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A Merry Requiem, Part II: Saint-Antoine will be available from Amazon and Smashwords on April 15th!

Here’s the cover, and a sneak preview …

1819_Portrait_d'un_artiste_wikipedia - CopyThis is Michael Martin Drolling’s 1819 painting “Portrait d’un Artiste” and I have to say I fancy the hell out of whoever his model was.  Come to mama, you well-dressed 19th-century dish!

Ahem.

I’m all right now, I promise.

Anyway, without further ado, here’s a sample of what you have to look forward to in Part II!

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“I want to write another play,” Philiipe says.  “I am in a fever and have nothing to show for it – I live and breathe Isabel and politics and forget that my chief usefulness is in creation.  I want to write a play and I want you to appear in it.”  Without thinking, he is calling her tu instead of vous – she notices, and says nothing.

“I would like that above all things,” Jacqueline says softly, and then they are north of the river and winding their way eastwards, in a fantasy where there is no king, no social season, only theatres and ink and somehow the money looks after itself without your thinking about it.

“… Isabel as a heroine is growing blander in my imagination; she is the persecuted innocent, nothing more.  She becomes great through her suffering, and she has some degree of moral complexity, but it is all in the service of undoing the great miscarriage of justice perpetrated against her.  I want now for my hero or heroine to be human, with all the faults and contradictions thereof.  I am not now certain I can make a principle out of steadfastness, when I have been so recently forced to recant my previous opinions – nor can I make a virtue out of victimised morality, when I know so well my own sinfulness – and believe nevertheless that I deserve mercy from God.  How can I elevate human perfection, a hero entirely good, without hypocrisy?  No, this heroine will be sinful, will be fallen, but will be no less the worthy of mercy.”

“Perhaps a woman who has borne a child out of wedlock.  Perhaps abandoned or sacrificed it.”

“Yes – an aristocrat, bound by all the conventions and social expectations of her class.  Fearing beyond anything that her secret will be revealed.”

The streets grow more Medieval as they walk eastwards, narrowed and twisting and with old wooden houses leaning at surreal angles over the streets, blocking out the moon, and there are no streetlights.  Philippe steps in horse manure more than once, swearing, and on one occasion, a drunken woman follows them for three blocks, screaming “Va te faire encule!  Va te faire foutre!!” at the top of her voice, “you cunt!” she shouts, staggering against a doorway, “stop looking at me or I’ll give you a punch!”

“I am glad I did not leave you here alone,” Philippe says.  Jacqueline glances up at him with a quick smile.

“It is you that is in danger,” she tells him, “I may pass unobserved, but a gentleman like yourself is a mark for every pickpocket and cut-throat of the Faubourg.  By heaven, you are fortunate I am here to protect you.”

At the door, she turns to thank him, and finds herself suddenly kissing and being kissed, her hands naturally finding their way to his hips, his shoulders, like they are tracing a route on a map she already knows well – for him, he is struck with a strange unreality; as though he has danced for ages on the edge, forcing against any change, while all around him the world has slung itself into new and unfamiliar shapes.  And now, kissing Jacqueline at three o’clock in the morning in January in Saint-Antoine, he has stopped fighting it.  Stopped pretending that there is any corner of his life that has not changed.  Held his breath and taken a step onto the tilting world.  And he knows that there is no reversal, there is no undoing – the whole world looks different on the other side.

“It is warm inside,” she breathes, and he nods – helpless, almost automatic.  He is not walking in reality, but in a strange dream where the air is thicker and he is not himself, not Philippe Etienne with a wife and child and a house and a career but this shapeless self that has no history and no context.  The shapeless thing follows Jacqueline upstairs, watching her petticoats over her boots as she walks, watching the worn heel on one boot that makes her walk in a lopsided way, the dingy grey eyelet on the petticoat edges.

Inside is shabby but more elegant than he’d expected.  There are three rooms – all small, all cold, all with plaster coming off the walls in places and windows that are covered in grime, but there are curtains on them, and the bed is made, and there is even a painting above the fireplace, though the grate itself is empty.

“Would you like something to drink?” she asks – how ridiculous!  This artifice that there is proper entertaining going on, this way we must all always dance around the true purpose of why we are here, pretending to each other and often to ourselves that when we fall to bed it is an unexpected impulse of the moment, a thoughtless accident that causes us to be strange and stilted the next morning.  I hope it will not be so tomorrow – I hope he will smile.  It is best when they smile.

“No,” he says, but his throat feels dry and he thinks perhaps he should have accepted.

And perhaps after all, he tells himself, it does not matter quite so much now.  Perhaps I have already – in incremental measures, through shared understanding and society, through a longing or lustful thought, through a kiss and a walk home, already so irretrievably betrayed Helene that it matters little what I do now.

              And then the other half of him replies, it does, though.  It matters enormously.  But only to that other Philippe, who is dead.

When he kisses her again, it is different – it is not the thing itself, as it has been before; it is only the beginning of something else.  He breathes her in – the fresh, uncomplicated scent of her bare skin (no rosewater now; she has used the last precious drop of it months ago, and nobody has given her any more), the slightly bitter remainder of wine on her mouth and tongue.  He is not thinking of what they have been, of what he has been, only stretching more and further into this new life, this new self, this unfolding future of what will be.

And is it strange that I desire her so, when she is not the mysterious Feminine, as Helene was on our wedding night, when I am not bound up in symbols and sanctified but only here and present with each particular moment of this particular woman?  When I feel I know her as my own self, ache for her as I ache for myself, want her not for that she is different from myself but for how she is the same?

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