The Batsby Anita Naughton
It's that time again. The bats are out, flung into the blackness of the night. Cutting the space in front of me as they dive, curve and retreat. Earlier, swallows swarmed the pale blue sky, quick-winged and light; the world appeared infinite. But now night has arrived, and with it the bats.
I imagine them both in a hotel room huddled together.
He'd called one day. "Sweetheart, I'm coming," he said. "Finally I'm coming to France."
He wanted to know how to pronounce the name of my village.
"Reaux" I said. He made me repeat it four times, both of us laughing. At the end of the conversation I said to my father, "Paul Devrie is coming. I told you he would."
I knew he'd come for me. Fifteen years is a long time to keep hope. That night I lay awake thinking about that summer in New York City. I'd gone for three months to learn English. Paul was a New York artist. I'd spoken to him once on the phone after a friend had given him my name. I'd wanted to make extra money so I agreed to model for him.
I bought a bicycle so I could cycle from one job to another. I was on my way to his studio when I clipped another cyclist. I apologized, but my English still felt strange, and while I was fumbling for the right words, the cyclist punched me in the arm. "Bitch," he said and spat in my face. Then he took off.
I was late. Paul barely looked at me. He pointed to a wooden platform and told me to take a reclining pose. I took off my clothes, dropping them in a pile. A red kimono was draped on a pile of cushions. A few moments later I was crying. I heard his brush drop and his footsteps rushing towards me.
"Sweetheart," he dropped to his knees, his face close to mine as he caressed my cheek with the back of his hand.
"Tell me, what's wrong?"
I tried, but, by now, I was sobbing. Being punched was just one thing. There was the apartment I was living in with hundreds of cockroaches. A roommate who borrowed all my things but never wanted to talk, and the endless noise of a city.
He wanted details, first of the cyclist and then me. I told him about my village, the vineyards and grape pickers, the Romanesque church with its ancient crypts. I even told him about my mother's paintings that my father had hung in all the rooms of our house after she died. Some paintings she hadn't finished.
He listened, his eyes on my face, his look hungry. We made love that day. He was still with his wife; he didn't leave her until many years later.
When he called, I told him to take the train to Poitiers. From there he could take a local train to Jonzac, our nearest town.
"How many bucks is a cab across Paris?"
I laughed remembering suddenly his carefulness with money, not stinginess (he'd bought me many gifts) but in the real way an artist must be so there is more time to work.
He stepped down from the train looking for me. He waved when he saw me, staring in that intense way of his, like he did before he began a portrait. I was forty. Maybe I looked older. I thought of the plums that had fallen on the earth of our orchard. The powerful smell of fermentation and then nothing as they rotted into the earth.
He'd written five years earlier to say he was properly single but there'd been no mention of him coming. Anyway, my father was beginning to lose his mind, and I needed to look after him. He sent me postcards of French villages painted by Van Gogh and then photos of his children's graduations.
He looked much older, but I didn't care. He could have been an old man: it wouldn't have changed anything. Tonight he'd be in my arms. He turned back to the train door and lifted up his arms. It was then I saw her. She held a large white hat in her thin brown hand as she stepped down. The other hand she placed on his shoulder. He took her arm and her bag and hurried towards me.
The day I'd left for France he said, "I love you."
I never imagined we'd be apart for so long. I think I only endured my solitary life because I knew that one day he'd return.
He took me in his arms laughing, wild laughter, like a delighted schoolboy. The warm smell of him seared me, and I buried my face in his body. When he introduced her, it was as if he were presenting me with an exotic gift that he couldn't quite believe he'd found. Her black hair swung around her long neck like a cape. Her black-lashed eyes stayed on him. That was when I knew she had hollowed out his soul. Like a lovesick boy, he stood between the two of us. He took my arm in friendship, and hers in love.
We drove with old Marchand in the open truck used to crawl between the vineyards, checking for damage after a heavy rain or storm. They sat in the back. She wore a yellow silk dress. Her knees clenched his hand. She stared at the passing countryside, silent, as if she'd drifted into her own world. Paul devoured the landscape. It gave me hope. We were both painters. That's what we shared…it was our language. We passed a farmhand on a bicycle. He waved without turning. Paul looked back and I imagined the scene through his eyes as he took in the workman's blue overalls, his sturdy arms and sun-lined peasant's face. I knew he saw portraits everywhere. For a wonderful moment she was an invisible dark shape in the backseat.
"I know what I shall paint," she said softly.
I turned around. Paul stared at her as if amazed. She laughed. Like a fruit just ripened, juice and sun burst in her face. I imagined her lying in his bed, opening her legs for him. He'd come inside her, never for a moment taking his eyes off her beautiful face even when his body stiffened and he gave that low ecstatic groan. I remembered its exact quality. How many nights have I relived it? I looked out to the endless rows of vineyards.
"Stop," I shouted to Marchand. I turned and told them to get out. "Go!" I screamed.
Was I joking? That's what Paul thought, but she knew I was serious. In a strange moment the sky blackened into pewter and the vines rose ominously close.
"Get out. Out!" It was like the cry of a bird, a strangled heron's swoop. I grabbed a handful of her velvet hair and yanked it towards the door. She got out fast. Paul stumbled heavily after, like a shell-shocked soldier. I ordered Marchand to drive.
The first drops of summer rain fell. When we reached the top of the hill, I looked back and saw two distant forms staggering along under the darkening sky.