In war-torn Paris in 1917, the artist Pierre Bonnard takes a new model - Renee Montchaty. He is fifty, with a common-law wife; she is eighteen. As their love-affair spirals out of control Renee finds she is not only fighting for her man; she is fighting for her life0
Lynn Bushell (United Kingdom)
Snip. Marguerite has cut the string. Now nothing separates her from the contents but the flimsy paper wrapped around it, but she doesn't care what's in the box now.
'Well, go on,' says Margo. 'Open it.’
She glances up and in the look that passes momentarily between them, Renée feels the force of her desire and knows whatever Marguerite has bought her is a relic of it.
It's a signet ring. It isn't flashy – a plain setting with a blue stone in the centre of it – imitation sapphire. But it's not the sort of thing you'd pick up in the Marche aux Puces, which means that Marguerite has bought it from a jewellers. There is a label on the box that says as much. The ring is slotted with the jewel facing upwards on a satin-covered base that momentarily reminds her of the pillow underneath her father's head when he was lying in his coffin. She tries not to touch it when she takes the ring out.
‘Happy birthday.’ Marguerite is looking at her avidly.
'It's lovely,' Renee says. 'It must have cost an awful lot.' The shrug that Marguerite gives isn't quite as careless as it might be. Renée hesitates. She'd rather not give Marguerite the opportunity to put the ring on for her. She rotates it underneath the lamp to catch the light, then deftly slips it on the finger of her right hand.
Marguerite gives her a quick glance. 'Don't you want to wear it on the other finger?'
Renée looks at her: 'The middle finger, do you mean?'
'I mean the finger on the other hand.'
'But that would look as if I was engaged,' says Renée, frowning.
'It would look as if you were committed. After all, you are committed, aren't you? We've been living in this flat together for the past two years.'
'Yes, but I don’t see why I have to wear it on that finger. Does it matter?’
‘If it doesn’t matter, why can’t you just put it on the finger it was meant for?’
Renée doesn’t answer. There's a pause, then Marguerite gets up and quietly clears the table. 'Think about it, Renée.' She goes out into the kitchen.
Renée curls the twine around her index finger. There is not enough to be worth keeping but the ribbon circles it three times. She pulls it tight. Her finger reddens at the end and goes white at the base. She loosens it and blood flows back into the finger. Then she tightens it again. Her finger starts to throb. Her head begins to throb as well.
‘What are you doing?’
‘Should we keep the string?’
‘Whatever for? We’re not that hard up.’
Renée lets the string unravel. She would keep it anyway but Marguerite has scooped it up into her hand and thrown it on the fire.
As they climb into bed, she puts her cheek out for the statutory kiss and Renée pecks it. They lie rigidly, the space between them like a ditch they run the risk of falling into. That night is the first in eight days that there hasn't been an air-raid. Lying there awake with Marguerite beside her, both of them pretending they're asleep, it would be a relief to hear a bomb go off.
She holds her breath and listens. Tentatively she puts out her hand and lets her fingers rest on Marguerite's arm. Marguerite turns over slowly. Renée feels her breath against her face. It's like the inside of a cupboard, she thinks: dry and musty with a hint of lavender and mothballs. The dry lips are pressed against her forehead. She likes this, the fact that Marguerite's lips aren't wet like the swampy kisses she's received from men who've kissed her in the past.
‘That’s better,’ Margo murmurs, pulling her into the narrow space between them. She wraps one arm round her shoulder 'I’ll look after you,’ she whispers. ‘You'll be safe with me.'
Once, they had turned the bed into a bier and Marguerite had laid her out.
'You're not to move,' she said. 'Pretend you're dead.'
When Renée’s younger sister Emilie had died at two years old, she'd helped her mother dress the body in a white shift with a crown of lilies. Emilie had had her cheeks and lips rouged slightly. She looked healthier than she had ever looked in life. The faint smile on her face was almost smug, thought Renée.
'I shall have to wash your body and then dress you in a shift,' said Marguerite. 'No matter what I do, you're not to giggle. If you do, you'll spoil it.'
Renée lay completely still whilst Marguerite undid the buttons on her blouse and gently drew her arms out of the sleeves. She disengaged the buckle on her belt and eased the skirt over her thighs. Her hands moved up from Renée's ankles to her knees and one by one unlatched the garters on her stockings, rolling them back down towards her ankles and across the heel. She unlaced Renée's corset, opening it up, and Renée, who'd been trying not to giggle, parted her lips silently in order to facilitate her breathing. Marguerite leaned forward suddenly and kissed her passionately on the lips. She looped her hands round Renée's drawers and deftly drew them down over her thighs. As Renée lay pretending she was dead, it struck her that she'd never felt so much alive.
‘If you were ever to tell anybody – ANYBODY – what we did together, Renée, you would be shut out of Paradise forever. Do you understand?'
Although she rarely questioned anything that Margo told her, Renée wondered how you could remain in Paradise no matter what you did, as long as no one knew about it. She felt vaguely that if she were to confess her sins, she wouldn't be forgiven. Marguerite was right, perhaps. It wasn't what you did that counted, but how well you kept the secret
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