth with her hand. Even the icy temperature couldn't stem the rank smell of gun smoke and cannon fire. She breathed into her palm, her breath moist and warm, just as Henri's breath had been against her lips last night. She remembered the surprising taste of his mouth, his salty lips, and the firm groping of his tongue, how the kiss had grown gentler and slower and had made her feel as if her legs wouldn't hold her up.

Tossing off her warm eiderdown quilt, Aimée jumped out of bed, sucking frigid air through clenched teeth, and slipped her feet into icy slippers. She snatched a shawl off the back of a chair and wrapped it over her shoulders. Through the window, a band of sunlight stretched across the room and lit up the doorknobs on her wardrobe like tiny blue flames.

She pulled a sketchbook from her desk, flipping it open to a picture of Henri, his features thin and youthful, but with the awkward beginnings of maturity. There was a look of mischief in his eyes, maybe a touch of fear, and a hesitant half smile on his lips.

It was the sketch she'd done when she was fourteen years old — Henri already a mature sixteen — and she'd insisted he take his shirt off. "Just do it already," she'd said. "It's the only way I'm ever going to paint a nude. You'll get to go to the académie and paint all the nudes you want. I'll be stuck here with the peaches."

Aimée snatched a peach off the table where their instructor, the acclaimed Barbizon painter Monsieur Camentron, had meticulously placed it and sank her teeth into the pink flesh.

"Aimée?" Henri had leaned his long arm on the shiny mahogany and gave a disapproving wag of his finger. "How are we going to finish our paintings with one less peach?"

She shrugged. "We'll scrape one out and insist he only set out two. Camentron's too senile to remember anyway."

Aimée could remember how warm the sun had felt pouring through the high windows, turning everything rich and vibrant. She could remember the sweet taste of the peach as she'd watched Henri unbutton his shirt and cautiously tug the cuffs over his hands, sliding his lanky arms through the sleeves. She remembered the heat in her cheeks when she'd seen his scrawny, hairless chest, and how she had laughed a stupid laugh.

"Start drawing before someone catches us," Henri had said, and she'd dropped the sticky pit back into the bowl and taken up her box of Conté crayons.

It was Henri who'd taught Aimée to draw when he had first arrived.

"It's an acceptable way to keep to yourself," he'd told her.

They would lie on their stomachs with their drawing boards in front of them, kicking their legs in the air. Very quickly Aimée had found she could copy the objects in front of her with amazing accuracy.

"Exceptional," Henri had said when she'd handed him a drawing of a toy monkey.

Aimée had bitten her bottom lip and looked down at her blue-veined hands, the praise warm in her belly. She was a skinny, pale child with narrow lips and gray eyes. There had never been anything exceptional about her.

When they drew, Henri would tell fantastical stories of faraway places, and Aimée would add pictures reflecting the tale. Later, when they had inched their way into adult bodies and began seriously painting, they spoke very little. It was easier to pretend they were concentrating, when really they had grown shy. There was none of the relaxed carelessness of most siblings, no banter or ridicule. But then, they were not brother and sister, rather companions who had been raised in the same home, and that was the difference.

After a while, the silence became what they needed most. A form of communication more precious than their art, balanced tenderly and cautiously between them. There was an intimacy in it, a suspension of time like the moment right before a kiss. And it was this that they first fell in love with, the ability to be together and alone at the same time.

* * *

The day before Henri disappeared, Colette Savaray stood in the parlor smoothing her hands down the front of her dress and staring at the floor where the rug used to be. They'd rolled it up months earlier and removed it with the rest of the First Empire furniture. The wood, where the rug had been, was shinier than the wood around the edge of the room, and Colette realized it would be no easy feat getting that enormous rug placed again.

She looked over the sparse room. There was a velvet sofa marooned in the middle of the floor, stripped of its end tables, facing two walnut chairs taken from the dining room, their red upholstered seats completely out of place against the blue-and-gold paper on the walls. Colette hated the bareness and the way every sound, even the click of her heels, echoed and bounced back at her.

She yanked open the brocade curtains they now kept closed in the daytime. Dust floated like a strip of tulle in the dull light. Colette swirled her arm through it, scattering the motes with her open hand.

A loud crack shot down the hall, and she snapped her arm to her side, imagining a bullet barreling through the doorway.

The sound came again, and she laughed. It was only the front-door knocker.

"Marie?" she called, looking one way and then the other before sitting in one of the chairs. "Marie! There's someone at the door."

They hadn't had a visitor in months. Even with the horrors outside — bloodied soldiers being carried through the streets in omnibuses and all those dead horses — it was knowing that no person could get in or out of Paris that made Colette feel most frantic, like a caged animal. Just hearing the sound of that knocker gave her a sense of hopefulness, despite the state of her house. She reached a hand to her hair and pushed the pins in place, wishing she'd taken more care with her toilet that morning.

Their housekeeper, Marie, the one loyal servant who remained, made her way down the hall. She was a stout, middle-aged woman with shocking red hair that sprang in tight, uncontrollable curls.

"I'm here, madame," she called as she passed the parlor door, and Colette heard Marie's wooden shoes clomping in the vestibule and then the reverberating chink of the outer door's steel handle.

When Édouard Manet stepped into the parlor, Colette rose with a ravishing smile. "My goodness!" she exclaimed, extending a hand. "Any visitor would be cause for celebration, but you, Monsieur Manet, really are a thrill."

"Madame." Édouard took her hand, kissed it, and released it back to her. He looked thinner than usual in his military greatcoat, but his beard was still full, his small, dark eyes authoritative and reassuring. Even in wartime he was impeccably dressed, his coat brushed, his shoes polished and shiny. He was a man who claimed a room, and Colette found this irresistible.

"Do sit down. I want all the news." She gestured to the sofa, easing herself onto her chair.

Édouard sat, unbuttoning the top two buttons of his coat. "It's either smallpox, starvation, shells flying through our windows, or else we'll be buried alive in sandbags," he said with a wry smile. "You should have left with the other families when you had the chance. Stubborn, the lot of you. The Morisot women refused to leave as well."

"You can't blame any of us. Who knew the Prussians would be so fierce and so many?" Colette leaned forward with a hand to her chest. "I, myself, am a liberal Bonapartist, but clearly Gambetta and the new republic were unprepared. We've blown up our own bridges, for goodness' sake, and even that hasn't stopped the Prussians. I heard Bougival and Louveciennes have suffered as much damage as anywhere else. Such carnage and wreckage is beyond me."

Colette was not a frivolous woman, as she often appeared, but rather quite intelligent. Édouard appreciated this about her.

"Losing the battle at Loire has done us in, I'm afraid," he said. "I don't know how much longer we can hold out. We're shooting each other out there now." He jutted his chin in the direction of the window. "No one even knows who's in charge. It'll come to a civil war if there isn't an armistice soon, and that will mean full surrender." He turned up his hands, opening them to the ceiling as if the Prussians were waiting in the rafters.

"At least it would put an end to all of this suffering," Colette said.

"How are you faring for food?"

"We're not starved yet — unrefined bread and cabbage at twenty francs a head. What I wouldn't give for a warm café au lait."

Sitting across from Édouard, Colette could almost feel the warmth of that café au lait slipping down her throat. For the first time in months she felt certain things would normalize. Surrender or no surrender, Paris would survive this war, and her Thursday-night soirées would resume. Her dining room would be full of guests again. There would be music and spirits and laughter.

Édouard cupped his hands to his mouth and blew a puff of air into them. "How is Auguste's wound?"

"What wound?" Colette gave a dismissive flip of her hand. "His foot healed weeks ago. He just refuses to get out of bed."

Édouard smiled. "Warmest place to be. He did his duty. Might as well rest up. Things are only going to get worse before they get better." He stood and gave a slight bow of his head. "Madame, I apologize that I am not able to stay longer. I just wanted to make sure no one was sick or intolerably hungry." Then he said, "I assume the children are well?" which seemed silly to Colette, calling them children. Aimée was eighteen years old, and Henri would be twenty in April.

"They're doing as well as can be expected. Still painting until their supplies run out, as I'm sure you are." She smiled, thinking of the portrait of her Auguste had commissioned Édouard to paint. For three months Édouard's superior eye had been on her, and it had given her a gratifying sense of importance.

After Édouard left, Colette went into her husband's study and stood in front of that painting. It was almost ten years ago now. She looked young and beautiful with her dark hair pulled into a high chignon and her slender hands crossed in the lap of her shimmering green dress.

She had been sure Édouard would seduce her with all those hours alone together. But he had worked silently, bitterly scraping away what dissatisfied him and scrupulously filling in what pleased him. When it was over he'd simply thanked her and said good-bye.

Colette stepped away from the painting and caught the reflection of her older self in the window glass. She ran two fingers along her hairline, pulling at her skin with a restlessness that was not brought on by the war, but by a sense of entrapment in her body. It was amazing what ten years could do to a woman. She would be thirty-nine years old in the spring. As a little girl she'd watched her maman bind her face in raw meat at night to prevent wrinkles. Colette's solution required eggs, rosewater, alum, and sweet oil of almonds, all of which were unattainable in this disastrous war.

Turning away from her reflection, she walked past her husband's meticulously organized desk, thinking of Édouard with a shudder of desire.

* * *

The next morning, when the sun rose bright and cruel above the haze of smoke that covered the city, Henri made up his mind to leave. He had only slept a few hours, and he lay with his wrist flung over his eyes, blocking out the sharp light that persisted through the windows.

Last night had the outlines of a dream, its degradation cloaked in uncertainty. But it wasn't a dream, and the shame of it coiled through him, cool and piercing as wire.

The crack of a bullet came from outside, a sharp whine as it sailed through the air, and then silence. Henri pulled his hand from his face and tucked his arm under the quilt, pressing his icy fingertips into his bare stomach. From his pillow he could see the underside of the varnished cherry bedposts, and the blooms on the wallpaper bursting open to the ceiling.

How sweet it would be to roll over, pull his head under the warmth of the quilt, and fall back asleep. But the slant of light through the windows, and the silence in the house told him that it was still early, early enough to slip away undetected.

On a count of three, he tossed the covers off and sat up. The air was so raw the shock of it almost took away the hollow dread in the pit of his stomach.

The fires in the house hadn't been lit in months. Paris had been under siege for one hundred days, and there was nothing left to burn. What peat they had was reserved for cooking, but even that wouldn't last much longer.

Taking short puffs of air into his lungs, Henri snatched his wool stockings from the floor, his linen drawers and undershirt, and hurriedly put them on. From a trunk he took a pair of twill trousers, a shirt, waistcoat, and cravat. His armoire had been removed for safekeeping, and his clothes were badly creased. But that hardly mattered now.

He struggled to tie his cravat, his fingers stiff with cold as he walked to the window, watching a pall of black smoke curl over the rooftops into a clear sky. The street was eerily deserted, the road a sheet of ice. It would be slippery going, he thought, feeling very weak, like a boy again standing at his old bedroom window in England. There had been snow on the ground when he left then too, and he had felt this same sense of dread.

Shells fell outside like cracks of thunder, and Henri pressed his palms over his eyes. He was not a brave man, and yet he wasn't afraid of being hit by a stray bullet or freezing in a gutter. He was afraid of facing the intolerable loneliness he'd known before coming here.

He turned from the window as the sound of footsteps came down the corridor, frantically stepping toward the bed as if he meant to hide under it. He couldn't face Colette, or Auguste, but it was the thought of seeing Aimée's serious eyes and her honest, straightforward face that made him feel sick.

The latch to his bedroom door clicked and lifted, but whoever stood on the other side clearly couldn't face him either, because the latch fell back into place, and the footsteps receded down the hall.

Henri didn't waste any time then. He grabbed his bag, threw in two pairs of stockings, a shirt, trousers, and his black frock coat. Briefly, he fingered his waistcoat embroidered with tulips and edged in silk ribbon, then shoved it back into the trunk.

Pulling on his greatcoat, he hoisted his bag over one shoulder and stepped gingerly into the hallway. He wondered how he was going to retrieve his paint box and portable easel from his studio on the third story where the militiamen were now billeted.

The corridor was empty and quiet. Henri knew he should hurry, and yet he stood looking at the small dent on the floor where, as a child, he'd dropped a large, marble elephant Auguste had given him. The elephant was still on the mantel in his bedroom with a chip in its trunk.

Henri thought of going back for it, but he didn't, and when he finally moved forward, it wasn't courage or any sort of heroic strength that drove him, only simple, undeniable shame.

* * *

As Henri crept down the hall, stepping cautiously over the soft sections of floor that moaned with pressure, Colette sat at her dressing table untangling metal curlers from her hair and trying to ignore the gurgling noise coming from her husband's open mouth in the bed behind her. With a hand mirror, she arranged the curls at the back of her neck and then pinned a large amethyst brooch at her throat. After last night, she felt it imperative to look particularly lovely today, no matter the war.


Excerpted from Girl in the Afternoon by Serena Burdick. Copyright © 2016 Serena Burdick. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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Girl in the Afternoon: A Novel of Paris 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I really enjoyed this reflective novel. Well written.