Roberta Ralphes, a successful painter and sculptress, has finished the final piece for her new show. It will be her last show. Her muse is dead, and the well of creative inspiration is dry. But when her father’s passing leaves her with the freedom and the means to be independent, Roberta Ralphes must reinvent herself.
The Random Curve is about one woman who is offered the chance to make of oneself one’s own masterpiece and, most importantly, to explore the possibilities of a life without a past.
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Roberta walked across the room to the open windows. She could see the red tiles of the sloping rooftops below, and much lower, at ground level, a tiny rectangle - a patch - of grass the locals called il prato, rather than l'erba. 'Emilio, take the chairs sul prato.' Or, 'Guido, fetch a blanket and let's have a picnic sul prato. It's too bella to stay inside!' Throughout the day screams and shouts of a similar kind were heard, and she smiled to herself each time she heard them. Roberta knew the difference between lawn and grass, because she had been to England with Father.
It was in England where she learned about lawns. In Canada there were vast stretches of grassy fields, or tiny Westmount parcels of neat grass hedged in by beds of perennials or boxwood, like the one in the courtyard below, that were clipped and trimmed, but, despite being green, were not lawns. She and Father and a wheezing Mrs Conway visited Kent and Devonshire, toured the Lake District and spent weeks, the greatest part of seven consecutive summers to be precise, in a vast suite of rooms overlooking Kensington Gardens. It was in Kensington Gardens where Roberta set foot upon her first real lawn.
The lawn of Kensington Gardens lay before her without a single blemish. There were no weeds; no bald nor yellowing patches. It had the appearance of a limitless stretch of fine, dark green velvet. That park, along with Hyde Park, had been her only playground. Roberta watched the boaters on the Serpentine; she dreamed of sailing far away as she lazed in a rented deck chair, reading for hours on end in the shade of a broad parasol. Father thought a lady should have skin as white and unblemished as the finest bone china, unlike the fashionable, burnished sun-worshippers. Roberta didn't agree with Father. She wanted desperately to run and scream unhindered under the fiery sun. But no. Roberta never did anything that was forbidden.
Father forbade many things, and she was a dutiful daughter until, leaving for university, she kissed him on the cheek and never saw him again, or, that is, whenever Father could not be put off. Fortunately, those times were rare, and not being in each other's company proved to be the one secret wish they shared in common.
Roberta's first taste of freedom, of doing whatever and being whomever she wished to be, proved more powerful than any of her childhood fears. Father suggested McGill. With encouragements from Clarissa, Roberta chose the Sorbonne. She defied Father and he never forgave her. He secretly approved his daughter's independence, yet believed that it should be given with his blessing, not taken in revolt. Roberta loved Father but loved Clarissa more. Father had never known Clarissa. He had obstinately ignored Lady Griffyn's invitations to tea. Father had no time for outsiders, and detested tea. As far as he was concerned, Clarissa and her noble British family were outsiders.
Clarissa was her special friend, had been, that is, closest to her. As long as Clarissa was alive, from the moment of their meeting, she was everything. Roberta knew there would only be one Clarissa in her life, and that there never would, ever could, be anyone to take her place. She gave away a part of her heart that day, and when Clarissa died she took it with her.
Roberta turned to face the room.
It was massive. On one wall, three very wide, very tall, undressed windows looked onto a street that was eternally congested with speeding cars and busy pedestrians. They remained shut to keep out the noise and the dirt. On the opposite wall, three identical windows overlooked the garden courtyard in back, the clay rooftops, and, of course, "the lawn". She could, if she stretched her neck as far as possible out of the last of these windows, see the broken wall of the Coliseum. If Roberta chose to open the windows on the street side, she could contemplate the Fore: the heart of ancient Rome.
It was the first place Roberta had visited to rent, two days after her arrival in this unknown city. She had chosen it, not only for its location, but for it being a pensione, which appealed to her notion of learning Italian in an Italian family.
There, at the far end, was a portrait of a golden Clarissa watching over a wide twin bed, and next to it, a heavily sculpted bedside table which had been cut out of a precious, unknown tree, that, although lovely, was impractical. The table lamp, with its ornate, over-sized Chinese base, left no room for either book or reading glasses. In the middle of the room, a heavily worn Persian rug lay upon the polished, fruitwood floor, and, despite it's palatial proportions, a great deal of the floor was bare. The ceilings, twenty feet high and richly coffered, and the intricately carved, marble mantles of the disaffected fireplaces, reminded visitors of a former Renaissance glory. In one corner stood an impressive writing table, circa. 1920, that could be found in any luxury hotel of the times. It was out of its element. To compensate this, Margarita had installed an extravagant, eighteenth-century sofa, and an expansive tapestry of naked nymphs bathing in a spring. In an en suite bathroom, equipped with shower, wash basin, toilet and bidet, a marble bath gazed upon the courtyard and a patch of Roman sky. There was another, smaller room, with one tall window and a view of the Forum, a vanity table, and a deep, heavily carved, walnut armoire: her dressing room. There was no television, no phone, no internet. There was, mind, an old radio and CD player. A bronze sculpture of Clara stood upon a mahogany table, and, on the wall directly above it, two aquarelles hung in shadow-boxes - the first, tall; the second, wide. The paintings, the portrait above the bed, and the bronze statue were all that remained of her other life. Everything else came with the rent. A handful of antique armchairs of various periods and styles were scattered negligently, rather higgledy-piggledy, throughout the yawning space. Most were outrageous additions; all were uncomfortable.
Defying the clutter of furnishings by its spatial grandeur, the room appeared empty, and most guests asked for something not so cavernous, per favore. But the room, which seemed to be waiting for someone, had called out to her, and Roberta, with her grief and her baggage, heard it. She said yes, and agreed to take them after only a fleeting glance, believing in her good fortune. Margarita told her there were curtains, somewhere, and she would have them put up, pronto! But Roberta didn't want them. 'The light is nice,' she said.
No curtains? Margarita was incredulous. 'It will be very hot in the summer, and you will be cold in the winter without them,' she insisted.
But Roberta was adamant. 'I don't mind,' she said.
Margarita left her to settle in.
It was only when she began to unpack that Roberta noticed the table next to the bed. Tricky. At home she never thought about resting a glass upon the carpet next to her bed, but there was no bedside carpet here. Instead, there was a highly polished fruitwood floor that filled the room with its perfume of beeswax and linseed oil.
That was another reason why she accepted to take these rooms. They smelled like the old farmhouse. Evoking, teasing memories that were painful and yet precious, as only those things that have ended forever can be. She did not want to think about Clara. She couldn't without tears.
It was why she had come to Rome: not to think or brood upon the past. Clarissa had something to say about her brooding; could hear her in her head, as though she were in the room.
'Brooding gives you unattractive lines, right here, between the brows. Makes you look ten years older, darling!' They laughed over this, and Roberta said that maybe looking ten years older might be a good thing after all. Clarissa said that was nonsense.
'The day will come when you will thank the gods for listening to your clever Clarissa. At forty, if you look fifty, there's little hope for you in this world, but at forty, if you look thirty? The world's alive with possibilities.'
Good advice, unless you were Clarissa. She - golden, brilliant, exotic - would be as beautiful, as heart-stoppingly, breathtakingly beautiful as she was the day she died. Hers was a beauty poets invoked the word luminous to describe. She entered a room and all eyes turned to gaze upon her. All talk ceased; a hush fell upon the room. Golden and glowing! The men, lucky enough to enter her sphere, fell in love with her, and women were jealous, all, except Roberta. She was blessed. She had loved Clarissa, and been loved in return.
Roberta took a cigarette from the silver case Clarissa had given to her when she was named: Most Promising New Artist. Of course, Clarissa warned her against tobacco.
'Deprives the skin of oxygen, ma douce biche. Makes it grey and wrinkled.'
This memory made her smile. 'Some experiences are worth the cost of an extra wrinkle or two,' Roberta informed her, 'rather than living to bed undying beauty to the grave.'
'If you plan to die a virgin,' Clarissa said.
The last word. There was always a last word.
Roberta took a drag on her cigarette.
The land stretched, beyond Éric and his feet firmly planted in the freshly turned soil, all the way, far, far away, to the clean line of the horizon. When his grandfather first acquired the deeds the land was wild, and he had left it so. But, upon inheriting the land, the eldest son, Jean-Marie, cut down the forest and, with a team of five young men, exposed the fertile soil to the sun. They labored and strained and sweat as much as the beasts - the oxen and the horses - to clear the stumps of the felled trees. After that came the stones - the rocks seemingly bigger, heavier and more resistant the deeper they probed. It was obvious this land bore a grudge, and that it would fight them. He came close to being broken, but persevered and eventually was able to sow and finally harvest enough of a crop to get through the winter and buy what was needed for the next spring's planting. Every year was the same, always just enough to survive. After fifty years of struggle, he convinced himself he had won, that he had forced the wild out of the land. Jean-Marie was mistaken. He died beaten and as poor as the day he was born in this place. He never said as much, not in words. Words had always been foreign to him. What Jean-Marie Archambault was, was in his hands. Large, strong, sensitive hands. Hands strong enough to crush a man's skull, and, with surety, tenderly cradle a newborn son. Hands that had never been meant to pull plows, haul timber, beat the seed from the harvested wheat. They should have moulded clay, built dreams, painted pictures of fields and sky, rather than work them. In the end, despite his unending labour, the fields won. Jean-Marie could not live forever. But - les champs! - the fields were eternal, and had all of time to wait. 'The patience of nature is too great,' he said. 'I die defeated.' Jean-Marie told his son to sell the land; ordered him not to waste his life working against the will of God. 'Do not become your father,' he said. 'Free yourself. Be happy.'
Éric had not taken his father's advice. He knew the girl he wanted to marry, and was certain he could turn the farm around. She came from a long line of farmers, and her father could not encourage his only child's marriage to a man who did not love the land. So rather than liquidate the estate, Éric went to school, learned about fertilizers, and about natural ways to enrich the soil - rotating crops; planting sarrazin or soya and tilling them back into the earth. Newer, more efficient machines were being developed and sold to anyone who could afford them - machines that needed only one man to do the work of dozens. They were expensive, but he read in a circular at the Collège d'Horticulture about subsidies for farmers, willing to modernize and stem the hemorrhage of workers choosing to quit the country and move to the cities, where work was plentiful, less physically demanding and better paid.
After graduating, Éric sold one hundred acres to equip his smaller farm, calculating to make up the loss from a smaller harvest by working his future father-in-law's land with his machines. He had every intention of marrying Marie-Thérèse Béliveau and eventually inherit her family farm. And he was right to have thus speculated. He did marry her, for Pére Béliveau was shrewd and could appreciate the advantages to the young man's plans, not only for his beloved girl, but for himself and his wife.
With the combined farms and the fancy equipment it seemed inevitable that they prosper. Not overnight, and not without shedding sweat and tears, but after a little more than a decade they were able to put aside a tidy fortune. If money alone does not bring one happiness, then money and a thriving family will. Marie-Thérèse loved her husband, and she gave him four healthy sons in the first ten years of their married life together, as proof of both her love and her happiness. After Martin was born, Marie-Thérèse had had enough of washing diapers, and told her husband she would have no more of it. She reasoned she had done her Christian duty. How many barren women were there in the village? she asked. Ten? Twenty? Where did their duty lie? Par une ou deux piastres le Dimanche? Mare-Thérèse understood that four sons, for three hundred acres of land, meant a serious division of the family patrimoine. Éric instantly agreed, so they took the necessary precautions. That decision proved to be very costly to their standing in the community of parish neighbours. Both Éric and Marie-Thérèse stood firm in their convictions. They were inflexible and proud, and willingly bore the difficulties that crossed their path because of it. And they were happy, despite the poisonous tongues, very happy in their home and on their land. Sometimes, sitting in front of the fire before going to bed, Marie-Thérèse would sigh, thinking aloud that it must be a sin to be so contented. They were blessed, and she wouldn't change her life for the King's. Éric agreed, echoing her words exactly.
Was it wrong to be self-contented? The neighbouring farmers had not done as well as the Archambault, and said to one another the sin of pride would bring about their downfall. Everybody said the Archambault were sinners, proud, tightfisted and greedy, and never gave more than the meanest don. They must surely go to hell. The Curé complained more than once to the Archevêque that the Archambault should be publicly condemned for defying the rule of one new baby for every new year, but the Archevêque was an Archambault and ordered the Curé to be silent. He needed a large dowry, hopefully from his nephew, to comfortably marry his illegitimate daughter to Christ.
Éric was not religious or superstitious, and his oncle, L'Archevêque, spawning a daughter of sin, reinforced his impiety all the more. Marie-Thérèse was a believer, as the superstitious and the uneducated are wont to be, but she would never dream of going against her husband. She suffered the remarks whispered behind their backs in silence, turning away from the deprecating sneers encountered on the village streets. These were small crosses to bear for her faith in the rightness of her choices, in the belief that her duty lay firstly with her family, then to God, and lastly, her neighbours. If this meant she would burn in hell, then so be it. But Marie-Thérèse did not believe in eternal damnation. She knew she was a sinner in many small ways, though loving and obeying her husband did not make her so. Her life was with her husband and her sons, and she preferred that there be harmony at home, whatever the cost. And besides, she knew that each and every one of the gossiping chipies did exactly like her, gang d'hypocrites! She made the sign of the Cross, quickly, hoping to be forgiven for her unchristian thoughts ...
Martin knew there was nothing to be gained by considering how different his life might be if his brothers had lived, but his brothers were dead and the farm did come to him. Éric, like himself, had had no choice in the matter. Martin was the last of four sons, and the least favoured. His father loved him out of a sense of duty. The distance of understanding between them had always been easy to ignore when his brothers were alive.
The youngest son was too soft for the land. 'Head's in the sky,' Éric complained to his wife, dropping his head into his hands in his usual way. 'Four sons - two lost causes. First Ovila, and now this one!'
Éric believed Jean-Louis and Jean-Paul, together, could make a great thing of the family enterprise. He had worked too hard for too long and would continue to do so to insure the Archambault kept their position of commercial infiuence. He managed the farm with an iron hand but realized, with stified disappointment as his sons grew from boys to young men, the brothers must be allies.
Excerpted from "The Random Curve"
Copyright © 2017 Normand Joseph Cronier.
Excerpted by permission of AuthorHouse.
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