ANNAH PINCHES HER cold fingers together as the carriage trundles across the bridge. She shivers, gazing out on the wet night. Light, from cafés and bobbing boats, dapples the Seine, the silhouette of tall buildings a stain against the grey sky. The flare of the moon shimmers across the drift of black water, taking her back to another place, where the warm sea licks the sandy coastline. Squeezing her eyes shut, she wishes to be cradled in the ocean’s embrace again. Concentrates on remembering the hot grit of sand between her toes, the salt air taut across her skin. Anything to settle the panic that rises through her body.
‘Not far to go now,’ Monsieur Vollard murmurs next to her.
Annah tries to make out Madame Pack, seated across from her. But the woman is swathed in shadow and veils of lace. Annah can’t quite believe Mme Pack is giving her away. That she will no longer be in the woman’s service. But the linen pillowcase is bundled in her lap, filled with her belongings – one comb and an old shawl of Mme Pack’s – belying her hopes.
The carriage continues along roads that become increasingly unfamiliar. By the light of the street lamps, Annah takes in the sales booths that line the gutters: dog clippers, travelling dentists, crepe makers. A bicycle slicks past, its thin wheels leaving a snail trail in the drenched road.
The horses slow and Vollard says, ‘Here we are,’ and Annah’s composure dissolves altogether. She grips the ledge beneath the window until she can feel her fingernails buckle.
‘Please, no.’ Her lips are numb.
‘Come, Annah. It will be all right. My friend is a very fine fellow.’
He opens the door and turns to help her alight, but she resists, cowering into the furthest corner, kicking her small boots at him.
His arm circles her waist and he wrenches her from the carriage. Annah tries to snatch at Mme Pack’s hand. ‘Don’t leave me.’
Mme Pack pulls back and tugs the black glove from her hand, finger by finger, as though it is now contaminated. Her jet beads glimmer by the light of the street lamp, her kohl-rimmed eyes look away.
‘Pardon, Madame. I am sorry. Maaf,’ Annah begs, desperately trying each form of the word that she knows.
Vollard holds the girl by the shoulders so that she can’t give chase as the horses pull the coach onto the road again, disappear into the night. Annah wants to wail, double over and roar with fear, but a boy, smut smeared across his face, stops to stare. Two gentlemen, dressed in evening greatcoats and glistening silk top hats, frown at her, look enquiringly at Vollard.
‘This way, my dear,’ he says, propelling her towards a building dark with grime. Long timber shutters close in the windows of the first floor and the number six is inked onto the wall. When Vollard knocks, a woman opens the door. Vollard explains their presence and she nods, stepping back for them to pass through. Annah pauses when they step over the threshold, held at bay by the damp pong of cabbage and mould. So different from the scent of peonies and spice at Mme Pack’s. Too similar to the room Annah was locked in before that.
‘Come my dear,’ says Vollard. ‘Everything will be fine.’
As they climb the stairs, the woman returns to her rooms, closing herself and her candle away. Annah trips on a step, her eyes unable to adjust to the sudden gloom. It’s as though they wade through pitch and Vollard only releases his grip on her arm when they reach the landing.
A man wrenches open a door. He’s as tall as a bear, a dark silhouette against the red glow of the room. He holds his hands out and pulls Vollard into a short, hearty embrace.
‘Vollard, you scoundrel. Come in. What have you brought for me?’
‘I’ve brought you that girl I told you about. From Nina Pack.’
The room is dimly lit by one lamp, its scarlet shade frilled and flimsy like the flounce of a lady’s hemline. The man stoops to light three candles on a saucer, and by the flare of the match Annah sees that his largish nose is ruddy, covered in a web of veins. He wears a fez pulled low over his hair, the lamplight lending the dark wool a rouge tinge. A kerchief with crimson pinstripes peeps from his shirt pocket.
‘No beer? Not a scrap of food for this poor, starving artist?’ The man’s laugh is a bark. ‘Not to worry. Maurice brought me a bottle of claret last night. We will finish it off.’
Vollard gestures for Annah to step forward. ‘This is Annah. I thought she might model for you.’ He tugs her bag from her grasp and places it on a chair.
The tall man stands in front of her, rests one arm across his waist, brings the other upwards so his chin rests on his hand as he contemplates her. Her heart shudders against her ribs, making her feel queasy. She stares into the shadows beyond the candles. Tries not to feel his eyes creep across her skin. She should be used to this sort of scrutiny by now. She has learnt to pretend she doesn’t notice. Doesn’t care.
‘Quite lovely. She’s Malay, did you say?’
‘Something like that, I should think. Nina told a fat banker friend of hers that she wanted a Negro girl, and not three months later a policeman brought this girl to her. Found her wandering about the Gare de Lyon, with a sign hanging around her neck giving direction to Nina’s address. And her French is quite good,’ says Vollard. ‘Nina did warn me that she might be a trifle stubborn though.’
‘Fascinating. And where are you from, Annah? Before you were with Mme Pack?’
Annah thinks of the grey room on Rue de Clichy, where she spent so many months. But she knows he doesn’t mean that. He wants to know where she was born, from where she has travelled. Annah repeats what she was schooled to say to Mme Pack’s guests. ‘Envoi de Java.’ What was written on the sign that hung about her neck.
‘Ah. How exotic. That is almost perfect. I think she’ll do quite nicely, Vollard.’ The tall man puts his hand out for her to shake. ‘You can call me Paul.’
Her eyes flick to his, back to the shadows again.
‘His name is Paul, Annah. Be a good girl, now. Say Paul,’ says Vollard.
‘Paul,’ he repeats, pulling a chair out from the table.
She pronounces his name once more but doesn’t try too hard.
The tall man shrugs. ‘It is of no consequence, Vollard. Pol it will be.’
He takes a seat by the other. ‘And she will bed here?’
‘That would be best. I have nowhere else for her to go.’
Pol pours two glasses of wine. He complains of the rent he must pay for the apartment, of the poor furnishings the owner has supplied him with. He takes to his feet and fetches some cheese from a cabinet, slides it onto a plate next to a hunk of bread.
‘Nina said Annah’s not so good at housekeeping, I’m afraid. But try what you can with her, Paul.’
‘Well, I won’t starve her, but I can’t afford to pay her. I am still waiting on Theo to give me money for the paintings he has from me. I cannot even afford any studio space. I must work here for the moment,’ he says, the sweep of his arm taking in an easel and canvases. ‘How am I to feed myself, warm these rooms, if I have not even a few francs?’
It is indeed very cold in the apartment. The chill from the timber floor seems to seep through the thin soles of Annah’s shoes, spreading across her feet, snaking up her shins. She shuffles from one foot to the other. The grate is black, barren, one charred piece of wood lying in the ash. She doesn’t know what that man Pol might be saving it for, but she wishes he’d light it.
Pol refills their glasses, then leads Vollard across the room to look at three paintings stacked against the far wall. Pol’s voice is loud, demanding of attention, and Vollard nods, murmurs in agreement when he can. They have forgotten her. A draught rattles the shutters, tickles the hair at the nape of her neck, and she decides she might retire to the sofa at the end of the room, curl in on herself before her flesh turns to marble.
Just as she slips off her shoes to huddle her feet beneath her skirt, the men return to the table. Pol scrapes mould from the corner of the cheese. He tears off a piece of bread and shoves it in his mouth. Vollard finds an earthenware cup in which he pours some of the claret. He walks across the room, hands it to her, and he’s barely turned away before she gulps it down, familiar with – desperate for – the mellowing warmth that follows.
Her eyes dart around the room, so dreary compared to Mme Pack’s. The ceilings of the apartment are high, and almost every inch of wainscoting is covered with pictures: a gilt-framed portrait of a simpering lady, her bosom as pale and plump as a lychee; a large landscape featuring a grove of trees; two rows of miniatures neatly framed in lacquered timber. The rest of the paintings are obscured by the shadows that lie beyond the lamplight’s glow. The cabinets are plain, made from dark timber, nothing like the elegant pieces to be found in Mme Pack’s drawing room. The side table next to her is covered in a confusing array of objects – a statue of a nude lady, a baby’s shoe, an orange, something that looks like a cake knife, a shard of porcelain. All the chairs in the room are mismatched; Annah can see where straw escapes beneath the seat of one. Is this now to be her home? For how long? She watches Pol. His cheeks are flushed, the red wine wets his lips and his mouth is as dark as chicken liver gleaming past his brush moustache. Annah pulls her feet in closer, their chill almost painful where they press against her thighs. She kneads them with her hands through the fabric of her dress. Her breathing is short and pressure builds in her head, tightens a band about her temples. She wants to press her hands to her skull, rock and keen like the older women do in her village when they mourn a dead relative. Except Annah is the one who is dead. She is the one who is lost.
She knows why she’s been banished to this man’s rooms. Mme Pack told Vollard that this is her punishment for smashing Mme’s pretty vase the time she slapped the girl for being too slow fetching her shawl, and also for when Annah threw a teacup at cook’s head when the old crone wouldn’t give her any supper. But Annah thinks that perhaps Mme has really sent her away because she caught her special friend Octave with his arm about Annah’s waist late one night on his way to Mme’s boudoir.
Vollard throws back the rest of his wine. Soon he will be gone. He was always so kind to her when he visited Mme Pack, Annah was relieved when he came to fetch her away. But it seems it was only so he could leave her here, with this stranger – this bear of a man who crackles and spits like a forest fire, aflame with talk of his work, increasingly ablaze with each drink.
Annah’s hand trembles as she fidgets with the bric-à-brac on the side table next to her. She is alone, waning from the world she knows. She misses emerald mountains, yellow butterflies, the seashells of her island. Does her aunt wonder about her as she bags cloves for the pallid merchants? Are her cousins awaiting her return? Annah’s fingertip traces the sharp point of the porcelain shard. She cups the fragment in her palm, clenches her fist tight. Squeezes until the pain burns, is a keen high note, welcome because it cuts out, smothers, all other feeling. Her heartbeat slows, the men’s voices fade. When her fingers unfurl again, the shard lies in her hand intact, but it’s left its imprint – a long crease, a smudge of ruched skin and blood – upon her skin. She stares at the small wound, concentrates on the hot sting of it, wills all the pain in her body to gather there. She drops the porcelain to the table again and lifts the nude statue, so dusty it feels as though the lady’s pale, cool skin has been coated in powder. She glances from it to the men at the table. Her tongue clamped between her lips, she wonders if she flings the statue through the window, or if she kicks in one of those canvases, or even knocks over the candles so that the room becomes engulfed in flames, if Vollard will take her back with him.
Her fingers curl more tightly about the statue’s body.
But perhaps Vollard will be disgusted with her. He might leave her on the street; return her to Gare de Lyon to wander by herself, a new sign about her neck. Or he might take her to another stranger – somebody worse than this man. Annah eyes Pol. He has returned to his cabinet and brought out a half bottle of something – whisky perhaps, or rum. He seems cheerful enough. She thinks that perhaps she can bear him; that she will have to bear him. Her grip on the statue loosens.
When Vollard does eventually stand to take his leave, Annah refuses to look his way, or say goodbye. As the door closes on him her chest aches, she has to bite her tongue to stop from crying out. She remains tucked in the corner of the sofa. Only her dark eyes move, watching Pol dunk glasses in a basin, return the bottle of whisky to the cabinet. When he approaches, she draws back into herself, wishing she were one of those little crabs that can disappear into their spiralling shell, but all he does is place a candle on the side table next to her, drop a blanket into her lap. He douses the lamp and takes one of the remaining candles with him into the other room.
She listens to the splash of water, the rustle of clothing, the bed’s creak. Only when she hears his heavy, even breathing does she straighten out her cramped legs. Shuffling down onto her back, she realises the sofa is a few inches too short for her, so she turns onto her side. But she can’t relax. Her muscles remain tense, her bladder is full. She stares out the window through the space left by three broken shutters. Her gaze takes in the rickety roof tiles of the house across the road and the skeletal branches of the lone elm tree shuddering against the wind. When she angles her head further left, she can see the full moon, darkly hidden behind blood-red mist.
LIGHT GLINTS ACROSS her skin, metallic almost. It doesn’t have the warmth of the orange sun that flows through the open doorways in the village manise that is so far from this place – so far that its light is starting to fade for Annah. But she has seen that radiance here, too, in this ville lumière, on those rare hot days: dazzling days that make the people here wilt, hide behind baking walls. That’s when she likes to walk the boulevards, surrender her face to the bright sky, feel the heat burnish the dark skin of her cheeks, her forehead, the tips of her ears.
Five nights Annah has spent on the sofa, crouched on her side. Three of those evenings Pol stayed up painting until the candles guttered: a portrait of himself for which he dons a wide-brimmed hat and peers into a spotty mirror on the wall. When she peeked at it that first morning, he muttered: ‘I have to paint myself. This is what I am reduced to, girl.’ Those nights she fell asleep listening to him hum as his paintbrush swished across canvas. During the day she watches him sketch or play the harmonium in the corner of the room, or she sits by the window and looks down on the street. She avoids catching his beetle gaze, when he stares at her for minutes at a time. Each morning he has her sweep the floors, and it seems that every two hours he demands another cup of watery chocolate. The smell of acrid oils, burning wax, tobacco smoke that puffs from his short pipe have grown on her.
On the third day he had sent her out twice – once to buy apples from the market, another to buy bread. It felt strange being outside again. Her head whirled when she stepped into the cool air. As she picked her way across the muddy cobblestones, she felt light, as though suddenly untethered, a feathery dandelion drifting on the breeze, lifted into the air, mingling with the leaves of the yew trees. It was an unsettling feeling, though. She paused, peered up at the strip of slate sky enclosed on each side by brick buildings, filthy terraces and chimneys caked in a film of soot. A pedlar shouted at her to move on, pushing past with a barrow of turnips and carrots. And in that moment she thought of how she could slip away, run. Pol would never find her. But then what would she do? She had no friends and, when she glanced down at the four sous in the palm of her hand, she realised she would need more money.
Annah’s brought back to the present by the sound of the fishmonger’s call from below. She wraps the blanket about her shoulders and crosses to the windows. Pushing the shutters wide, her blood quickens as she gazes upon Rue Vercingétorix. Pedestrians amble down the middle of the road, paying little heed to the horse and carriage approaching. A group of five men, bowler hats pulled low, lounge in chairs outside the café, and a peddler peers deep into his wicker basket of cabbages. One woman, neatly buttoned up in a dark bodice, walks her black dog. Another dog, smaller, with a sandy coat, pisses against the tobacconist’s doorjamb, and the storekeeper across the way pulls his cabinet of goods out onto the pavement with the help of his skinny assistant. The cold air is still and the pungent, syrupy odours of human offal – refuse, excretions, dung – battle the comforting aroma from the boulangerie on the next corner.
‘Here, Annah, I have brought you a new gown,’ says Pol, flinging a mass of black cambric over the back of a chair. He points at her dress. ‘Throw out that terrible cheesecloth thing.’
He’s been much more cheerful since the man with the nice face and the sympathetic eyebrows brought him a clinking purse of money the day before. Pol immediately bought more whisky and salted meat to put in his cabinet and a large jar of vegetables, vert and pickled, which he shared with Annah in front of the hearth where, for once, a lively fire burned.
Annah picks up the gown from the chair back. She carries it to the window and sees that the fabric is not black at all, but a deep blue, as dark as the velvety night sky that surrounds the moon.
Pol settles into an armchair. She holds the gown to her chest and as she walks into the other room he snorts, says something she can’t quite understand.
She strips out of her plain dress and drapes it over Pol’s unmade bed. Inspecting the new gown, Annah wonders how many other owners it has clothed – one or two at the most, she thinks, her eyes taking in its smooth nap. With her thumbnail, she scrapes away a chalky stain upon the wide lapel. A bit of the stitching has come undone about the waistband, but that she can fix if she can get hold of a needle and thread – tending to Mme Pack’s fine apparel was the only chore Annah had really enjoyed at the other house. As she steps into the gown and pulls it up over her body, a puff of mustiness and stale perfume reaches her nostrils. She’s had worse, though – like the dress she wore before she met Mme that was stiff beneath the armpits from someone else’s sweat.
When she returns to the living room, Pol’s taking down all the sombre portraits that litter the walls. He climbs onto a chair, directs her to take the dusty frames from him and stack them by the entrance. She moves slowly, wishes he’d asked for her help in this before she donned her new gown. When they have cleared the wainscoting, Annah soaks her dirty hands in a pail of water while Pol slaps long strokes of yellow paint across the walls. He’s only interrupted once when there is a rap at the door. Annah opens it, and a man clambers through, lugging a large cage that he knocks against the doorjamb, chipping the wood. He wears a velvet coat, a green parrot perched atop his shoulder. Dashes of white bird droppings splotch his back.
‘Ah, good man,’ Pol cries.
Between the two of them, they carry the cage into the corner of the room nearest to the windows. Just as Annah draws close, bends to take a look, a small creature, covered in ginger fur, slams its body against the front of the cage. It clings to the bars with its little fingers, chatters in a high pitch.
The man in the velvet coat hands her a leather leash, tells Pol to feed fruit to the animal.
‘A present for you, Annah,’ says Pol. ‘A monkey.’
Annah frowns. Already, she can smell the monyet’s stinky hide. It probably bites. It will make them ill. She will certainly have nothing to do with it.
WHEN ANNAH RETURNS from the market with a bag of meat scraps, Pol has finished coating the walls and it is as though they must now live within the bright yolk of an egg.
Steadying the single pot over the fire, she waits for it to become hot, and watches as Pol hangs his self-portrait near the doorway to the bedroom. She empties the raw meat into the pot’s black depths. The puce cuts of meat turn brown, the honeycombed tripe coils against the heat. She adds water, stirs the muck with a battered ladle.
Pol drags the chair near, steps up onto it to hammer a nail into the wall above the mantelpiece. He squats to lift a painting of a woman seated in a rocking chair. As he attaches it to the wall, Annah steps back, enraptured by the languid lines of the woman, her black hair, her cinnamon skin, which is the same shade as Annah’s own. The woman’s dress is as red as a nutmeg’s lacy mace. Her bare foot reaches from beneath its folds.
The walls of Mme Pack’s drawing room were covered with gilt-framed portraits of women, some richly decorated in silks and bows, others with only a coy strip of muslin to cover alabaster skin, offering a glimpse of pink nipple, flushed cheek. But to Annah there is something far more beautiful about this painting here in front of her. Something that feels almost familiar. A sudden sense of aloneness takes her by surprise. She breathes in, breathes in.
‘You paint this?’ she asks Pol, who’s wiping his brow with a filthy handkerchief.
He nods. ‘And many more.’ He stands with his hands on hips, head thrust back as he gazes at the painting. ‘These paintings will be the making of me, Annah. My time will finally come.’
‘I like it.’
‘I will be a great artist, Annah,’ he says, nodding, as though he’s telling her a secret. His voice is grave. ‘I know it.’ They admire the painting while the stew bubbles. The monkey scrambles from one side of its cage to the other. ‘Here, Annah, help me hang this one now.’
They hang three more paintings: a long, narrow canvas of foliage and terrain, painted the vibrant colours of a fruit dove’s plumage; a group of dark people, dressed in bright robes, seated in the orange dirt beneath a tree; a woman, perhaps the same woman as the one wearing the red dress, with her bare legs stretched out across an expanse of apricot sand, two purple mountains looming behind her. Annah runs her finger gently across the fronds of a golden palm tree. She had almost forgotten the sight of these trees, once so plentiful they were easily overlooked.
She points at the painting of the crowd seated on the ground, says, ‘Where?’
‘Tahiti, Annah. Have you heard of it?’
She shakes her head. Wonders if it is close to where she is from. Stepping near, she studies the bank of pink flowers behind the woman and the fruit in the bowl by her side. She’s sure the orange fruit is a mangga, and her stomach constricts for its sweetness. And the dark-green fruit that lies at the back of the wooden bowl is perhaps an unripe papaya. How she misses such things.
Her eyes turn to the people, seeking similarities between these flat figures and her own people, besides the dark skin, the long black hair.
‘Annah!’ Pol spits meat back into the ladle. He scowls at her. ‘This is inedible.’
She stares at him. Looks down at the watery lumps of meat.
What does he expect when she has no spices, no peppery vegetables to flavour the food?
THAT NIGHT VOLLARD returns, another man in tow, who he introduces as Alfons. Pol shakes the newcomer’s hand, his voice booming out a welcome, but behind his smile he’s watchful, his tall frame drawn broad, defensive, as the men circle the room gazing up at the paintings.
Annah and Pol have arranged the chairs and sofa around a table on which is an assortment of cheese, bread and fruit that Annah fetched from the market after Pol tasted her stew, declaring it too dastardly to serve to his guests.
‘You must have an exhibition, Paul,’ says Vollard.
The man, Alfons, agrees. ‘I have never seen anything quite like it. Superb.’
‘It’s the primitive aesthetic I am so much in search of, you see. It’s the only way I can work now. And the pure colours! Everything must be sacrificed to it!’
By the time they join Annah at the table, Pol is relaxed again, softened by his guests’ kind words and the wine they have brought.
Annah picks up a slice of pear, slides it into her mouth.
‘Annah, bring out your monkey. Show these gentlemen your new pet.’
She slowly bites down on the pear, and a sour note quivers at the back of her jaw.
‘Annah, fetch the monkey!’ Pol frowns at her, raps his knuckles against the tabletop twice. Murmurs something to Vollard.
The cage is tucked away behind Pol’s easel and its barn stench becomes stronger as she slowly approaches. She crouches down, peers into the cage’s gloom. The lump of meat she squeezed through the bars earlier in the day still lies on the floor where it fell among the monkey’s pellet-like scats and the damp, shredded newspaper. The monkey is hunched by the bars, its wide eyes upon her. Annah is repulsed by how much the monyet resembles a little boy. She wrinkles her nose and folds her arms.
‘Don’t be foolish, girl,’ says Pol, pushing past her. He yanks open the side door of the cage and, reaching in, grabs the monkey about its waist. With deft, sure fingers he attaches the collar and leash about its neck. He tries to shove the creature into Annah’s arms, which are still crossed, so that the monkey’s stubby fingers and toes must grip the folds of her bodice. Her heartbeat leaps with fright when it bares its little, sharp teeth at her. She bares her teeth back. Pol returns to the others. They talk of his work, clink their glasses of wine, laugh, clip the breadboard with the knife, but she stands frozen, unsure of what the monyet will do should she move. Its fur is pungent with the odour of sweet urine and something like straw. Its eyes are fathomless, as dark and shiny as a longan pip.
Slowly, she uncoils one arm, takes hold of the leash and crosses the room to lower herself carefully onto the sofa next to Pol. With a friendly dip of the head, Alfons passes her a wine. As she takes a long sip, she examines him over the cup’s rim. He has a bushy head of brown hair, one shade darker than his beard, and his moustache tufts upwards at the corners, giving his face a cheerful countenance.
The monkey reaches its thin hand up to Annah’s face, its cold fingers dabbing her skin. She leans away, but it clings even tighter about her neck and she lets out a short grunt of disgust. Alfons reaches over and lifts the monkey from her breast, lets it snuggle into the crook of his arm.
‘It is only cold, you see.’ His right hand strokes the monkey’s back. ‘What is its name?’ he asks her, but his accent is different from Pol’s – more guttural, clipped. She narrows her eyes, trying to decipher his words.
‘What have you named the monkey, Annah?’ Pol repeats.
‘Monyet.’ What a strange question. Why would she be so ridiculous as to name a wild animal as though it were a person?
‘Monyet,’ Alfons repeats, delighted.
‘Alfons,’ Pol interrupts, ‘you were saying that you have seen some of Vincent’s work from our time in Arles.’
‘And what did you think?’
‘I can’t be sure what I thought, to tell you the truth.’
Pol nods. ‘He still had a thing or two to learn after all, and I was the older man. I read a review just recently, you know, that said “Gauguin’s drawing somewhat recalls that of Van Gogh”, and I had to smile.’ But he doesn’t smile.
‘Vollard says you were there, Paul, when he…?’ says Alfons.
Annah brings the cup to her lips, takes three gulps.
‘Yes. It all started out quite well…’
She stares down at the wine, watches the candlelight’s halo ripple across its ruby surface.
‘…rough and noisy fellow. Silent in the end, of course.’
The alcohol seeps its way into Annah’s blood, loosens her thoughts as it always does. As Pol’s voice rumbles over her, as she sits among the three men, she thinks of another – René. His hair so fair, and skin as pale as the flesh of a breadfruit. And still young, almost as young as she. Her eyes flick over Vollard’s fingers that are hairy near the knuckles and the greying hair that peeps from beneath Pol’s fez. Her gaze drops to her wine again, and she thinks of René’s soft hand cupping her face that first time, the sweep of his thumb across her cheek as his lips pressed hers. She closes her eyes and she can feel his fingers upon the line of her jaw again, curving behind her ear; a whisper, yet searing too.
‘I owe something to Vincent, you know, for in the consciousness of being of use to him…’
Annah tips the last drop of wine onto her tongue, and Alfons takes the cup from her, refills it. Immediately, she takes another sip.
‘…confirmed my own ideas about painting…’
Thankfully her thoughts begin to blur. The men grow distant, muffled, as though she is submerged in the ocean, dark water filling her ears, stinging her eyes, holding her suspended. Not for the first time, she wonders: if she is to will it hard enough, allow her mind to waver between this world and the next, René will appear in the doorway for some wondrous reason – perhaps he too has become an artist, or perhaps he is friends with one of these men. Perhaps it is simply that he has come in search of her. Annah brings the cup to her lips and finishes the wine, hoping, as she always does, for its magical promise to come true.
‘And, of course, in the difficult moments, it is good to remember there are those who are unhappier than oneself.’ Pol rests his hand on Annah’s thigh. ‘But enough of poor Vincent. You must tell me of your studio, Alfons. Perhaps there is room there for some of my pieces.’
Later that evening, when their guests have left, Annah leaves off being Pol’s hamba and becomes his maîtresse instead. He has her straddle him that first time. The wine has left her numb yet supple and, as she sways above him, she wishes his hips were narrower so she could enfold him as neatly as she did her René.
‘ANNAH, I THINK it is time I painted you,’ Pol says as he sorts through a tin box of painting equipment. He holds up two thick paintbrushes, inspects their tips against one another.
A tremor of delight curls through Annah’s body. She scans the many paintings that have lately arrived from Tahiti in a padded wooden crate: a clamour of colour and shapes splashed across the yellow walls. Of brown people, cobalt sea, viridian grass. Of sienna heat and blue air. All that she misses of her own home.
‘Like this?’ she asks, pointing to the languid woman in the red dress.
He glances up from where he melts wax into a small pot of paint. ‘No, of course not,’ he says, frowning. ‘There is nothing new in a portrait of yet another gowned mademoiselle. I am thinking of something more like that one.’ He nods towards the painting of the nude woman seated next to the bowl of fruit.
‘I wear my dress.’
‘No, Annah, you will not wear your dress. And you must hurry, before we lose all the light.’ He arranges an armchair in front of his easel. When he sees she hasn’t moved he tuts. ‘Merde, Annah. You are more difficult than that monkey.’ She tries to tug away from his grasp, but his voice becomes wheedling as he unbuttons her gown. ‘Alfons visits again tonight, with many of our friends. Wouldn’t you like to be famous?’ He gestures towards all the canvases that decorate the walls. ‘Your portrait will hang in a rich man’s house one day. Or perhaps a gallery. You would like that, wouldn’t you, Annah? Everyone will know you, forever, long after you have left this world. They will know of who you are and how you lived with me, a very great artist.’
Annah pauses. Allows Pol to finish undressing her.
As he arranges her in the chair – hands draped over its arms, feet crossed on a footstool – she thinks of the hours she lies awake sometimes, listening to Pol’s snores, a clot of dread in her stomach, perspiration cool on her brow. Anxious that she will never return to her island, will forget the sting of colo-colo on her tongue, won’t ever be among her like again. Who is to remember her? Her aunt will die soon enough, her cousins will marry and have children. There will be little room left for them to wonder about her. René – and it scorches her to think on it – has probably already put her from his mind. She will fade from all memory like the fan of colour disappears from a sun-bleached shell.
‘You must concentrate, Annah,’ says Pol, pushing her knee towards the other, leaving a cerulean streak across her skin. ‘I must get your composition just right before we lose daylight.’ He steps back, his eyes skimming her face, her torso, her legs. Standing behind his canvas, his brushstrokes are long, sweeping. Every few seconds he glances at her, at the three sketches he’s drawn in charcoal, then returns to his work.
By the time he tosses his brush atop his palette, announcing he’s finished for the day, her toes are almost numb with the cold and thin, blue veins spider her chilled thighs. She waits until she hears the splash of piss against the chamber-pot in the next room before she tiptoes over to the easel, but she’s perplexed by what she finds. Broad swirls, as bright as the kingfisher’s lazuli breast, sweep across the canvas. The paint so thin in some areas, Annah can see the weave of the canvas. Other sections are dark, layered with thick strokes of umber. It is only when she steps back that she discerns her own likeness, in the tilt of the head, the curve of the legs. She is a shadow, a bruise, a wraith without substance. Her breaths squeeze tight. She wonders if Pol doesn’t see her, doesn’t need to, or worse – he recognises a lack in her, a hollowness.
‘Close your mouth, Annah,’ Pol says, entering the living area again. ‘It is not finished yet. And help me clear this mess away; our guests are to arrive soon.’
She watches as he drags the easel to the side of the room and pulls all the chairs into a circle. He pours himself half a tumbler of whisky, and she holds her hand out, wants to sip some too, knows how its flame will dull the edges. He shakes his head, says, ‘Maybe later. At least light the fire, girl. Make yourself useful.’ But she pretends she doesn’t hear and picks up her dress.
‘No, Annah, tonight I want you to wear the pareo.’ She looks across at the length of fabric that partially covers the round table. It resembles a sarung, its pattern not unlike that of batik, but it feels rough against her skin. It is similar to what the women are seated upon in some of the paintings, but instead of deep-sea blue, the design on this pareo holds the colours of tree bark and coconut husks.
As she winds it about her body, Pol dons a waistcoat with a green-and-yellow embroidered trim about the collar. He drapes a long cloak with large mother-of-pearl buttons about his shoulders, and on his head he wears his fez. Over his long fingers he draws gloves as white as sea froth. Annah stands by the fire to warm her bare arms while Pol rummages through a box, and exclaims with delight when he draws out what looks like a long wooden club. He taps it against the timber floor.
‘Look, Annah, it’s a walking stick. I carved it myself. See here are my initials, and this here,’ his long finger points at a milky glimmer set in the wood, ‘is a real pearl.’
THE BRASS BELL tinkles again and, as instructed, Annah greets the newcomers with a small bow, a lily cupped between her prayer hands. Pol’s paintings are ablaze by the light of so many candles and lamps, reminding Annah of the blinding kaleidoscope of coloured glass in the chapel she had visited one prayer day with Mme Pack. Pol has placed clusters of statues about the room – carvings from the South Seas, he informs two of his guests. Mostly the carvings are stubby little creatures of blonde timber, with blank eyes, scrolled nostrils and swollen bellies, but one makes her smile – a dark wooden figure, with two heads and a little kontol poking from between its legs.
The men hush for a few moments so that one of them – a slim youth with a rash of blistering spots on his face – can recite from a small, leather-bound book. While he reads, Annah tosses back the rest of Pol’s whisky that he’s left on the mantelpiece. The liquor washes down to her empty stomach, leaving her feeling a little sickened, but it doesn’t stop her eyes from searching the room for more wine or spirits to swallow. A man who Annah at first mistook for Alfons – he has similar features and bushy, brown hair, but she remembers now that his name is Molard – takes to playing the harmonium, drumming out a tune. The din is terrible. The men shout above each other, even more so than the farmers at market in the morning.
Somebody – she thinks perhaps the man from a place called Ireland, who is also a painter like Pol – has left his glass of wine on the table next to the platters of liverwurst and roasted fowl. Annah drains the glass. She refills it again from one of the several bottles of wine that stand sentinel at the end of the table, brought along by Pol’s guests, accepted by him as though they were offerings.
The bell tinkles and, snatching up the lily, Annah opens the door to Alfons, who lugs a box that rattles with bottles of beer. With a joyful cry, the man from Ireland grabs one as Alfons passes. He takes a swig and, smacking his lips, notices the shivering monyet crouched beneath the easel. He approaches it, hand outstretched, his shoes treading monyet droppings into the floorboards. The monkey dashes towards its cage, tangling its leash about the easel’s legs. With soothing clucks, the man squats and unravels the leash, but the ungrateful monkey persists in evading his advances and lopes across the floor, hides under the armchair.
Alfons places a cup of beer into Annah’s hands. It’s bitter and stings her nose, but she learns soon enough that it adds to the welcome fog in her head, slows down her thoughts, just as wine does. She rocks onto the balls of her feet, amused as she watches the monyet creep from beneath the armchair, swing his way to the tabletop, reach his blunt little fingers towards a wrinkled date. Pol gives him a hard rap across the top of his skull, and the monyet squeals, leaps to the floor and scoots up the inside of Annah’s pareo. Some of the men laugh as she slaps at the lump in her skirt, where the monyet swings against her shins, but the silly creature won’t come out. She shuffles to the armchair and takes a seat, hoping that, with time, the monyet will retire back to his original hiding place.
Alfons pulls a chair close, placing a plate of food by her side. He slices himself some meat and takes a seat. ‘Annah, tell me about how you came to be in Paris?’
Annah sucks an olive into her mouth, licks the salt from her lips. She rides out the meld of noise, colours, movement as though she’s a paper boat dipping giddily over shallow swell. She peers at him across the spuming water. ‘A ship. With Marchands. I was servant.’ Scraping the last of the olive from the pip with her bottom teeth, she places it onto the knife’s flat edge. She pops another one into her mouth.
He smiles, nods, but doesn’t press her for more. He doesn’t think to ask about the Marchand family who picked her up on their way back to France. Or their two little girls, with hair as yellow as corn husk, who she had to tend. And how could he know to enquire after their older brother, René, who used to stand so close behind her – too close almost – she could barely think of anything besides the heat of him. The olive flesh seems rough as it courses its way down her throat. She places the pip next to the other on the knife.
‘And then? How did you find your way to Mme Pack’s?’
She stares at Alfons until her vision doubles – triples: the freckles on his face, his ears, his nose. Annah knows what he’s asking, but she doesn’t want to answer. That time in her life, between René and wandering the streets with the sign about her neck, is stippled with shards of grey. She flinches from its touch.
‘Mme Sérusier is still beautiful. Despite her age.’ Pol’s voice rises like a wave in the ocean before dissipating again into the general roar.
‘Paul tells me you are fifteen years old,’ Alfons says to Annah.
‘Yes. Fifteen year old.’ This she has also learnt to say.
‘You are still very young,’ he says, pouring more beer into her cup from his bottle.
Annah stares at the portrait above the mantelpiece. Very young. Very young for what? She cannot be sure what being very young means to him, so she doesn’t reply. She chews the flesh from another olive. As she lines the grainy pip next to the others on the knife’s edge, her tongue tastes where the olive’s salt has puckered the skin of her bottom lip.
A short man, largely hidden behind a canvas, bustles into the room.
‘Ah, Le Barc, you are here,’ cries Pol. ‘And you have brought my painting?’
‘Yes, Monsieur. It arrived from Copenhagen today. Unfortunately they were not able to sell it.’ He rubs the back of his wrist against his long sideburn.
Pol’s smile is sad. ‘People don’t yet understand my work, my friend. But I am sure once it hangs in Durand-Ruel’s gallery, it will find a home.’
The monkey pokes its head out from beneath Annah’s skirt and shimmies its way to her lap. It backs up against her stomach and surveys the room with a tilt of its head. Its soft fur is an undulation of grey to white to ginger and she gently brushes the side of her finger along the long bristles of hair that spring from its ear.
All of the men cross the room to gaze upon the painting that Le Barc props above the harmonium. Through a gap between Molard and Pol, Annah can only make out purples and a rich earthen colour.
‘Tehura. I was so moved and stimulated by my lovely Tehura in Tahiti,’ says Pol, beer sloshing over the side of his glass as he salutes the painting. ‘You will perhaps recognise, messieurs, that this painting is inspired by Manet’s Olympia. Here, have a look at this copy of the original, and then I will explain how mine differs.’ He takes a photograph from his painting box and hands it to Molard. ‘I showed this exact copy to Tehura. Oh, how she sighed over Olympia’s fair beauty. And then do you know what she said to me? She said This is your wife! Can you believe it? How I laughed. And do you know what I did? I lied. I said Yes, she is my wife. Ha. Me! Olympia’s consort.’ The men laugh; one of them smacks Pol on the back.
Annah pushes the monkey from her lap and stands, curious to see what Pol speaks of. She wavers on her feet again, giddy from the beer. Approaching the men crowded around the harmonium, she peers past somebody’s elbow. Her eyes take in the sepia tones of the photograph Pol places against the bottom of his painting. A beautiful woman reclines against a cushion, her skin as bare and pale as the pearl in Pol’s stick. A flower, its petals drowsy and ripe, is tucked behind her ear. The expression on her face is that of a Sultan’s wife: proud, yet perhaps a little bored. She wears a ribbon about her neck and a bangle on her wrist. Fine sandals, with a pretty heel, adorn her shapely feet. She lies on dishevelled sheets, and a servant holds a large bouquet for her.
Annah’s gaze turns to the servant: a black woman, the outline of her features almost lost against the photograph’s pewter tint. Annah eases closer, staring at the curious headdress the woman wears wound about the top of her head. She wonders where the servant is from, and how she found herself working for the pearly lady. Perhaps Mme Pack saw this painting too, just as Pol did, and that’s when she decided she needed a Negro girl to attend to her.
‘The motif in my painting is savage and quite childlike, you will notice.’
Annah steps back again and looks up at Pol’s portrait. She likes the violet floor, the lilac background. A girl is stretched out across a bed. She lies on her front, and as Annah’s eyes sweep across the supine figure, she realises it was the girl’s brown skin that caught her eye earlier, not the toasted earth. Like Olympia, Tehura is naked, served up on a white sheet.
‘See by the lines and the movement of Tehura’s body, the gesture of her hands, how she seems frightened by something?’
Alfons nods; another man says yes.
‘You must understand that Tahitians have a great fear of spirits.’ Pol’s words slur slightly. He squints at the painting as though he’s trying to bring it into focus. ‘I named it Manao Tupapau, which in their pidgin language means spirit and thought.’ He pauses to gulp down more beer. ‘But I rather think I might rename it. Something to do with how she knows she is being watched – that is what frightens her, you see – by this,’ his finger taps a dark figure in the background of the painting, ‘the spirit of the dead.’
The simple figure is hooded in black with a wide eye on Tehura. Annah’s gaze returns to the black servant in the photograph of the original painting. Pol has turned the servant into the spirit of the dead. Has taken her darkness – its stain a contrast to Olympia’s pearlescent vitality – and turned it into death.
The men’s eyes linger over Tehura’s sprawled figure. One of the artists tears a handful of breast meat from the roasted fowl, stuffs it into his mouth; Molard draws on his cigarette, examining the painting through the smoke that hangs in the air.
Annah glances to the corner of the studio where Pol’s painting of her rests beneath a blanket. Is that how Pol sees her too? A spectre to watch over those who live. Her shadow so dark, she feels heavy with it. She drains the last of somebody’s beer.
Some of the men return to the wine and food on the round table. Two start up a noisy game of piquet. The monkey races across the floorboards, chasing a cockroach along the skirting board. Grasping the bug in his little hand as though he holds a piece of bread and butter, he shoves it into his mouth and munches.
Pol joins the spotty youth and another young man who are looking up at a painting of two women – naked, with garlands in their hair – resting by a copper slick of water. ‘Ah. I was a man retired from civilised life, in a place where all was golden and beautiful – never conscious of good or evil.’ The spotty youth turns away abruptly, his lip lifting in an infinitesimal smirk as he catches Molard’s eye.
There’s a drunken stagger to Pol’s step as he returns to his painting of Tehura and the spirit of the dead. He drapes his arm around Annah’s neck, the flat of his hand resting against her breast.
His eyes caress the painting. ‘Look at Tehura, my sweet Tehura, who became more docile and loving with each day. In that tropical paradise, messieurs, we need only know of the basic human sensations. It taught me that I can follow my fancy wherever I am. I can follow the moon, if I so wish.’ He takes his heavy arm from her shoulder and, with a little shove, he strides across the room. Snatching up a thin paintbrush, which he jabs in his palette, he moves to the window and paints the words te faruru on the glass.
‘What does it say?’ asks Annah.
‘Here we make love,’ says Alfons.
Towards dawn, Pol bends Annah over the bed. Her head, her breasts, lurch with each thrust. He squeezes her waist, says, ‘Make some noise. Make some noise,’ and she grunts, in rhythm, until the foolish monyet starts screeching, perhaps in alarm, perhaps because it feels left out.
POL’S HEAD IS bowed over the harmonium. He’s wearing a shirt and overcoat, but his long limbs are bare, his pale toes stroking the long, silver fur of the wolf-skin rug. Annah allows herself to think of the other one. René. Of his smallish hands, how they swept the smooth skin of her inner thigh. She feels a ripple of desire; not for Pol though. She watches as his fingers clank out another tune across the keyboard.
Pol pauses for a moment mid-tune and Annah returns to sit before the easel. The upholstery of the armchair, the colour of claret, is worn thin where it is most disturbed by the pressure of countless hands and buttocks. She can feel the roughness of its torn fabric against her bare skin so she raises herself into a squat and perches on the edge of the seat like a starling.
She looks at the portrait Pol has painted of her, finished now, where she is seated naked in this very chair. In the painting, though, the chair is the colour of the ocean’s blue shallows. Pol said it reminds him of that place called Tahiti. And Annah knows that the painting’s russet heat and basking yellow are further deceits – bold exaggerations created by Pol’s brush. The painting’s cheery shades are purloined from the flickering flames of an evening’s fire and the tubes of paint that are strewn, twisted and abandoned, across the tabletop. Staring at the painting – at the expression on her face that imitates the fair Olympia’s, and the silly monyet fidgeting on the floor – she decides that she rather likes it. Likes how its lustre cuts though the mute hues of the morning.
She pulls the pareo around herself more tightly. Pol says it’s too early to light the stinky, tallow candles, but she’s sick of the dreariness – the ash on the hearth, the blanket of dust, the mould on the one apple that sits, pockmarked and lonely, upon the sideboard.
‘Can we have fire?’ she asks him, raising her voice above the music.
He looks over his shoulder at her, and his eyebrows lift, as though he’s surprised at her presence. He rubs his big nose.
‘If we light it now, Annah, we will not have a fire tonight.’ He nods towards the solitary, charred log in the fireplace. He starts up again, and the wild notes jangle in her ears.
‘You get more firewood,’ she says.
His back stiffens. She knows he hasn’t enough money left to purchase more. Her heart races a little, but not because she’s scared of him. She studies him, a buffalo in the field, gauging just how far his temper will reach. Perhaps he will jump to his feet, knocking the piano stool back. He might bellow at her, spittle brimming his moustache, and wave his arms, or hit her across the head again, like the other night when she served roasted sheep’s head for supper. He screamed at her that such fare was only good enough for peasants and vagabonds.
She wishes he would storm out of the apartment, leave her alone for once. She would immediately light that log.
Instead – worse – he ignores her. His fingers find the notes again, slowly this time, sulky.
‘I am hungry,’ she says. ‘The monkey, he is hungry.’
Pol slams his hands down on a cacophony of notes. The monyet squeaks.
‘Merde, Annah, will you never stop.’ He rummages in his pockets and brings out a few coins. ‘Buy some bread. But go somewhere new, for heaven’s sake. I am sick of the stale rubbish you bring me.’
Annah ties the money into a handkerchief, places it into the bottom of a basket. She takes Pol’s wide-brimmed hat and pulls it as low as it will go over her head. It is not every day that somebody spits at her, or calls out, or refuses to serve her when she goes about without Pol or Mme Pack or René’s mother, but it has happened enough times for her to be careful. Sometimes she thinks she should perhaps cover her face with black lace, like the women who have lost their husbands, but some nugget of resistance has crystallised deep within her, revels in the flicker of fear at the back of their yellow eyes when they are confronted with the dark spectre of herself. And, in any case, she has not the money to purchase a length of lace.
She passes the boulangerie on the corner and keeps walking until she reaches the Italian bakery further down the road where the woman gladly sells Annah yesterday’s bread. Annah hands over a coin – calculating how she can save one, perhaps two, of the remaining centimes for herself – and drops the hard, round loaf into her basket. Stepping from the shop, she hesitates, not wanting to return to Pol’s apartment just yet. She makes her way towards the small market crammed behind the glue factory, familiar with its stench of mud and manure, the snorting pigs and crates of chickens, barrows of vegetables still crusted with dirt, the tables laden with used clothing, patched and stiff. Add one more sweet note and the market would smell like durian. The man from whom she buys the very cheapest cuts of meat cries out from where he squats in the back of his wagon, a greasy mutton carcass nudging his shoulder. A woman tugs at a goat’s teat, the milk squirting into a boy’s pail. Annah’s eyes snag on a pear that teeters atop a wooden crate, imagines sinking her teeth into the pink blush that freckles its green cheek, the roll of peel and pulp against her tongue. She wants to buy the pear, wolf it down immediately so she doesn’t have to share it with Pol. Her fingers press against the coins still in the handkerchief. She takes a deep breath and turns away, deciding against it. If she spends money on the pear, that’s one less sou to save for herself. Instead, she stops to buy three gooseberries for the monyet from another vendor and some cocoa for Pol from an old woman. As she leans forward to pay, a fragrance reaches her nostrils, lurches her into brightness, a blanket of heat, a sharp undercurrent of dried fish and salt. Tears press at the back of her eyes, congest her nose. She looks around as though she will see her own people on the wooden dock that creaks and sways above the water, but of course there is nothing more than the red brick of the factory and the alley’s dry chill. She pulls at the lip of a small hessian sack in the woman’s barrow, revealing a mound of ground nutmeg.
The woman clamps the bag shut. ‘This is a very precious spice. Too expensive for you.’
‘WHAT MONEY REMAINS?’ Pol asks, coming in from the bedroom.
Annah places two sous on the table and while Pol rifles through the basket, she takes a bronze coin from where it’s tucked inside the cuff of her sleeve and slides it under one of the carvings from Tahiti. When she first decided to save what coins she could, she considered hiding the money in an old coffee tin. But what if she is taken away again suddenly and isn’t given the opportunity to fetch her savings? And she wouldn’t want Pol to notice the tin’s rattle, wrest the money back from her to buy more wine or that salted meat he loves so much. Instead, when Pol is distracted, she sews the coins into the hem of her gown so that now there is a satisfying heft to the swing of her skirt. She realises, though, that her gown would have to be very heavy indeed before she would have enough centimes and the occasional franc to escape.
Pol swears. ‘Annah, you have brought me nothing more than stale bread again. What must I do to convince you that I do not want to sup on your delicacies of hard bread and beef stomach?’
Annah shrugs. ‘More money for good food.’
Pol slams the bread back into the basket. ‘And look at this place!’ His arms take in the dirty crockery stacked by the basin, the monkey droppings and ash strewn across the bare floors, the clutter of paint tubes and jars. ‘You are supposed to keep this place tidy. You are no better than that monkey of yours, that just shits and eats.’
‘Not my monkey.’ She doesn’t look at Pol as she leans across the table to take the gooseberries from the basket, but she tenses for a slap across the arm or face. Instead he thumps the table and swears again. Carrying the berries across to the cage, she squeezes each one through the bars, breathing in the monkey’s familiar odour.
‘I can’t spend another minute here,’ Pol says, striding to the door. ‘Put your coat back on, Annah. Alfons said the photographs of my work should be ready today. And he’s bound to have beer, and better food than what you provide me with.’
Annah gladly tugs Pol’s old coat on again and follows him out onto the street. She enjoys their visits to Alfons’s studio, where Alfons is cheerful, as are the other artists who work with him. Sometimes Alfons gives Annah a box of pink sweets to eat from – rosy squares covered in a puff of sugary powder, so soft they squish between her fingers.
But when they arrive at Alfons’s studio they find him locking the front door.
‘I am just on my way to the print shop,’ he says, shaking Pol’s hand. His eyes rest on Annah. ‘The photograph I took of you should be ready as well. Why don’t you both join me, and we can pick up some wine on the way back.’
As they walk, a light drizzle sets in. Annah pulls her fingers into her coat sleeves, hunches against the cold drips of water on the back of her neck. A cherry tree’s budding leaves flicker in the breeze. Rain slicks the cobblestones and Annah’s careful to avoid the specks of mud that flick from the wheels of passing buggies. A vendor, huddled beneath a tattered awning, roasts potatoes in a brazier. She knows better than to ask Pol for the money, but perhaps if she says something, Alfons will buy her one. By the time she thinks of this, though, the vendor and his potatoes are far behind.
Finally they reach a narrow shopfront squashed between a pharmacy and a café. Imprimerie is lettered in gold across the plate glass window, beneath the name Leblanc.
As Alfons pushes open the door, he says to Pol, ‘I work here three days a week. Helps to pay for the studio space.’
Pol nods, announces, ‘Ah, yes. I too used to keep usual work hours in an office. That time was not entirely without worth, but be careful,’ he says to the younger man. ‘Don’t let it leach your creativity.’
Alfons greets two middle-aged men, Hugo and Coupeau, explaining to Pol that together the three of them design posters. ‘So our work can be quite creative, you see.’
Pol’s mouth turns down, unconvinced. Alfons fans the photographs of Pol’s work across the counter and Pol’s pleased with the pictures, commends Alfons on his use of the light. When Alfons rifles through a drawer, withdrawing the photograph of Annah, Pol turns away and strolls to the back of the shop to inspect some paintings that are stacked against the wall.
Annah pulls the likeness close. This is the third photograph she has seen of herself, but in the others, she stands among the men, as drunk and foolish as they – buttoned into ridiculous costumes, with silly hats on their heads – frozen in the few seconds it takes for the camera’s shutter to click. When she sees her dark features among their fair ones, she always wonders – feels a pinch of discomfort with it – if the others are reminded of the shadowy figure in the background of Pol’s painting of Tahura.
But this photograph is of Annah alone, seated in the armchair in Pol’s studio. She remembers the scent of the wildflowers Alfons poked in her hair, how the tiny, fragile petals tickled the side of her face. How the monyet scrambled up the curtains, escaping Pol’s swatting broom. The sound of a peddler down on the street below, drumming the side of his soup pot as he wheeled past. But none of that is visible in the photograph she scans so greedily. All is serene as she sits among statuettes and ornaments, the scalloped arches and cabriole legs of the dark furniture. She reclines in the chair, calm in her blue-black gown, like the woman in the red dress. Perhaps this photograph will be even more forever than Pol’s painting of her in the bright room.
‘Why do you have this portrait here?’ Pol’s voice is sharp as he calls from the back of the room.
Annah follows Alfons to where Pol stands in front of a framed canvas resting against the wall. She breathes in, breathes in, as she stares at the painting of a pretty Javanese dancer.
‘It’s a work by Sargent. I’m to send it on to him. He had to leave for Chicago in a hurry,’ says Alfons.
‘Ah, the American artist, you mean?’
Annah takes a step back so she can take in the full figure of burnished grace: the curve of the dancer’s left hand, how her chin tilts towards it. The arched lift of her bare foot, the angle of her hips.
‘He painted a whole series of Javanese dancers during the Paris Exposition.’
‘But so did I!’ says Pol. ‘Yes, yes. These people had a village to themselves at the Exposition, did they not? With a small musical band of drums and queer bamboo instruments. I too made several sketches and paintings of the dancers.’ His eyes narrow. ‘I had to leave them behind when I travelled to Tahiti. I must dig them out.’
Annah feels overwhelmed by the other girl’s presence. The portrait is as tall as the men – unlike Pol’s paintings, which are small enough to fit on most anybody’s drawing room wall.
‘The fantastic things I saw at that Exposition, Alfons – the ethnographic displays of the colonies, Africa, the South Seas – it all made me want to be rid of civilisation’s influence. I needed to immerse myself in virgin nature. See no one but savages. I wanted to live their lives!’
Annah thinks of the bold colours and casual beauty of Pol’s painting of her. Monsieur Sargent’s portrait of the dancer is truer, with its earthy hues, the flecks of almost-gold. The dancer’s skin gleams, perhaps dampened by the heat of summer. The anklets, the bracelets, the gilded crown and the rich batik that swathes her body, sheathes her legs – all glisten against the press of gas light. A golden armlet is clasped around the dancer’s upper arm and Annah wonders if it has the same strength as the grip of a man who claims ownership. She imagines the heavy earrings swaying to the gamelan music, and rubs her own empty earlobes between finger and thumb, feeling for the tiny lumps where the holes remain.
‘Beautiful,’ she says.
Pol rubs his chin. ‘His brushwork is too loose.’
The longer Annah stares at the shimmer of beauty in front of her, the more conscious she becomes of her own stolid limbs, her wiry hair that can’t be tamed into a straw hat, the dull cast of her brown skin that seems incapable of ripening when away from tropical sunlight. Here, aglow in front of her, is the real spouse of a Sultan. Annah is nothing better than a villager. A grubby, hot flush dapples Annah’s chest.
‘When he paint this?’ she asks Alfons.
‘Three, four years ago, I should say.’
Three, four years ago, pretty Javanese dancers from a place near Annah’s own island were here, in Paris. For Annah, a whole lifetime has disappeared in those intervening years. A whole life. She shuts her eyes and resists covering them with her hands. She will not go over it all again.
THE PALL OF those moments in Alfons’s print shop remain with Annah throughout the rest of the afternoon. She feels like a poorly exposed figure in a photograph, there but not; a sparrow that flits only where the string tied about its ankle allows. Does Pol wish the dancer in Sargent’s portrait was here with him now, in all her golden splendour, to hold court at his soirées? Does Alfons? She smarts when she thinks of the Javanese girl, thinks of the freedoms she might have. Wonders if she’s returned home. Annah bites down against the envy that curdles her stomach, claws its way up her throat. She kicks at whatever stone or scrap they pass, refuses to eat a piece of the palmier Pol buys from a bakery.
When they arrive back at the apartment on Rue Vercingétorix, she immediately takes a seat in front of her portrait and studies it. The portrait that is not really of her, of Annah. Even the name Annah is merely a fragment of her real name, a sliver that can be schooled around their foreign tongues. She takes to her feet and stands by the side of the easel, her gaze flattening out the perspective. This Annah, this slice of colour with its reveal of flesh, is all anyone will really know. She is no more than another one of Pol’s exotiques. She glances at the paintings that cover the walls: portraits of the Tahitian girls who have come before her. Annah is yet another étranger, Pol’s orang asing.
Her eyes linger on the orange of the monyet’s fur in the painting. Pol has left out the patches in its coat, and it’s impossible to see how cold and blue the pads of the monyet’s fingers and toes are, how it shivers against her leg.
She reaches out and places two fingertips against the canvas, runs them across the russet paint of her lower stomach. Skin taut again. By the time Annah had arrived at Le Havre with the Marchands all that time ago, she knew René had left a tadpole swimming in her belly. His mother knew soon enough, too. Annah never did see their home near Lillebonne that René told her so much about – the manor house with the red door; the wooded hills that surrounded it – for Mme Marchand took her straight to her sister’s place in Paris. Annah vomited most of the trip, the tadpole sloshing to the pitch of the carriage. And Mme Marchand wouldn’t speak to her, look at her even, just gazed out the window through red-brimmed eyes, handkerchief pressed to her lips.
Annah blinks. Brings herself back to the darkening room. Her eyes flick over Pol’s statues, his works, the man himself, whistling under his breath as he sketches the mouldy apple. Her gaze comes back to rest upon her painting. She will continue to dress up as Pol asks. She will wrap herself in pareos, pose in the nude for pictures and even allow the smelly monyet to drape itself about her shoulders when Pol has guests. Because this is not her. The girl in the painting is not her. Annah will hug her real story close to her chest, as tightly as a mother might clasp her baby. A baby with amber eyes.
THE THIN MAN takes a seat at the round table. He opens his briefcase, from which he withdraws a sheaf of paper. Peering through his spectacles, he slips one sheet from the rest and places it in front of Pol.
Pol’s voice is low, aggrieved, as he peruses the document.
From where she is perched on her armchair, Annah hears the men murmur ‘long life’, ‘uncle’, ‘you will find quite generous’. The monyet settles into her lap, as warm as a newly baked loaf of bread.
Pol escorts the thin man to the door, his shoulders stooped, shaking his head, yet, once the door is closed against the other man, Pol turns, his eyes wide, mischievous almost, cheeks lifted in a grin.
‘Annah, we are saved,’ he says, shaking the piece of paper still clasped in his hands. ‘I have come into some money. We can travel to Brittany after all.’
This is the first time Pol has smiled since the art dealer visited several days ago. Whatever news he brought with him made Pol smash a bottle of whisky against the wall, a glass splinter nicking Annah’s ankle. Since then there has been no fire, no meat; only some nuts and a sour wine that Annah sneaked from Pol’s glass as she clasped the monyet close to keep warm. Pol continued to work by the daylight that streamed through the windows, sullen, scraping at lengths of timber with a collection of sharp little knives and chisels. He disappeared for hours to work in Alfons’s studio, returning with prints that mirrored the slate and ochre shadows of the apartment.
This time, though, he doesn’t leave Annah for long before he returns with pâté, roasted mutton, pastries and Alfons. The men circle the room, discussing the storage of Pol’s paintings. Pol talks of the exhibition he will stage when he returns from Brittany. ‘I’ll show that connard Durand-Ruel. Vollard will help me.’
Annah’s tongue scoops up one of the glazed blackberries from atop a croustade, savouring its tart sweetness. She picks off another, balances it on her finger to offer to the monyet.
‘When will you leave?’ asks Alfons. He refills Annah’s cup of wine.
‘As soon as possible, Alfons. You really should join us. Have you been? You too will love Brittany. I always find a certain wildness and primitiveness there. When my clogs echo across its granite soil, I hear the matt, powerful tone I seek in my painting.’
The last flake of pastry melts inside Annah’s mouth. Her hand is sticky with the croustade’s syrup and she presses her finger and thumb together, feels the tiny wrench as they separate again. As she licks her fingers the monyet tugs on her elbow, and she has to show him her empty hand.
As the buggy picks its way across rocky lanes, Annah steadies her weary body. She had thought the train journey from Paris tedious – what with staring out at meadow after meadow dotted with the occasional church spire, and only an apple and half a baguette to eat for hours on end – but this buggy trip between the station and Pont-Aven is trying indeed. At least she no longer has to watch Pol sleep on the train though, his lower jaw hanging loose, revealing a lump of liverish tongue.
It took Pol three days to have all of his work delivered to Vollard; to cram his painting gear into two tin boxes and have them sent on to Pont-Aven by coach; to purchase a smaller cage for the monyet. It took a matter of minutes before they left the Rue Vercingétorix apartment for Annah to fold her old dress from Mme Pack, two hats, some rags, her comb and the pareo into an old, scratchy valise Pol gave her to use, which now rests at her feet next to the cage as the buggy lumbers through the countryside. It is still light, but the evening sun has lost its heat and she bends to retrieve the pareo from the valise. The monyet’s little hand reaches through the bars to grasp her hand, but she gently pulls away, sits upright again.
‘We are near, Annah,’ says Pol, a hum of pleasure in his voice. ‘That is the river.’
The water is dark, as green and opaque as the glass of a wine bottle. The air smells fresh, like a sprig of thyme or spinach freshly pulled from damp soil. They pass a number of granite cottages with thatched roofs, and the river divides away into tumbling estuaries. A man steps to the grass beside the road, peers at them from beneath his straw hat. His cart is laden with seaweed. The buggy veers left, follows the water along a well-trodden track towards the village. A pale-brick building crouches over the rapids, a large wheel creaking through the gushing water.
‘A watermill, Annah. It is used to grind the local black wheat.’
Brackish fronds of water crest the slippery rocks, moss-covered stones line the stream. Annah looks out the other side of the buggy, at the trees webbed in ivy, the occasional bush – a rash of purple against the green – the wild copse that reminds her of her island, of the grove behind her aunt’s hut. The only tame thing here a square of grass, emerald green, that lies across the road from the inn.
‘Come, hurry Annah,’ Pol says, grasping his bag and hers as he climbs from the buggy. ‘If we hurry, we will find company in the local tavern after we have dropped our belongings to the lodging house.’
They don’t have to walk far before they arrive at a neat building that shares a façade with a stationer’s shop. The front door is newly lacquered and shiny, and iron balustrading encloses a tiny terrace on the floor above. When Pol knocks, the landlady greets him in a friendly manner – says that she would hardly recognise him it’s been so many years – but as he pushes past to climb the stairs, Annah close on his heels, the woman’s mouth falls open, her gaze alternating between Annah and the monkey cage she holds.
Once locked in their room, Pol strides to the French doors and flings them open. He steps out onto the narrow terrace that overlooks the street, rubs his hands together. ‘Right. Don’t sit down, Annah. Straight to the tavern before it’s too dark. See who’s at hand.’
They only need trot down one narrow laneway before they reach the squat, sandstone building. A sign, not unlike the one that hung about Annah’s neck when she wandered Gare de Lyon, sways above the doorway. Inside, the tavern is stuffy, the still air suffused with the odour of stale ale, damp shoes, sweat and tobacco. Pol leaves Annah at a corner table, and she feels hemmed in by the dark panelling, the low wooden beams, the leathery men garbed in an endless mire of brown flannel. The whitewashed walls are yellow with soot and smoke and the shadowy gloom thrown by weak gaslight. A balding man, his bulbous stomach sheltered beneath a white apron, stands behind a counter strewn with bottles. He leans forward to hear what Pol has to say over the din, pours two wines, pushes a plate of food forward.
By the time Pol returns, he has gathered a coterie of friends. One man flops his hand over Pol’s shoulder, gesticulating wildly. Another brings out his sketchpad, flips through to a drawing he wants Pol to look at. The men are all younger than Pol, smaller than him, enthusiastic with wine and admiration. She catches a few names – Maret, Jourdan, Séguin – and O’Conor, who she recognises as the Irish artist from Pol’s soirées in Paris. He asks her something that she cannot understand through the burr in his speech, but when he bandies his legs, scratches his armpits, she realises he is asking after the monyet.
Annah sinks her teeth into the slab of bacon on buttered bread that Pol hands her and looks about. Two men at the next table scrutinise her from beneath their caps, the creases about their mouths stained red with wine. Something about their gaze slows Annah’s chewing, until the bacon and bread are a moist lump at the back of her tongue, too difficult almost to swallow. A buxom woman, only slightly older than Annah herself, leans against the counter and glares across at her. Nudges the farmer next to her, who makes a show of recoiling at the sight of Annah. They laugh together as they turn away.
One of the men at the next table slides off his stool, sidles over to Pol’s side, says a few quiet words in his ear. Pol frowns as they both look across at Annah. Pol says something sharp to the man, which Annah can’t hear. The Irish man says something too. The man pokes Pol in the chest, says loudly, ‘This will be the last night,’ and returns to his stool.
EACH EVENING POL returns to the tavern, for their room is far too small for entertaining. Annah stays behind, though, happy not to be burdened with the villagers’ disgust of her. Each time someone stops to stare, the skin on Annah’s face tightens, her body becomes rigid, aloof, but deep inside a part of her curls in on itself, takes on some of the taint.
She hears the front door slam and, through the glass of the French doors, she watches Pol step out onto the pavement. He hooks arms with his new friend, Gustave. With jaunty steps they turn left to walk the lane towards the tavern, to join Pol’s ‘disciples’, as he calls them.
The barber across the way has a very handsome red awning, and two shrubs, like a set of bushy side whiskers, sprout on either side of the window sill. The building next to it is neatly trimmed in navy blue. Annah’s eyes run the length of the dapper street: not a shadow of soot or grime to be seen. Tiny raindrops patter against the glass as Annah stares, fresh air puffs between the doors’ gap, whistles against her lips, her nose, her forehead. Aduh, she sighs. It is hard to fill the hours. Sometimes she brings out the monyet, combs his hair, feeds him grapes one by one. Once, she tried to paint his portrait, but Pol wasn’t pleased when he woke the next morning to find she’d used his canvas.
Crossing the room, she takes a seat in front of Pol’s easel. He is painting from the bowl of fruit on the table: plump citrus, china-blue shadows. A peach nestles among the lemons and Annah plucks it from the bowl. Her lips rest a moment against its velvet skin before she takes one bite, carefully returning the peach to the same position in the bowl, bite-side down.
Yesterday, Pol said he would paint her again. Here, in Pont-Aven.
‘Like this?’ Annah pulled on the Breton bonnet she loved so much, with its crisp coiffe, as white as a ship’s sail. Alfons had given it to her before she left Paris and she felt a slight twist of disappointment that she might not meet him again.
‘I don’t want to paint a Breton maid, Annah,’ Pol laughed. ‘I can leave such boring fare to the other fellows here.’
The rain falls more heavily, ringing an insistent tune against the terrace’s iron balustrade. Returning to the French doors, she peers out. The village is cloaked in a wash of India ink. Resting her forehead against the gap in the doors, she breathes in the scent of rain, wet stone and a bitter note lifting from the river’s brine.
IT RAINS FOR three more days, keeping them indoors, apart from Pol’s visits to the tavern. On the fourth day, when the shower eases, Annah pulls a blanket tight about her shoulders and follows Pol out onto the street and around to the path that runs alongside the teeming millstream. The lemony sunlight transforms the morning into a pretty watercolour, washing over the boats with the jaune hulls, the fawn spaniel that lopes past chasing a gull, the washerwoman with flaxen hair scrubbing something against the laundry step. The rain has bleached the buildings of colour, leaving them the buttery hue of sweet petits pains. The water seems paler today, as though silt rises to the top. The golden leaves of the chestnut trees rustle above as Pol and Annah leave the road, their clogs grating against pebbly soil. Bits of sand and straw cling to Annah’s damp heels, wet grass tickles her shins. Wading through brushwood, she stoops to sniff a flower, disappointed that its yellow flute doesn’t hold a pretty scent. Instead she plucks a flower nearby that has straight, cheerful petals. Its stem is damp against her fingers, its centre as delicate as duckling down.
Strolling back to their lodgings, they pass two women stepping out from the butcher’s shop. They are almost identical, despite the older woman’s iron curls and watery eyes. Pol sweeps off his hat and bows, waiting until they are out of earshot before his lip lifts in a slight sneer, mutters, ‘You can tell by looking at the mother what you can look forward to if you are to marry the daughter.’
Annah studies him as they walk, taking in the furrows of skin about his neck that remind her of the scaly lizards of her island. She thinks of the thick pleats of fat around his middle, his lumpy feet, the yellowing toenails. Does his son’s wife know what she has to look forward to? Pol lifts his hat again, this time greeting a young woman who pushes a white wicker pram, its large wheels lumbering over the uneven pavement. The baby, a linen bonnet framing its plump face like the petals of a sunflower, is propped up against pillows.
Annah’s shoe slips into a cleft between the cobblestones. A fisherman tries to sell them a basket of sprats, a black cat lies sprawled on its back, revelling in the sunlight. But the day has dimmed for Annah, dipped her back into the cold embrace of the past. Whenever she thinks of that morning, her memories are shrouded in grey. The bedding, her skin, the tiny thing bundled in her arms. Dawn reaches into the gloom, a leaden wash of light turning everything to clay. Even Mme Marchand’s face is ashen with lack of sleep and resolve. And Annah’s own despair is dark, sharp, like a jagged piece of granite.
All that gleamed in that dreary room were the baby’s amber eyes as Mme tugged her from Annah’s clasp.
POL HAS DONE away with the gaudy waistcoat and cloak with mother-of-pearl buttons. Here, he goes about looking like a Breton fisherman in baggy trousers and a blue sweater, a red beret covering his grey curls.
‘You certainly resemble one of the locals, Paul,’ Séguin shouts above the rumble of the buggy wheels as they bowl towards Concarneau. He laughs, his boyish face flushed, as he takes his wife’s slender hand in his. Annah thinks that perhaps Mme Séguin is a great deal older than her husband. Her hair is still dark, but there is a slight sag to her jowls, wrinkles around her bright eyes. Annah didn’t catch her name, but Séguin calls her ‘Comtesse’ each time he presses a kiss into her palm. They are seated on the bench opposite Annah and Pol, travelling backwards.
The others chatter, passing a bottle of claret between the four of them – even sharing it with the driver when they think of it. The sandy road snakes its way across a series of gentle rises. A patchwork of fields unfolds before them, verdant squares occasionally interrupted by a field of burgundy or yellow. Two tawny birds swoop low, hover and dip with the breeze. The claret has left a pleasant buzz in Annah’s ears. They overtake a farmer in his trap, and his dog leans out the side, barks at them – Mme Séguin screams, jumping with fright, but Annah thinks she is pretending, wants Séguin to wrap her in his chubby arms.
‘First, I will show you the point,’ Séguin says to them, twisting in his chair to instruct the driver where to pull over. ‘It is magnificent. You will enjoy it, Annah.’
She is glad when he helps her alight, for she has begun to feel ill with the sway of the buggy. They stride through long grass towards a low stone wall. The sea is almost as dark as Annah’s dress and, before Pol can stop her, Annah kicks off her shoes and runs onto the beach. Joy slips through her blood as her toes sift the fine sand. She lifts her nose, flares her nostrils to sniff the salt in the air. It is almost like being at home, except there is a chill undertone to the wind that buffets her skirt. She gazes down the beach, at a monstrous black boulder, beached on the sand like an exhausted whale. Further again, the long stretch of the point, covered with large rocks the shape of shipwrecks reaching for the sea.
‘Come, Annah, eat some pie, and then we must move on,’ Pol calls from where they have spread their midday repast across a blanket.
By the time they arrive at Quai Péneroff, the day is overcast. They clamber down from the buggy, returning once for Mme Séguin’s parasol and once more for Pol’s walking stick. As they approach the inlet, four boys jostle past. One halts, his clogs skidding in the dirt as he gapes at Annah. He lets out a sharp whistle to alert his friends, who turn back to see what he’s found. As always, Annah pretends she doesn’t notice the stares or the foolish grins as they tail her onto the quay.
‘Ignore them, Annah,’ says Pol. Annah frowns, annoyed, because his comment calls Séguin’s attention to the boys, who are now openly leering at her, murmuring nègre to each other. Séguin waves his hands at the boys, tells them to leave.
Strolling the uneven pavers that form a wide path alongside the quay, Séguin points out a café with a yellow and black striped awning where they can enjoy a glass of champagne before their journey back to Pont-Aven. Boats of all sizes clutter the marina, masts aloft, sails folded away. The oyster-grey sky mirrors the water, its monotone separated by a narrow strip of stone wall and clumps of bush. Annah pauses to look at the limp body of a dead pilchard that’s half squashed into the pavement, wondering why a seabird has not supped on it yet, when she feels a sharp sting at the back of her neck. A pebble drops to the ground, rolls to a stop near the toe of her shoe.
Two fair heads bob up from behind a shrub, and another pebble whips past her face, grazing her cheek bone. She claps a hand to her cheek and glares at the boys.
‘You! Stop that.’ Pol’s voice cracks over the boys’ laughter.
A larger pebble strikes Annah’s forehead, closely followed by another that bounces off her skirt. A group of fishermen lugging crates from a trawler watch on, chuckling. Two women walking arm in arm shake their heads but smile indulgently at the boys too. Annah’s ears burn and she turns away. Wants to shut them all out. Flushed with humiliation, she wishes the heat of it would blaze through her, turn her to fire, transform her into an angry wisp of ash that is whisked away on the breeze.
Pol grabs Annah’s elbow, tries to steer her onwards, but Séguin bounds towards the boys, seizing the ringleader. As he tugs on the boy’s ear, he shouts, ‘Where are your manners, you rascal? How dare you throw stones at this lady.’
The boy pulls free with an ugly pout and runs off, closely followed by his companions.
As Séguin dabs at Annah’s forehead with his handkerchief, showing her that there is only a spot of blood, after all, Poll rants about provincial arrogance, that it is exactly this type of peasant attitude that makes him determined to move away. He explains to Mme Séguin how much it sorrows him that so wild and rustic a landscape harbours peoples with such narrow-minded views.
‘Which one of you connards struck my son?’
The boys have returned with a large man whose face is crumpled with sleep. He breathes heavily, his breath reeking of rum and salted fish. His thick arms flex beneath his sleeves, his hands clench. Black eyes take in Pol and his group, a look of distaste sweeping across his features when he sees Annah.
Séguin lifts his hands, placatingly, says, ‘Sir, they were throwing stones at this woman here and they did not stop when asked. I think…’
‘You struck my boy over a dirty nègre?’ the man bellows. He draws his arm back and lunges forward, the bones of his fist cracking against Séguin’s nose.
Séguin’s head snaps back, his hat toppling to the ground. He staggers a few steps and falls on his rear, his eyes watering. His wife screeches his name over and over, calls him her baby, her sweet child, kneels by his side. Séguin cups his nose, but his fingers can’t stem the blood that splashes across his lips, drips onto his shirtfront. The large man bears down on him again, fist held high, but Pol pulls him back by the shoulder and, growling with the exertion of it, throws the man to the ground.
Three sailors run across from a café, shouting. One of them heaves the boy’s father up from beneath the armpits. He kicks out at Séguin again, but his boot connects with Mme Séguin instead. She yelps, clutching her side, limps a small distance away.
As the men fall upon Pol, Annah crouches down onto her haunches, shelters her head with her elbows, but she’s still able to see the flurry of punches and slaps; she can still hear the grunts, the smack of skin, the squelch of gristle. Séguin scrabbles backwards, like a crab in retreat, flings himself over the side of the quay into the water.
Fear and shock roil Annah’s stomach. She pants with the nausea of it. She watches as Pol resists their attack the best he can: whacks one with his cane when gripped by the hair, headbutts another when held in a tight tussle. They drive him backwards towards the road, and then something happens and Pol howls, drops to the ground clutching his ankle. But the others aren’t deterred. The boy’s father leans down, bangs Pol’s head against the ground. The others kick him, in the side, in the thighs, in his stomach, with their wooden shoes. A waiter from the café runs across the road, yells at them to stop, holds his arms wide, barring them from Pol. The three sailors and the boy’s father stand back, bent double, winded with the exertion of beating Pol. The waiter beckons for them to follow him, pulls a sailor’s sleeve, remonstrates with the other. Hesitating, looking over their shoulders like they might like to return, the men make their way into the café’s dim interior.
Annah crawls to Pol’s side where he lies by the side of the road. His face is black with blood. One eye is closed over, the other blinks up at her. He makes a strange clucking noise at the back of his throat as he inhales.
‘My ankle,’ he whispers.
He rotates his left foot, but the other one lies fallow. She lifts the hem of his trousers, revealing a long gash of vermillion. A gleam of white breaks the fold of pale skin, not unlike the brittle bone that pokes out from a leg of mutton. She vomits into the gutter.
‘WELL, IT SEEMS your right leg is broken at the point of the internal malleolus, and you’ve dislocated the foot,’ the doctor says, stepping back from the bed. ‘Quite shattered, it is. I’ve splinted it for now, but in a few days I will return to put it in a cast. No moving about. Take one drop of this when required.’ He places a brown bottle on the cabinet before taking his leave.
Pol’s face is as white as a daub of lead pigment. He fainted twice from the pain when he lay in the farmer’s cart as it rumbled back to Pont-Aven. As soon as they arrived at the lodging house, Séguin and the farmer carried him upstairs and the landlady ran to fetch the village doctor.
Pol wriggles his fingers towards the medicine. Annah draws out the dispenser and drops one bubble of the clear tincture into his mouth, watches as it dissolves on his tongue.
Pol’s good eye squeezes shut. ‘More.’
Annah releases one more drop of fluid onto his tongue. The creases of agony that pucker his forehead and mouth, that tighten the skin about his jaw, gradually release, soften away. His shoulders relax to the mattress, his head nestles the pillow. He snores softly.
For three days, every three hours, they follow the same routine. Pol’s friend, Gustave, brings fruit and wine and tonics. He sits by Pol’s bed for hours, sometimes reading to him, sometimes drawing. Annah slumps low in a chair at the foot of the bed, her feet hooked over the footboard, her attention monopolised by Gustave’s conversation and a dizzy fug of memories. Her sleep is broken by Pol’s demands for more medicine or drink, and Gustave’s visits.
On the fourth morning the doctor returns with an assistant. Pol gasps through gritted teeth as the doctor prods his leg, declaring the swelling to have gone down sufficiently to dress the wound properly, and the two men get to work on wrapping the ankle in a cast. The doctor soaks lengths of cloth in a basin of water the landlady fetches for him, then gently binds the bandaging about Pol’s leg, sponging it smooth. Pol’s fingers claw at the bedsheets, and Annah drops more of the tincture onto his tongue, until he sags into the mattress again. When the men are done and gone, Annah runs her hand over the cast, surprised at how hard it’s become. By the end of the week, with Gustave’s assistance, Pol can pull himself into a seated position, pillows banked behind his back.
‘I will bring action against those sailors, Gustave, I swear it. The doctor alone will cost me five hundred francs, God help me. I will be ruined. It is very unusual for me to need such an amount of money. I am like Jesus – the flesh is the flesh, the spirit is the spirit. Usually the smallest amount of money satisfies my flesh in order for my spirit to be left in peace.’ He accepts a glass of the wine Gustave has brought him, places it next to the pouch of tobacco, also a gift from Gustave.
It’s raining again, but the room is stifling, even when Annah flings the French doors open. She feels like she’s drenched in the stench of liniment, Pol’s unwashed bed linen, the monyet’s fruity farts. Leaning over the terrace railing as far as she can, she inhales deeply, but can’t be rid of the room’s smell, feels that its odour clings to the fine hairs in her nostrils.
‘I knocked the boy’s father down with two punches,’ Pol tells Gustave. ‘But then he fetched the crew from his boat, damn him. It must have been fifteen men who set upon me, but I took them all on, Gustave, and kept the upper hand, until my damned foot caught in a hole. That’s how I broke my leg.’ Pol’s voice quivers with anger. A rush of blood colours his throat and he clutches his damaged leg.
Annah watches three girls skip past, their clogs drumming hollow notes across the cobblestones. An older man enters the barber’s, while another hobbles towards the stationer’s shop below. She reaches her fingers as far as they will go, so she can feel the sun’s heat upon her skin. She hasn’t been out since that day. Envies the girls below who can feel the sun’s touch upon their scalps.
‘I have brought these magazines for you to read, Paul,’ says Gustave, his voice high-pitched, fluting, at odds with his stout figure. He places three old copies of Le Figaro Illustré on the bedside cabinet. ‘I’ve also cut this news clipping from Le Finistère for you to read. Another account of that dreadful incident in Concarneau. These newspaper features will help your case, no doubt.’
Pol scans the words, murmuring as he reads. He tuts. ‘They’ve spelt Gauguin wrong again. Look!’ He waves the clipping under Gustave’s nose. ‘And they say Annah is of the black race, imbéciles.’
He remains cranky for the rest of the afternoon. Throws a book at the cage when the monkey chatters too much, calls Annah a salope when she accidentally bumps his foot. He is only calm when working. At first Gustave positions the easel so Pol can continue with his painting of the fruit, but one morning Pol catches sight of Annah as she peels stamps from his correspondence, bored.
‘Bring me those,’ he demands. She scatters the stamps across the sheet, a confetti of black, blue, red, yellow. His long fingers pick out a blue one. He flicks its edge with his nail before tossing it aside for another. Flipping open the closest magazine, he stares at a picture of a handsome woman wearing a moss-green gown. She too has a dark servant, and she stands upon a lion-skin rug. Pol sweeps the stamps nearer to the page, matches the black of a stamp to the jewels in her hair, the green to her gown.
‘Annah, take some coins from my purse and buy some glue from the shop downstairs,’ he says to her, still arranging the stamps by the magazine illustration.
Annah stills. Shakes her head.
He frowns at her. ‘Don’t be stupid, girl. It’s just down the steps.’
She takes a seat at the table. Eyes Pol where he is trapped on the stinky bed.
What if someone is to throw stones at her again? Hurl abuse? She will not go out alone. Again, she sees the sailors’ faces, teeth clenched as they kick Pol; she hears the dreadful thwack of fist splitting flesh. Fear rises in her chest, peaks somewhere behind her eyes, blinds her. Her head is almost too heavy to keep upright. When her vision clears again, she feels giddy; everything seems to wobble, drowned in aspic. The walls close in on her, press against her skin, but she knows that if she is to leave, if she is to try walking out the door, the yawning space of outside will be too much for her. She will shatter in the glare.
There’s a knock on the door and Gustave pokes his head inside.
‘Gustave. Thank God you are here. Annah’s as useful to me as that fucking monkey. She needs a good beating – but the sulking! It’s unbearable!’
‘What is it you need, Paul? Tell me,’ Gustave says.
‘I have an idea for a new project. You can fetch the equipment for me, if you please. I’ll need some glue, and something to…’
Annah turns in her seat, stares outside, her eyes scanning the strip of blue sky above the building across the way.
ANNAH PEELS ANOTHER stamp from an envelope and drops it into the small bowl by Pol’s side. She watches as he selects a faded orange one, carefully rips away its edge until it’s the shape of a crescent, dabs it against the surface of a ceramic tile. With deft fingers, he tears up another stamp, then another, arranging them on the tile, until Annah recognises the handsome woman’s waves of auburn hair.
As he works, he tells Gustave of that Vincent man, and she thinks she too will slice the ear from her head if she has to listen to that stupid story yet again. She drags a chair to the French doors and, taking a seat, she leans her elbows on her thighs, hands over ears. Although muffled, she can still hear the drone of his voice. Mme Pack’s yellow canary comes to mind: how it used to flap itself senseless against the bars of its cage, a torrent of twittering and damaged feathers floating to the floor. Annah squeezes her head tighter. Thinks of smashing her body against the walls, so hard the cloudy mirror crashes to the floor, the glasses on the table spill. She wants to shed her gown, scrape deep trenches in her skin with her fingernails. She hugs her arms about herself.
‘Perhaps if you use your walking stick in one hand and lean on me with your other?’ says Gustave.
Annah looks over to see Pol standing next to the bed, leaning on his good foot. Gustave wedges himself under his left arm, while Pol grips his stick, manoeuvring it so it is comfortable in his hand, taps it twice against the wooden floor. He grimaces as his left foot shuffles forward. Lets out a grunt of pain as he limps forward again. He tries two more steps before he halts, breathing heavily, perspiration beading his forehead.
‘That’s enough for today, my good friend,’ he says. ‘I will try again tomorrow.’
Gustave helps him hop back to his bed. He notices Annah staring, and smiles. ‘You see? It will not be long before Paul walks again. I just need to find him another crutch.’
Annah turns in her chair to gaze outside. A starling lands on the barber’s tiled roof, spies something below. For the first time in days Annah’s mind feels sharp, as clear as the turquoise water of home, a sparkle of fish darting to and fro. When Pol is sufficiently healed to walk, they can leave this smelly room, and she should feel relieved, jubilant. But she doesn’t. Dread lies cold and heavy in her stomach. She pictures herself trailing him, as she did before, like the black servant in that painting of Olympia, or the dark man who waits upon the handsome woman in the magazine. Nothing more than his shadow. A reminder of death. Waiting for death. And even though they will no longer be cooped up in this room, like the poor monyet is kept to his cage, she will still have to continue to do as Pol bids, listen to his never-ending lectures, hear the same stories. Annah sits straighter in her chair and lifts her skirt, feels the weight of the hem.
The slant of the afternoon sun inches across her skin as she thinks on what needs to be done so she can leave this place, leave Pol. A young lad leads a cow along the road towards the dairy, switching its rump with a length of straw. The barber locks his front doors; a maid hurries past carrying a basket of linen. The landlady brings their supper – roasted rouget and a bowl of boiled courgette – and Annah tears away half of her bread and slips it into the scratchy valise with one of the peaches Gustave has brought them. The men talk late into the evening, and anxiety squirms in her stomach, rising higher and higher in her chest until it rings in her ears. She almost closes the door on Gustave’s heel when he eventually leaves them, but has to wait almost another hour for Pol to find sleep. Her fingers tremor just a little as she slides the pareo and comb into the valise next to her Breton bonnet and her other dress. She rifles through Pol’s painting gear for his sharpest palette knife to nick the stitches from her hem, releasing copper coin after copper coin; four brass coins; and two precious silver ones. Weighing the small mound in the palm of her hand, she wonders if she has enough.
Glancing across the room, her eyes take in Pol’s leather purse on the bedside cabinet. As she creeps across the floorboards, Pol mumbles something in his sleep. Annah snatches up his purse and retreats to her chair. She takes half of his money and adds it to her savings, tying the handkerchief in a tight knot.
Annah dims the lamp and positions the chair so that it faces the terrace. She pushes her buttocks against the chair’s hard back, pulling her legs up beneath her. She’s worried if she lies down, she might fall asleep and not wake in time to escape. She must leave before the village stirs. Before there are too many people about who will stare at her, accost her, perhaps return her to Pol. With anxious eyes, she watches the night sky, dozing only once in a while, waking each time to a sore neck and numb legs.
Finally a feeble cock’s crow reaches her ears. She leans forward in her chair, straining to hear its call again. Rising to her feet, she collects her bag and pauses at the foot of the bed, watching the rise and fall of Pol’s chest as he sleeps. By his feet, a glimmer of white catches her eye – a corner of the ceramic tile, the collage of the handsome lady almost completed. A tiny spark of spite lights her sleep-deprived mind. Picking the tile up, she slips it into her valise. She decides she will take his walking stick too. The pearl alone will be worth something to someone.
Annah finds the netting that the landlady throws over the food to keep the flies away and drapes it over her head. Clamps her hat down over it. She pulls gloves over her brown fingers. Dragging the valise’s handles up over her left shoulder, she tip-toes to the door and turns the handle. She startles as something shuffles in the darkness, but it’s only the monyet. His tiny face presses against the bars. She can’t possibly take him. His eyes glisten up at her, and her shoulders drop. She can’t leave him behind either. He is like her, a frayed thread torn far from the tapestry of home, searching out some form of selvedge. Annah picks up the cage and clamps it under her other arm and leaves, not bothering to close the door behind her.
She steals down the stairs, her heart thrumming as she lets herself out through the front door onto the street. Dawn’s light mutes the village canvas, reminding her of the gentle purples in that painting of Tehura. She wonders if she will always see Pol’s colours in the world, a constant reminder of this time, drawing her back – immediately, unbidden – just as a flavour or fragrance might do.
She walks to the end of the lane, stopping for a moment to listen to the rush of water in the millstream. Draws strength from its familiar rhythm, imagining for a moment she is home, standing on the creaking dock. Brave enough to be alone.
Hearing the clatter of shutters opening somewhere behind her, Annah clasps the cage more firmly to her body and hurries towards the inn on the other side of the village. She will catch a stagecoach, a train, walk if need be, to Paris or Le Havre, or anywhere else her money will take her.
She gazes up at silver clouds, a frottage against the lavender sky, and feels a ripple in the waters of her stomach. The tiny flick of a tadpole’s tail.
She breathes in, breathes in.