"She came to stay at the farmhouse. Before I was born. My father told me that the family kept her safe."
"He invented stories to amuse me, he even claimed that I was named after her - after a fashion. But he also said that this was something I should never tell mother. In his stories, she was always the best Swiss spy, always working her way into weapons factories that were really sponges and flannels on the soap holder across the bathtub. Shampoo submarines would approach in the bay. Pride of the fleet. She would lay charge and run for the taps, timing everything perfectly.. tick.. tick.. to bring the Nazi death-sponges tumbling.. to annihilate their entire flotilla."
The last guest left considers. "Did anyone stand trial for being anti-dandruff?"
Anne smiles. "I was only young. But was convinced they'd brush off the accusation."
Eyes widen. The last guest left tips her head, in accord. "Continue."
They give the engines another test once the truck has backed away and the refuelling fumes have mostly dissipated. The oil in the bore of the clutch, the crankshaft urges its propellers a notch forward - once, twice like minute hands. Everything's on green and the starter engines get a full free run on eight cylinders.
Sunlight breaks into her eyes, the doctor seems to have finished. He stands to adjust his uniform, brushing rice dust from his elbows and shoulder. He helps her to her feet, then cleans his hands.
Her heels had pressed so hard against the badly lain concrete that the two main tendons behind her knees now ache acutely, though she had managed to remain limp in his shadow over the sacks. Her arms had been unsure of what to do and, standing, they still were. Eyes, which had been steadily reading up and down the shaded roof of the barn, fall to the floor to adjust.
Half turning, he swings a finger in the direction of the aircraft. "I must.. I have things to attend to."
"Of course." She watches him wander back along the airstrip.
"Where's the silliest schnitzel that ever stunk up his daddy's Panzer?" Eva has spread her arms between Ani and the aircraft, the terrier is racing towards her.
At rendezvous, he jumps around her feet, panting unevenly until she scoops him up, beginning a series of short barks as she hangs him across her forearm. Turning, Eva explains that everyone will be leaving very soon.
"..come." She comforts the dog. "We're leaving, Ani." She calls over one shoulder.
"I Choke Em."
Too brilliant - yet no-one seemed to remember Roxanne Kapoor's arrival. Always the last guest to leave, if she did. The more silent attendee, it had not been unknown for her to say nothing at all - from her seven thirty 'It's only me' to her late night 'The cab driver has the smile of the violently dim. The soberest will escort me.'
"I.." A longish pause. "..Choke Em." She repeats this slowly, her voice quavering as she permits the full implications of the song title to sink in.
After illuminating the standard lamp, Anne returns across the dining room with her notebook, watching Roxanne prize apart a compact disc jewel case to peruse a set of sleeve notes that were so obviously alien to her.
Even in their now habitual late night one-to-ones, Roxanne slipped into and out of your awareness, and Anne found herself being very natural in her company. Roxanne was a fireside, and you couldn't help kicking off your shoes and exhaling. Sometimes the results of Anne's conversations ended up in Roxanne's work - but she knew that it would be treated with a circumspect and, again, alien generosity. Didn't mind. If you added to Roxanne's world, you added to her rhythms of thought, and therefore the books. And you didn't mind. 'I have waltzed a new dance' - went the dust jacket of 'All My Wild Valleys'. Too brilliant.
"Wit ma soulja boys at College Park." Her eyes narrow as she bends closer. "Lyin' scrub hoez out after dark. Hey bitch, inhale your final night. I'm pushin' the ho from side to side. Mike's behind, coochie's flashin', we're takin' out the trash cos tha streets are smokin'. There's a hard rain comin ta soak em. I choke em and I choke em and I choke em."
She glances at the carpet, briefly expressionless, registering.
The house had emptied, they were alone. Roxanne steps back to settle down into a blue Starck armchair and, against the light from a ceiling-orientated spotlamp to her left, absent-mindedly angles her absinthe glass forward to consider the quality of the hue approaching its lip. As she reads, Anne notices how the teacherish Karan dress rests on the fold of her limbs (Anne has chosen it, but doubted if Roxanne appreciated or cared how contemporary it was), and from its gathered cuffs the booklet is held in slim, clear plastic gloves - a type not unlike the kind that accompany bottles of supermarket hair dye or tie ribbons over boxes filled with eclairs. "It really can't be healthy." Anne had once said, upon Roxanne's admission that hadn't touched another's flesh for twenty years. She claimed it a phobia, an inheritance.
"Dem bitches want some nasty now from Killer Mike. Seen yo mama blowing kike." Her reading voice grows in confidence. "That leather up her cooch like a bike." She raises a finger. "So many johns at one point her cooch looked and sounded like a big pink bagpipe. In just one night. Same twenty goes from the crotch of a spike to the bra of a pro to the open hand of a cop. Bash em with an open mike and choke em. I choke em. Killer Mike won't stop until it's broken."
"It's one of Alain's." Anne returns Roxanne's look. 'Best A BitchDis 6'. Pepe had returned the collection. They both pause.
"Yay, Governor. Screw y'daughter, bring y'asshole to the slaughter. Tootin Carmoon knows how a pimp eyes water. I got yo name and address. When I get bail yo lady's my first suck-cess. Then to the mall, y'seen Cape Fear an'all. Yo girl's suckin on chicken in a bucket. I impress and says how I usedta choke an pluck em. Someone has to do it. They're no good cluckin. They'd dance around the kitchen. Flip you the feathery finger, singing ' Fuck going home in a Zinger.' Lil Francie's still all sticky though, so.."
"..so.." Slowly, Roxanne folds away the booklet and both women stare at the hearth in silence. "So.. vigourously Baudelaire."
"You seemed distracted tonight." She turns. "That's my job, Anne. You bring people together and always will and I won't allow you steal my dark crown."
"Birthdays, dearest. Half wishing I wasn't here. To disappear."
"States of certainty. Faith in the fairness of the world." Roxanne sniggers, her achromatic eyes glassing quickly with wormwood, her mind both invigorated and shaded. "I am more than half not here. And it delights me more the closer I get. I shall die like the greats, by my own hand or endeavour. And I exist merely to outsmart ennui until that time."
Roxanne is unrepentant. In fact, she peels a palm off her knee and confronts her friend with it. "No, I shall not miss the enflamed egotism of living things - in its piteous, smouldering pyre of sex objects, love objects, muses and make-dos."
She said this sort of thing for effect, Anne was sure. (Conscious of the irony inherent in 'Valleys', Anne had once asked - "Men?" Immediately, those achromatic eyes had taken a sheen which suggested that her mind had entered some alternate and infinite framework of reference, some otherness. Her focus had split, gone on internal leave, a primary watchman had transferred his fix. Visibly distanced, she lowered her lips gently towards her coffee. "Don't.. be.. revolting." She shivered through her default response to anything of this nature. Then, after several deep breaths, the moistening of her lips with a balm stick and the regulated closing and opening of her eyes demonstrated that her mind had conceded to return to the conversation at hand.
Anne felt the need to bring her closer still. "You need someone you can trust."
"Trust is a nanny on the doorstep of deceipt - and will slip her gin to the brat of reality before the chimes of midnight." Both arms folded across her angular frame.
"Love is an.. intimate business."
"The communion of baboons."
"It's only health, Roxanne." Anne had sighed, straightening her mobile phone on the table, back in that café. "It arrives like teenage geography or games. Some dream of fine art while the burnt offerings of our bedroom domestic science can dampen only the report card. But life in its absence is not.. healthy.")
Now, she returns her palm back to her knee. "Little orphan Ani. Continue."
Anne turns the remains of a sugarcube about in her absinthe. "My father once took me to the Cascades behind the farm. As we passed a disused well, covered with a wooden lid, he slowed, crossed himself and asked me to accompany him. I asked why such a place was hallowed ground. Cautiously, he asked if I remembered Ani, the girl he used to tell me stories about, who had to hide with us before I was born. I was a little older but secretly hoped that he might tell me another of his tales, though I sensed that I should have grown out of such things. My father then wiped his brow, sat upon the edge of the well and said he would divulge more once I was old enough."
Roxanne rolls a finger, inspecting the cat's return to the room.
"She died in childbirth, I discovered at thirteen , in the guest cabin by the precipice behind the farm. The doctors were in the pay of German police. A midwife came too late, the child was delivered caesarian by a part time vet. The family took her to the forest, when, at the Cascades, police were seen approaching along the valley. The family removed the lid and entombed her immediately."
Anne pauses to drink. "I went to the guest cabin then and that's when I wrote my first story. Her ultimate mission, 'Operation Drapchi'. In my pre-teen mind, everything is blown from the skies - for what better ending can we have? Our teachers must point out that this cannot be, for who could be recounting the tale?"
Roxanne flicks through her friend's teenage notebook. "We do play God, don't we. So what of it? This rapacious quest for innocence."
"Change. Dread." Anne begins to breathe deeply and looks away. Lately, she sensed a dread. "My father.. is unwell. Deteriorating every day. I try to communicate. He doesn't even remember my name."
~ Old Man Le Stileau awakes with a start. He turns to look at the clouds around the moon, through the barred windows of the Claude Francois Palace for the Infirm.
"..nnncometobuggermyfriggin noggin mynigger noggin rubberdummy huntin knives my ass comin for my friggin niggin.." He stands quickly and begins to dress. "..friggincomin.."
He tests the bars and, tucking his dressing gown into his trousers, quietly opens the bedroom door and jogs unevenly down the hall. ~
From the kitchenette, Ani is suddenly aware of water washing around in the sink. The door unlocked and Dr Karl emerges, wiping his hands. He uses paper towels to wipe her cheek.
They study one another's faces as the aircraft moved beneath them - slowly turning from its parking position to face the full length of the strip. His face to her is official, unchanged. Her face to him is warier, her shoulders back a little, less in duty now that the raised head and new glance down her nose gave her a more insistent look of bravery.
"No self-pity. Yes?"
"Your seat, please."
He stopped by the window when he reached the curtain. "No kiss and tell, Ani. They'll say you're a show off."
Alone, buckled to her seat and with a burning between her legs, she watches a world she never dreamt she'd see pass the window. The local children - sitting up to stand on a knoll of neglected grass, smiling and waving crossed fingers, chasing to call out, unheard through the roar of engine and propeller. As if they too sensed that she would never return.
She pulls the plaid bag of explosives much closer. Enough pitric acid, wrapped like a block of butter and wired, to do it. 'What a gift that will be. The greatest gift anyone can give, Ani.'
Scanning 'Operation Drapchi', Roxanne drains her fourth glass and stoops to unzip a discreet, leather travel case she extracts from her handbag. Held in the loops where one would find tweezers, nail files or pots of peppermint foot lotion - a Vasopressin haler. Long term memory enhancer. Import. Porcine. Bovine gave her blackouts. A mix of this and wormwood wrote 'All My Wild Valleys', she claimed.
Anne leans from her armchair and toggles at a dimmer switch, until they are illuminated only by low and lazy flames breaking up through gaps in damp, crackling logs pushed well into the hearth. The Renaud cat is bunched upon the sofa, examining and licking its paw. Roxanne closes her kit in the gloom and, turning to fix her observation on the animal, she begins to shake the inhaler.
"Cats are inevitably bewitching creatures. Domesticated recently, feral at their core. You feed them, they imagine you their mother. Something in them then objects and declares - 'I am predator. I should be roaming, hunting, slaughtering. Not here, breast fed like a child.' They resent you and run away. But they need you. The conflict of emotions causes them to repeatedly cleanse themselves." She draws back the drug through alternate nostrils and gazes into the ceiling, fluttering her eyes.
Still in this position, she swallows. "How long have we known one another, Anne? Do you know what I see when I watch you? When I see the way your eyes lock and you expose your neck with one finger like you're too hot." She lowers her head and shakes it as the drug takes effect. "That departing, over-the-shoulder smile and the way you mirror people's gestures. The lean forward. The variations of vocal tone and volume?"
Anne wrinkles her nose and looks away. Roxanne could hurt. Many objected to her for this very reason. But, as an author, Anne knew she that was only seeing things in a private mix more lucid than reality alone, whatever reality alone might be. She brings around the wicker table with an onyx chess set found in St Tropez. Roxanne claimed to be luckier black, settled for green, though had developed a habit of sullenly blaming any loss on the shortcoming.
"Tell me." Laugh and the world might join you - but this was never to be one of Anne's more successful soirees.
The author drops her kit to the floor with a serious look on her face. "I see more than a flirt, Anne. A lifelong arouser, not even aware of it herself sometimes. Someone who can't do anything unless it wags a man's tail, Herculean as that may be." She was very drugged. She places a narrow, intoxicated hand over Anne's and they lock eyes. "Behind every flirt, and the world can see it clearer it than you think, sits the loner, in all their blessed suspense."
The moon had never been brighter, the bedroom freezing. Anne closes across the open window and turns to regard the still-made, empty bed and the slow green change to a new minute on the digital clock. Her eyes adjust to the moonlight indicating words in her Mont Blanc pen on Velin notepaper.
A look in on Leopold after Roxanne had stood to report that the dining room had commenced a leisurely but unwelcome revolve. Anne had left her clutching her head to consider 'Operation Drapchi' - and had promised to return with coffee.
'Please understand, I want to do whatever I like and she lets me. You're always watching and questioning like you still don't trust me. I'm some easy-going thing that took away a gap in your life. You're not my mother. You'll never trust me. We'll both be where the world won't find us. I'm in love.'
"The journey will be interminably boring. Entertain us, Ani." Jeschonnek had insisted she be more social, a smile playing on his lips.
"Miss?" On the occupied sofas she holds the plaid bag closer to her belly.
"Yes, Ani. Entertain us." Jeschonnek laughs. Karl looks out the window, then at his nails.
"What would you like me to do?" Someone sighs.
"Oh, she's useless. I shall be Salome." Eva stands and begins to sway.
"Poor show. You disappoint us, Ani."
"I'm sorry, sir."
"And stop apologising. It doesn't get us anywhere."
"I won't apologise, sir. Sorry."
"And what are you hiding in that bag?"
Ani sits forward to leave.
"What's Ani got in her bag? Everyone?" Eva stops swaying and approaches along the fuselage with widening eyes.
"Hand it over, Ani. Show us what it is. There's no secrets between friends."
"A woman's things, sir."
Eva backs off. "You are not to be revolting, Ani."
What a story they would all make - these loves that never even become. With their shrugs, uh-huhs and uphill struggle in a litany of one-sided phone calls. Sure. Okay. Texts rattled like ammo. I'm drunk. Me 2. 2 drunk. A pocketful of flirt in store for lonely moments. Too-early sex. Too desperate? Too alone. Too rehearsed. You too? Neither of us are. Nope, neither of us are anything. Except cool. Look at me? What's up? Look at me. I've been busy. That's what people are these days. Busy. Me 2. What a payoff to the tale, the strung-out (one month, three?) freefall towards an x screaming 'introduce me to your friends' right on the forehead of a little fucking dithering boy who had nothing to share in the first place. Why fucking bother?
Air. The car. She had to get out and come clean. Roxanne sensed when she was on the edge. Or near enough not to proffer mere advice.
She had driven over the limit only twice before. Both occasions had been in the middle of the night, right about now. Once along the wild white stone tracks of Donegal, where the clouds slip towards the Atlantic so low it's a leisurely jump to touch them and there is no-one. No-one. And once in a fit of similar anger, Alain singing 'I Promised You A Miracle' and trying to kiss her hand, fingers sticky with some editorial assistant's hairspray, as if that would make amends. "You know how much I love you? Do you?" Those words were nothing but drunk talk and somehow, in a peculiarly male way, he was blind even to the fact that he was lying. Words spoken not to Anne but to something seen in her, something she might be a portal towards and, she might concede, allowed herself to be. And a portal his concern and the smile in his eyes used to find all the time - then it appeared like Brigadoon, at inebriated intervals. And how men managed to lie and not be lying at the same time was as much a mystery.
Anne runs a red light, begins to slow down, or imagines she has. "When I think of trust I recall a little girl in a restaurant. She looks over from the adjacent table she shares with her parents and she looks at you."
Roxanne lived in a maisonette in St Germain en Laye. She could afford a better place but didn't feel the need for expansion. In the passenger seat, she unscrews some bottled water and gulps heavily, fully drunk yet engrossed on the road. "May I refer you to my diagnosis. Anne is in her element." - she could have said but - "Where are we going?"
"The girl sizes you briefly, for a second ignoring the requests of her parents to finish something prepared in a manner she is not accustomed to and finds unpalatable." She takes a sharp right.
She takes a sharp left. "For the briefest moment, she rolls her eyes at you. Those eyes say 'For God's sake - get me away from these two'. Or something. And you smile back and she turns to consult her plate. You continue to smile much longer than you should, but eventually turn away and sip some wine and realise that an unknown child acting quite instinctively sensed that she could confide. That you might be on her side. It still happens, even in this piteous pyre."
"I never get that."
Someone you'd be eager to change for, to drop the bad stuff and build on the good. Someone you respected enough to feel ingratiated and honoured to share a life together. You'd kiss too much and you'd push him away with a private smile to yourself and slap your hands together and say 'Right, let's get this show on the road' to the day trip or the daily duties ahead.
"I'm going to be sick." Place Innocent X, where they park at an angle to the roadside. Roxanne throws opens the door. She scuttles along the steps of the Eglise and prepares herself.
After collecting a blanket from the back seat, Anne cuts the engine and walks to her side, where she manages to settle them both onto the steps and place the blanket across her shoulders. Each spasm of her torso throws a swipe of colourless bile further into the street, a higher arc across the pillars. Anne wraps both arms around and places her head against that narrow back, feeling another involuntary pump under the ribcage inside closely locked arms, then listening for the gush and spatter of fluids being expelled, a panting and sniffing. The process then repeated.
She looks around. The Eglise never seemed to change. "Shh. You'll feel better when it's over."
Further retching till nothing comes. "Thank you for everything, Anne."
"Please." A whisper. "Leave this place in peace." They turn to the left where a head has appeared from the church doorway. "Go now. With God's blessings. Before harm is done."
Roxanne wipes her lips, attempts to stand. A car parked in the orange glow starts its engine. On the interior, a young couple are pulling on their t-shirts.
Vaulting to and fro behind the apartment blocks, police sirens seem to fall ahead of themselves rapidly, turning in to approach between butchers' billboards, boulangerie awnings, or the constellations up above.
~ A burning torch is cast at the door. Someone with a bat steps forward from the mob.
"Peejay Paxil. Get outta tha house an' face rightful sentencin', child enjoyer!"
"Pee-do Paxil. Pee-do Paxil." "Prepare tha tree."
Laur pushes him. "Go to the door, hon. Tell em I's bearin' age."
He struggles into his britches. "Damn that woman."
Old Man Le Stileau slips along the wall of the reception area, where the night porter and matron sit too engrossed in Deux Betamix 24 to notice anything.
"..therewego nornor easttwo on the dialthis oldsoldierfriggin knows her voodoo.." ~
Rings of smoke still hang since midnight mass, half-way up the interior of the Eglise Innocent X. In the light from the portal to the office, the changing room, the floor gives off a disinfected smell, glassy tiles, a neat stitch-like pattern of quick, interlocking mop wipes, still to dry. Strong, haunting effigies of the more popular saints, Our Lady underlit by clip-on lamps on fold-away side tables covered in bags of tealights, hand-painted donation tins, booklets on missionary activities, a visitor's album.
Le Pere Aragones carries Roxanne through to the office with its single settee to the left of a writing table. "If I'd only known." She looks into his eyes as he lowers her onto broad, square cushions of the settee. He moves to the cabinet and excitedly scans the bookshelves for a copy of 'All My Wild Valleys'. "I'd be absolutely excommunicated. For this and permitting evening company."
"Vulnerable company." Roxanne pulls herself up on the settee. She tests it suspiciously. "Do you have nocturnal emissions?"
"Nocturnal and matinal." He is unabashed. "I confess that I often turn to your work - to navigate my thoughts along the proper channels."
Impatient in the doorway, Anne watches her friend run a hand around her neck, though that dress could not go any higher. Her eyes drop as he joins her on the settee. "I trust that I afford a suitable longitude."
He looks concerned. "These pages cannot contest the rigourousness of my bearings."
Anne coughs, she asks for his time.
A pair of simple crocodile clips push into each end of the pitric acid in the Swiss flag partly unfurled and swept aside from the plaid bag.
"What's going on in there?" Jeschonnek is battering the door, shouting to compete with the roar of the engines. "We're beside ourselves."
~ Old Man Le Stileau swings himself up and across the granite balustrade of the new Pont Neuilly, erected after the war - to watch the unchanging Seine roll into Centre Ville.
"......" Smiling defiantly, he salutes la Defense - then pulls off his slippers and folds his socks together. ~
"A woman's things, sir." Toggle switch, no timer supplied. She fumbles with the battery, warms it in her hands. Loads it. Prays. Waits. Doesn't do it. Waits. Doesn't know why.
"The Fuhrer is disorientated. I order you out of the bathroom." More thumping, a kick with his foot, a shoulder.
"Surely not, Anne?" Le Pere whispers, shocked on the other side of the confessional. "Continue."
Waiting in the darkness, Anne blows her nose.
"My father was reponsible for a child before he met my mother. Since then, he has been funding her life without our family's knowledge. When the day comes, she is properly willed. I have been informed that she is to inherit our estate, the dearest part of my childhood, where I have always envisaged my final resting place. "
Le Pere says nothing. In the office, Roxanne turns the last of 'Operation Drapchi' around in her hands, her eyes moving casually across the page.
"Since this discovery, realisations have fuelled my anger. Phone calls, trips, suspicions. At my mother's funeral, she was there - though I find it impossible to recall her face. Recent communications with this person have been met with.. silence. "
The explosion tears the aircraft in half like a cheer through the heavens. A ferocious, orange streak of flame and twisted steel tumbles forward for some time, before diverging into tendrils of debris, lost beneath their own freeflowing spirals of smoke. Upon impact, the disintegrated machine is quickly subsumed in a wide, chaotic nebulae of dirty snow, destined to be untraceable on the peaks of these mountains.