Colette is eighteen when she sees Paris where people come and go d’une façon affairée while the artists of Montmartre live en bohème, and she laughs and stays.
For a while the world seems open, eager to forget those branded years, to forget those boots that once trampled over the streets. Yet one day she looks around haunted by that sense of loss, her sombre companion she cannot silence.
So she returns to Chambord, to the nuns, to the orphanage and waits. Still hopeful, still optimistic.
Then the stars are falling. She sits on a bench in the cloister garth, lichen eating away at the stone. Cold and wonderful night. Her youth sits with burning cheeks on that bench, while she feels she has been long forgotten but still lives in the same lost room.
“Colette, ma petite,” says Sœur Blandine. “Lève-toi! Throw your face into the clouds. Soon your time is over. Be what you are, give what you have.”
“Bon,“ she says finally, her eyes fixed on the furious sparkle of one particular star. “Demain, je vais partir, to the land where all our dreams are wondrously fulfilled, the land where all our chains fall.”
Sœur Blandine hugs her and smiles.
Colette is twenty-three when she sees New York where she talks with smiling lips to foreign lips, exulted as she leaves her fear in the cold blue heights because the sun is coming. Now she will go many places but she won’t return.
It’s 1964, one year after de Gaulle and Adenauer signed «le traité d’amitié franco-allemand» and she finds herself at Lexington and 55th, hesitantly stepping into a synagogue. By habit, she looks for the stoup, wants to kneel and make the sign of the cross. Her parents were Jewish. She stands there, her back to the door and doesn’t know what to do. No one sees her and she is relieved.
Outside on the street, she finds a phone box, searches for some coins on the bottom of her handbag, places a call. It’s a surprisingly warm January and she walks up to Central Park. Under bare chestnut trees, she sits down next to him in the rain, which kisses the snowdrops, which dances on her umbrella. He holds her hand.
“Loneliness loves me, embraces me,” Omar says. “The crescent moon split my being into two: One is nothing, the other one is everything, is you.”
Colette smiles, “We drink the sweet, the bitter honey. Every day one drop.”
It’s a love very different to the one she feels for Dean. Colette knows she loves Omar because she understands him. They laugh together, carefree, determined to escape their prisons and only see the light in the darkness. They like to delude themselves but not each other. So she tells him about the synagogue and he wants to console her and doesn’t know how. It may be 1964 but a musulman prince still cannot court a Jewish girl, however Catholic she may be.
“We found an address for your brother,” he tells her instead, and she drops the umbrella, hugs and kisses him.
No sky has the pallor of doleful eyes. Colette still wonders about forgiveness when she looks at Herr Schmitt across the coffee table. Bridget might have called it cosmic irony.
“Oscar was a good boy,” he says, filling her cup with mocca faux. “Bright and caring, that he was, our Oscar.”
The smell of coffeeweed reaches her nostrils but she forces herself to focus on the pictures. Oscar, her brother – adopted by a land surveyor of the Wehrmacht and his wife, raised as a German in a small town near Worms. Herr Schmitt leaves her with the photographs just to limp into the kitchen and ultimately apologises for the lack of pastries upon his return. Colette tries to smile but finds that she barely can. Smiling, something that usually comes so naturally, so effortlessly to her – even in the worst situations.
“I bought him a car for his twenty-first birthday,” Herr Schmitt points and stares at one of the pictures. “You know how young boys are, growing into men. He loved that car –“
Fighting with the tears, they sit there in silence. Colette thinks that she should reach out, take his hand. Herr Schmitt had lost his son in an accident. She had not found her brother, indeed had lost her brother forever because she came two months too late.
“I should have never bought him that car,” he says quietly and pauses for a moment before he skips to another time and place. “Back then, had I known about you, I would have tried… but it was difficult as it was.”
“Did you know our parents were Jewish?” she asks, unsure if it makes a difference.
Herr Schmitt nods, “The nuns didn’t know much about your parents though. But my wife and I, we gave him your father’s name.”
Colette’s eyes wander through the stuffy room, the furniture, the carpet, the wallpaper – everything she would call bourgeois. But they couldn’t be bad people, she decides and wonders again, if this is a step towards forgiveness. Suddenly she feels Herr Schmitt taking her hand in his, perhaps because tears stream down her face, and she flinches briefly.
“Where is your wife, Monsieur?” she asks quietly and immediately wishes she hadn’t.
Pain makes him choke, as if big and rough hands secretly strangle him: Madame Schmitt could not cope and hanged herself on Christmas Eve. Colette can hardly breathe, doesn’t know what to say.
“I didn’t mean to upset you,” he apologises, helpless.
Swallowing hard she thinks she should have been the one to apologise.
“I don’t know you very well, Fräulein Valois. But I can see you wear a hopeful smile under grieving eyes,” Herr Schmitt says. “See, my torment coffins me in this house and I have no wisdom to give to you. But I will pray that you may smile without pain one day.”
Outside it is getting dark, the moon is rising and she will take off on the morning flight from Frankfurt. Kate will be there, and Laura, and Maggie. Familiar things. Soothing routine. For now, up on the clouds dwells everything she needs.
Colette turns away from the window and looks at Herr Schmitt. His words were kind and she hopes there is someone who takes care of him.
“Some day all stars are bound to die, yet they shine without dread,” she says showing she understood.
Herr Schmitt smiles. Colette takes his hand before they part.