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Authors: Alexandra Cameron

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BOOK: Rachael's Gift
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I glanced over at Rachael, wondering about her, what her thoughts were, who she was, this strange creature, and whether I really knew her at all. When she wasn’t asleep, she stared dreamily out of the window, absently playing with strands of her hair; her blue skinny jeans – the kind all the young girls were wearing – clung to every curve on her legs and hips, and a large baggy t-shirt drooped off her shoulders. Black kohl was smudged under her eyes, but even in the dry air of the plane, her olive skin still glowed.

‘Tell me about when you lived in Paris,’ Rachael said later, as the plane droned on; she threw her arm across my lap. ‘Tell me about them.’

I pushed up her sleeve and began stroking the inside of her arm. She rested her head on my shoulder. ‘You never talk about it.’

I stared at the back of the seat in front, its polyester blue cover fraying at the edges. No, I’d not told her about them, or Paris.

‘You’ll love Paris. It’s like some kind of fairytale – like “Cinderella”. I would love to be setting eyes on it again for the first time.’

‘Blah blah blah, I know all that. Read the books. Seen the films. Give me the real stuff, Camille. The juice.’

Rachael shifted around so that her back rested against the window and draped her legs over me, her socked feet hanging into the aisle.

She and I were closer than most mothers and daughters, but when it came to Paris, part of me clamped shut. I was not sure why. Perhaps saying it all out loud would make it seem real. But now that we were on our way, now that she would meet them and see what they were like for the first time, maybe it was time to tell her – to warn her.

‘There’s a lot of water under the bridge when it comes to
la famille
, as you know. The way they treated your Mémé and me – the way they dismissed us. They’re so . . . I guess, conservative – well, you’ll see when you meet them. They have ideas about how things should be and when they don’t turn out the way they want them to, they can be cruel. Best not mention this whole teacher thing, by the way.’

Rachael rolled her eyes to say,
As if
.

‘On the other hand,’ I said, ‘I was mesmerised. They’re from a completely different world to anything I’d ever known – they know everything about art and culture. They know a lot of very important people. I guess I thought that that was what sophistication was. I was young and naive – much less worldly than you, darling.’ I reflected for a moment. ‘Grandfather used to spend time with me, teaching me about art history and his studies at the Louvre, but he was so vague, so remote; I think he just loved to relive his passions – that was what he cared for: objects, not people. That was the problem. They’re all like that: cold.’

Rachael stroked my hand. ‘But how could they not have liked you, Mummy? Did they not see how beautiful you are?’ She spoke in her baby voice. ‘They sound so mean.’

‘Ha. It was so long ago, Rachey. I couldn’t care less now. Anyway, I’m sure they have their perspective too.’ I began to laugh. ‘God, the eggshells I walked on around Aunt Francine. Charming one minute and then – snap! – you didn’t see the rage coming. I didn’t know people could be like that. Anyway, I was just a kid looking for fun.’

‘Since when was that a crime?’

‘It is when you want something else. I wasn’t focused enough. Not like you. I got distracted. But that won’t happen to you, you’re too good.’

She gave me a sleepy smile and nodded.

‘The Beaux-Arts will love you.’

‘I bet you were running around Paris with lots of much older French men, having a fucking brilliant time.’

‘Something like that.’ I winked at her.

She squeezed my hand. ‘We don’t need them, anyway. We have each other.’

I pressed her thighs against me.

She snuggled down. ‘Well, let them try their games with me.’

‘Oh yeah . . .’

She yawned. ‘Love you.’

‘Love you too.’

‘I can’t believe we’re going to be in Paris in a few hours,’ she said, and closed her eyes.

I looked at the rows and rows of dark heads; some faces were lit by their TV screens, others were slumped against their headrests. I wondered what
la famille
would be like now, whether they had indeed changed, whether they would hold my nineteen-year-old self against my forty-year-old one, or whether they were sorry that Marguerite was dead. What would they make of Rachael? For a moment I considered telling them about Rachael’s work and the Beaux-Arts – then thought better of it. We didn’t need their help – Rach would get there on her own.

Wolfe

Daylight scorched my eyes. I didn’t remember sleeping, just rolling in and out of some kind of restless watch, my brain in overdrive and my muscles clenching and unclenching. I rolled over and felt the bedsheets, empty and cold. Christ. It had happened. I hadn’t dreamt it. The realisation drove through me, shocking and torturous, and I broke into a cold sweat. I ran to the loo and my bowels exploded.

Dazed and done in, I wandered back into our bedroom and checked my phone. Nothing. They would have arrived by now. I pressed her number. It clicked over into voicemail.

What did she think? Did she just expect me to sit by? I made a cup of tea but it was the colour of dishwater and tasted the same. I wished I could shake some reason into that stubborn head of hers. Squeeze some good sense into her skull.

There’s something else
, she’d said, but I’d been so furious I’d not heard her. No. I’d heard her all right but I’d known it was just another bloody excuse. There was always something. I rubbed my sore eyes. She was running scared. Camille had refused to make Rachael go to the shrink. But why? Maybe Rachael had lied after all and Cam knew it. Cam was too busy protecting Rachael’s bloody gift, that was the problem.
She’s a genius, Wolfe – we have to encourage her
. But her teachers had called her a liar. Some gift. Cold-blooded, expert manipulator, sexual predator. I’d caught her wagging school down at the beach once, but who was I to tell her off? Pot, kettle, black. False accusation of sexual misconduct, though – that was serious. Why the hell would she make up a story like that? Destroy a man?

I sent Anne Fellows a text cancelling our meeting and wondered what the hell I would say to Sheehan tomorrow. Then I sent Camille one:
WTF????!!!

For the rest of that day, I set out to apply the stencil on the new board, trying to keep busy. I spray-painted her sides navy and white, and meshed the two colours in the centre. I sketched the outline of a new design on the plastic on my draftsman’s easel and then followed it with a Stanley knife. I laid it across the tail of the board, covering the rest of the wet paint with plastic, and sprayed the stencil in black. By the time I finished up, it was three p.m. and a pair of black wolf’s eyes stared at me. I was hoping the shooter would soar, but my focus was like the slack end of a rope and it was a miracle I’d even finished her at all.

Later, after a bottle of Oxford Landing’s finest, I buckled and called Sally.

‘Did she tell you?’

‘Tell me what?’ she said, prickly as usual.

‘That she was leaving?’

A hoarse laugh echoed down the line. ‘She dump your sorry arse finally?’

‘Fuck you, Sally. No. She’s gone to Paris with Rachael. Did she tell you her plans?’ Shit. I heard the weakness in my voice – the doubt, the desperation. This was a mistake.

Sally sniffed it out like a hound dog. ‘I always thought she could do better.’

‘Jeez . . . this isn’t about us. It’s about Rachael. She’s . . .’ There was more sniggering on the line. ‘Oh, forget it.’ I hung up.

Camille

It was lunchtime when we arrived in Paris. The sky was autumnal: bright blue, clear and crisp; the limestone buildings shone like a gift in gold foil.

‘Pinch me,’ Rachael said, leaning into the taxi window. ‘I can’t believe we’re here.’ She craned her neck to see barges put-putting down the river, tourist buses lurching, mopeds buzzing in and out of traffic, pale faces squinting against the cold, and through the buildings, above the mansard rooftops, pointing like a large spear, the iron spoke of the Eiffel Tower.

‘I thought it would be taller,’ Rachael said.

 

*

We waited on the narrow footpath outside my aunt’s apartment building, Rach carrying my mother’s ashes, our bags dumped on the pavement. Above us a woman cleaned the elaborate wrought iron of the balcony, her ample arm jiggling; a moped mounted the pavement, its driver popping into the cafe; a sheer net curtain shook in the window on the ground floor, a watchful eye disappearing: here was Paris. My palms felt damp.

The gate opened automatically. I pushed an orange glow on the wall, the place lit up, and we dragged our things over the cobblestoned foyer towards a set of glass doors. I pressed a second buzzer inscribed with the names
M. et Mme Drake
.

‘’Allo?’ came the voice.

‘It’s Camille.’


Dernier étage
. Top floor.’

‘Yes, I remember.’

The lift rattled to the sixth floor and stopped with a thud. We pushed the grate back. I could smell jasmine and vanilla.

Chamade, I recalled, was the name of my aunt’s perfume. It wafted in the air long after she had left a room. She used to carry a small bottle of concentrate in her bag and absently dab it behind her ears throughout the day. If she hugged me I would smell of it for hours. She had torn shreds off me once and afterwards had presented me with a bottle as a gift – an apology. I’d taken it and worn the perfume until someone told me later, ‘I can’t smell
you
with that stuff on.’ I never wore it again.

The door to the apartment clicked open. An outline of my aunt’s figure was backlit on the threshold, thin and tall, her hair the shape of a halo. She was flawless. She was smiling.

‘Camille,’ she said, the French way. A gold bracelet clattered on her wrist as she touched her cheeks either side of mine. She stood back, taking a lengthy look at me ‘It’s been too long.’ She squeezed my wrists and the corners of her eyes welled up.

Twenty-one years ago, fresh off the plane, I had waited for her for one hour in the street outside the train station. It had been so cold my eyes had watered.

‘Was it a terrible journey?’ Francine asked.

I shook my head, struck by the strangeness of being here. I’d forgotten the grandness of the apartment.

‘Business class wasn’t as glamorous as I thought it would be.’ Rachael leant in and kissed her great-aunt on both cheeks. ‘It’s lovely to meet you.’

I heard the lie slip out of her mouth with ease. ‘Rach, we weren’t in business.’

‘It was a joke, Camille.’

Right, I thought. Sometimes I missed these things completely.

Francine gripped Rachael’s shoulders. ‘Rachelle – you’re so grown up.’ She looked from me to Rachael. ‘You must look like your father, no?’

I nodded, watching Francine, and then looked around for something with which to ground myself. A point of reference. It was a shock to see how much she looked like my mother.

‘That’s what they say,’ Rachael piped up. ‘But it’s just the hair that throws you.’ She flicked a bunch of curls with her fingers and shot a sweet glance toward me. ‘I think if you look closely I’m much more like Camille.’

Francine’s gaze rested on Rachael’s art portfolio balanced atop the Arnott’s tin and the rest of our luggage; a mixed look of déjà vu and dread crossed her face. I turned to Rachael and felt a stab of guilt. Fresh-faced, innocent and eager, a young girl presents her precious oeuvre to a revered aunt: a woman who rips away dreams like adhesive tape from the skin.

Without an invitation, Rachael wandered off into the apartment. Her voice rang through the hallway. ‘Oh, wow, this is stunning!’

Francine raised her eyebrow and I felt myself reel. She told me we would be staying in the guest room and that she had tea ready for us in the salon. I dragged our suitcases into the hall.

Rachael returned and picked up the Arnott’s tin. ‘So what do you want me to do with these?’

Francine blinked at the tin held together with masking tape, her eyes narrowing, awareness flooding her face. ‘A biscuit tin?’

That was rich coming from the woman who hadn’t spoken to her sister in years. I hoisted my laptop bag over my shoulder, wondering if things were going to kick off already. ‘It was all we could manage.’

Francine took the tin. ‘I’ll find something more . . . appropriate.’

You’re a bit late
, I wanted to say, but bit my tongue. I followed her camel-coloured slacks and cream Italian loafers into the salon.

Rachael was staring at a small pig with feathered wings inside a glass tank – one of the many contemporary artworks on display. ‘That guy is laughing all the way to the bank,’ she said before moving on to the mantelpiece, where a fresh arrangement of white lilies had been placed. Above the white open petals and the yellow stamen, in a gilt-edged frame, hung a pastel of a ballet dancer, holding a bouquet of flowers, bowing to the audience.

Rachael spun around. ‘Holy shit it’s a Degas!’

Francine smiled modestly. ‘It’s pronounced
Dega
, my dear. The “s” is silent.’

‘Dega, then. OMG, you have a DEGA!’

I glared at Francine, looking for some kind of acknowledgement, some hint that she knew that I knew that the famous picture had hung in my mother’s room when she was a young girl. But Francine simply closed her eyes over the rim of her cup.

Rachael held her nose up close to the painting, ‘This is just . . . I’m speechless. How do you. . .?’ She glanced over her shoulder at Francine.

‘My parents bought it many years ago. Those who adore Degas –’ she paused ‘– call him the artist’s artist. Mind you, he was an old misanthrope and a dreadful anti-Semite, but one can’t get past his brilliant draftsmanship.’

‘I love his nude series, the way the women aren’t aware of the viewer – their poses are so natural. Like they’ve been caught unawares.’

I listened to Rachael talk about one of her favourite painters; it seemed she was at ease here in this old world in a way I had never been. Maybe this was the way; some tea in a fine bone china cup, the pretty pastels of an impressionist, a rich aunt.

BOOK: Rachael's Gift
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