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Epithalamium

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They are shy with one another at first. Charlotte is no longer Dominique now, only herself. It seems so slight a difference, and yet. It makes them tentative. Inside the chateau, Julien reaches to touch her hair then pulls away, the gesture unfinished.
—My hands are dirty.
—It doesn’t matter.
—Let me wash them first.
     Charlotte takes his hand and brings it to her face. She closes her eyes. His fingers curve, gentle and cool.
—It’s so different.
—They made me dye it, before. They said I would draw less attention.
—You could never not draw attention.

He kisses her with her eyes closed and his dirty hands in her hair. She is smiling against his mouth.

 

Julien has rescued the kitchen from the worst of its mistreatment, although it is just as cluttered and haphazard as Charlotte remembers. On the table there are fresh vegetables and fruit, bread and eggs. Chickens run in the yard and somewhere there are songbirds. Her bedroom is exactly as she left it. It is almost as if the war had never happened. Almost.
     They collect her bag and she changes from her travelling clothes. Their conversation is light as they walk in the gardens, prepare soup. It is only after Julien has poured the wine that he asks her.
—Why did you come back?
—To find you.
—Why now?
     Charlotte tells him about Peter, about her reason for joining the SOE and requesting an assignment in France. About learning of Peter’s death. And then she tells him of her meeting with Peter at the museum, the very alive Peter whose path from the past to the present is unbroken. Unlike her own.
—I discovered that I no longer loved him. Not in the way that I had. He had become part of my past, of who I used to be. And I’m no longer that girl anymore.
     Julien is silent, watching her, seeing her clearly. No one has ever looked at her quite the way he does.

 

They do not make love on the first night. Or the second. It is not a conscious decision by either of them, this abstaining. They spend the days talking and working in the gardens, the house. They kiss immoderately, excessively, breathlessly, passionately, tenderly, laughingly. Charlotte has never known so many kinds of kisses exist. It is a whole new language.

 

The nightmare is always the same. The boys are playing by the river, flying their paper planes. She turns away from them for a moment to watch the colours of sunset against the chalk cliffs. Then she hears the rumble of tanks over the bridge and when she turns back the boys are gone. She runs, she is running, alongside the tanks. She can hear the boys calling for her but she can’t see them and she wakes to helpless, empty arms and the echoes of them calling her name.
     This time when she wakes Julien is standing in the doorway.
—You cried out.
—I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to wake you.
—I wasn’t sleeping.
     He sits beside her on the bed and kisses her forehead, her cheeks. He doesn’t ask about the dream. When he begins to undress her it is also like a dream. They don’t speak, but their hands go everywhere. Julien’s body is so different from Peter’s; she wants to put her mouth on him everywhere, learn him with her tongue. Her desire is ferocious, shocking. They do not sleep.

 

Even at the height of summer, the stones of the chateau remain cool, the interior dim. Charlotte begins writing letters. To the Red Cross, the Central Tracing Bureau, the SOE. She is looking for three people taken by the Nazis from France, she writes, an old man and two young boys. In letter after letter she gives their names, their ages, any detail she can remember that might single them out among the thousands in camps. Or the millions in graves.
     She receives responses typed on thick paper with official letterheads. All say the same thing: so many missing; difficulty in determining identities; they’ll do what they can. What they don’t say, but what is implicit: try not to hope.
     When Julien finds one of these letters it is only the second time she has seem him angry.
—Why are you wasting your time with this? They are dead, Charlotte. They are all dead.
—There are survivors. They could be among them! They were taken so close to the end.
—An old man and two small boys. You think the Nazis had any use for them?
     His voice breaks and he turns away. She longs to comfort him but has no comfort to give. None that he will accept.

 

Autumn announces itself first as an early morning chill, a fine mist on the ground that the rising sun burns away. Charlotte pegs washing out mid-morning, astonished by the sky. The skies over London were sickly and wan. They seemed flat, exhausted as the city itself. Here, the sky is a blue so deep it seems alive, a great ocean she can dive into. She walks into the clearing and holds her hand up to shield her eyes from the light. Palm outward, it spills through her fingers as though she is cupping it, a handful of sun. Julien walks up behind her from the house and embraces her. They stand together and look at the sky.

 

Long-delayed letters arrive from her parents, from Daisy and Sal, full of news and a desire to know when she’ll be returning home. Charlotte has no answer.
     She has begun to think of her life as pages being written in a book. There are no chapters in this book, only spaces to indicate a change of scene or mood. The sentences and paragraphs continue on like the hours and days, one after another, their rhythm soothing. This is what she wants for the rest of her life, this quiet whisper of page against page unfolding.
     Charlotte knows that their money will not last forever; their neighbours will one day no longer be satisfied with bartering for goods. But for now it is enough. It is more than enough.
     She writes replies full of the gardens, the village, the difficulty of travel. Not once does she use the word ‘home’.

 

Julien will not talk about his dreams. Some nights he wakes shouting. Some nights he doesn’t sleep but prowls the chateau as though it is a prison he can’t escape. One night she follows him, like a ghost, her feet bare and cold against the floors. She knows that he’s aware of her presence and he finally leads them into the kitchen, where the fire is banked for the night. They sit at the table.
—There is something I have to tell you.
     She has been waiting for months for him to tell her something, anything.
—What is it?
—I killed him. Reneche. I shot him in the head.
     Of all the confessions Charlotte has thought to hear from him, this isn’t one. Julien’s face is ashen even in the dim light. He looks at her as though he is expecting her rage.
—I cannot pretend I’m sorry that he’s dead. He was an evil little man.
—But I murdered him in cold blood. I went into his home and I waited and I shot him at his front door.
—He was a collaborator, Julien. He betrayed his neighbours for his own gain and, I’m sure, malicious pleasure. He was responsible for many deaths.
—And am I any better?
     Charlotte is so shocked by this question that she cannot speak. It is as if Julien is suddenly speaking in tongues. She can’t understand what he’s saying.
—My father, my comrades. Their deaths are my fault.
—No. They are not your fault. Your father knew exactly what his fate would be when the Nazis arrived in this house, just as we all did. There is nothing you could have done to alter that. And your comrades were betrayed, but not by you! If you had been there with them, you would be dead as well.
—I was only absent because of you. Because I waited for you like a lovesick schoolboy instead of doing my duty.
—Blame me, then.
     She looks at him defiantly. He takes her hand.
—I can’t.
—You were ready enough to believe I had betrayed you, betrayed everyone. You were ready enough to shoot me, then. What changed?
—I didn’t want to love you. I tried to hate you. Not because I thought you had betrayed us; I knew the truth by then. But you distracted me from my purpose, from my pure political ideals.
     He laughs as he says it, a sorrowful sound.
—I wanted to blame you because I couldn’t blame myself.
—And now?
—You are the reason I’m alive. How can I blame you? But I cannot believe I deserve this happiness.
     There is no trace of self-pity in his expression, only the sadness and bewilderment she has so often seen on the faces of other survivors. She tries to be gentle.
—I’m not certain anyone really deserves happiness. I think the only crime is to refuse it. You cannot live your life as a requiem, Julien.
     For the first time since they have been together, he cries.

 

Charlotte has had no further answers to her enquiries by spring. It has been six months since she sent them and the tiny seed of hope she has been nurturing is withered. She thinks of the night she arrived here in Lezignac and how the boys took her for an angel. It was a cloudy night, with no stars to guide her. She remembers the terrible sensation of falling, of being the stone dropped into a well, having her lungs sucked back against her ribs until she was suffocating in midair, plummeting into a darkness where distance had vanished, its absence pushing against her eyes as she struggled for something to see. And when she finally got the parachute open, the world had expanded, or closed in, or both. Her senses confused falling with stillness, her eyes had forgotten they were made for sight, so that when she saw the lights and the trees and the ground rushing to claim her, it was like another world.
     She thinks perhaps it was, and that she has never left it.

 

She is tying back the vines in the front garden. Her hands are dirty and scratched and her hair is tangled. The day is too warm and the sun’s glare is giving her a headache. She thinks longingly of the cool interior of the house and a bath when Julien brings her a glass of water. She steps off the ladder and takes it, gulping the water and smearing dirt against the glass.
     Julien is smiling at her foolishly as she hands it back.
—What?
—Nothing.
     He puts the glass on the ground and his hands in his pockets. Then he takes them out again. Charlotte turns away, hot and exasperated, but he pulls on her hand to make her turn back.
—One year ago today I was here, tying up these same vines. And then you were here in your blue blouse with the white flowers. And I thought I was dreaming. You said you had something you wanted to tell me. And you told me your name. Do you remember?
—Of course I remember. I can’t believe you remember what I was wearing.
—I remember everything about you, Charlotte Gray. Will you be my wife?
     She stares at him, stunned. They have never mentioned the future. They have never even mentioned love since that night in the kitchen. Everything between them has been unspoken. As his face begins to waver before her, Charlotte realises that she is crying. And then she is laughing and crying at once, throwing her arms around him, holding him fiercely.
—Yes! Yes yes yes!
     They speak between kisses, between breaths. Kisses as punctuation. Kisses as sign-posts of joy.
—When?
—Soon.
—Tomorrow?
—No!
—But soon.
—Yes.

They make love in the middle of the garden, in the full light of day, where no shadows cover them.

 

An ordinary morning in August. At the market she tests the grainy skin of the first of the comice pears and brings one to her nose to inhale its sweet scent. Her mouth waters and she laughs a little at herself. These small acts are still luxuries to savour. She cannot help but bite into one as she turns toward home. The juice is sticky on her lips and she imagines with delight the pleasure of Julien kissing it away.
     The sun sits lower in the sky now, as the summer ends. She squints a little into it as the path turns east. Ahead of her, two figures are walking in her direction. They come closer and she smiles and wishes them a good morning, still half-blinded by the sun. As they pass, one of the figures speaks. It takes six, seven steps for her to understand the word she is hearing.
—Dominique?
     Charlotte turns now, with her back to the sun, and she can see them before her: two small boys, terribly thin, but so familiar, so very familiar. A cry escapes her throat and then she is running, her fruit scattered to the ground. She is on her knees, tangled with their small bodies, kissing their faces and sobbing with the force of her joy.

It is 1946. Her name is Charlotte Gray. She kneels in the dirt of the road, in the light of the rising sun, and she understands that nothing is impossible.