Matilda had a thing about arrivals. On planes, even when not working on foreign policy, she wore tailored suits and carried a valise, as if on her way to an important meeting, or in the event of becoming ejected, disembodied over enemy territory, needing to command as much respect as a man, as Roosi, for instance, or any of her colleagues. Nothing could be done about shots fired by narcissistic young men. One had killed her brother.
And now she found herself alighting from a taxi at the head of the circular driveway to the Grand-Hôtel, Cabourg, looking as bourgeois as young Marcel, arriving with his grand-maman, seeking a cure for his asthma. He had fictionalised the location as Balbec. Matilda gazed up at red awnings shaped like cloche hats, and found herself wheezing in sympathy with the young Proust—not so much the older one who sometimes seemed to her amoral—nodding at the doorman as she entered through the rotating doors. If Cabourg in high summer made no difference to her lungs, she could only conclude that her allergy was personal and brought about by the limitations of her relationship with Roosi because he had loved her brother.
Before her last placement, she had found him reading Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu in bed. To please her, she surmised.
‘It’s boring,’ he said. ‘Nothing happens.’
‘He wrote most of the great work in bed, his health weakened by asthma.’ She sneezed.
‘Then he should have got up.’ Roosi threw the book aside. ‘Come, lie beside me and tell me more about Marcel the man, that I might be more understanding.’
‘He liked to go to the casino …’
‘I like to go to the casino.’
Perhaps it could be enough, to get him there. She would slide into Normandy from East Asia or England and they would see. Proust had been no pushover either, disguising his beloved boys as female characters. ‘He loved boys.’
‘I love boys, and girls.’
‘You fucked my brother.’
‘Had I not I wouldn’t have met you.’
They had quarrelled then about Marcus.
Le Grand was all it should be: surrounded by Belle Époque houses, floral displays inside as big as shrubs, chandeliers heavy enough to take your head off should they fall, Proustian memorabilia in frames, on pedestals, in elegant script and line drawings, a grand piano, and Claude Debussy looping through the sound system. Her eyes skated across the tiled floor, past majestic columns ringed with gold, and lifted to the light and airy space that led towards porthole windows revealing the sea.
She broached the reception desk behind which several staff members swam languidly through blue light. ‘I must apologise’, she whispered, one hand clutching the brick lodged in her chest, gave a little cough, failed to clear her throat and tried again through a web of unmentionable mucous matter, ‘for a small difficulty’. The French were visceral in their approach to life. Throat clearing would be considered au naturelle, and nothing, weighed against the larger sins of body fat or unruly foreign children. ‘I find myself ill with asthma.’ Her breath rattled through fine fretwork.
The receptionist gestured to a valet, with a flip of her fingers, directing him to Matilda’s suitcase. ‘I shall call le docteur?’
‘No, no, I need to rest. Please show me to my room.’
‘Oui, oui, Madame.’
A boy, a reincarnation of early twentieth-century Balbec staff, despite or perhaps because of his rich Moroccan complexion, ascended with her in the lift. At the end of the corridor he carded her into her room. ‘… not the sea view, Madam, but … is well appointed … hope fulfils every desire.’ Was he being ironic? She swayed against him. Touched the pearl button on his thin wrist. Then regained her balance, advancing into the room on a waft of his linden aftershave.
Only Roosi would arrive late for a romantic tryst. Perhaps his budget airline had overbooked his connecting flight. Drenched in Opium YSL, dreamily soaping herself astride the bidet, Matilda imagined him in the transit lounge playing on his phone. How ridiculous to invite a tardy man with an unkempt beard and authoritative nose, who could only steal a week between meetings about soulless data, to pay homage to her favourite author. While she had managed to slip away to France from a war zone. For two days, she was not remembering lost time but trying to imagine their future with any certainty.
After complementary croissants and coffee, she had asked at the desk for permis-sion to inspect Marcel Proust’s sixth-floor room. ‘Would it be possible, s’il vous plaît?’
‘The room is occupied. You may ask each day.’ The tariff was high. The room booked months ahead.
That evening Matilda lay fully dressed on the bed balancing the elegance of her surrounds against her rage with Roosi. Where the hell was he? Twice she nodded off and found herself dreaming of her brother. At 8 p.m. she saw the liftboy in the garden, wiping his eyes with the back of his hand and smoking, then striding away. Was he crying? At 9 p.m. the maid woke her as she delivered the weather on an ecru card with indigo graphics:
Le Grand Hotel
Cher (s) client (s),
Demain le ciel de Cabourg s’annonce: 20 degrés.
Nous vous souhaitons une très agréable nuit: We wish you a very good night.
This was not even a faint possibility. Matilda back-flipped the accompanying chocolate with her fingernail.
At 10 p.m., she rose to answer the door a second time but found the corridor bare. At her feet lay another card from housekeeping. There had been a cancellation and she was now invited to view the great man’s room. How irregular, at that hour. The passageway smelled faintly of linden. By God, she would go. She drew the deadlock across her door and ran a bergamot bath. What could be more fitting than wearing her grey, chrysanthemum-embossed silk kimono? Proust had loved japonaiserie. The weight in her lungs lightened, she breathed more freely, her face pinked in anticipation. She glossed her lips, moisturised all over, selected mauve ballet flats and matching lilac-print underwear.
At the entrance to Proust’s room she fingered the brass plaque, refreshing her memory of single Matilda on overseas placements, snapping her laptop shut at the desk to go out and enjoy company and a few drinks. She would please herself as she had then. Sleep was not out of the question. Perhaps Roosi would materialise and tiptoe in to kiss her—channelling Albertine, Proust’s almost fiancée. Her lungs burned as she stepped through the unlocked door and took in the polished wooden floor, the table lamps casting apricot light, and the blue print carver chairs placed either side of the table. The bed seemed small, but were the French not athletic in their lovemaking? She slid behind the curtains to gaze down at the beach and promenade, to the row of royal blue and pale caramel-coloured bathing tents.
Of course, she must have half-registered a sound behind her, the door handle turning on its spindle, one ring on a mobile phone, silenced by a finger, a person swathed in the blue throw from the bed, visibly performing in the mirror—which should have set her screaming. But she was lying. There was nothing unwelcome about the lemony smell, the arm coiling around her waist, to loosen the tie on her kimono; nor the warm mouth on the back of her neck, the decidedly male body sliding over her hip, the thumb circling the inside of her thighs until she thought she might flatten herself against it and croon. Head bowed, she flexed her body within the ravelling curtain.
A hand drew her backwards between the drapes and she curled hers in perfect etude, lay back against his body, untucked his shirt and bucked her hips, even as her gown slid from her shoulders and spooled on the floor.
‘What have you done?’ she hissed, reaching behind to finger his cropped head, his naked face, an abrasion beneath his chin.
‘I heard you were ill,’ he whispered.
‘What happened to the privacy of hotel guests?’
On the ceiling, shadows darted; a festival drone grumbled past; fingers walked across her breasts; the sweetness of absinthe painted her tongue. Such a disgrace—disrespectful, sacrilegious—to misbehave in a famous writer’s room as if she was starving for love, as if any man would do, even an imaginary one who preferred men.
Outside, lamps flickered and went out; avenue de la Mer fell silent. In volume six, M had commanded Albertine to travel all the way from Paris, to wait downstairs until he summoned her past midnight, to pleasure and relax him after the travails of the casino at Deauville, to allow him to express his complicated love. Had she done that to Roosi? Matilda experienced an urge to give up on men—to find, like Albertine, décolletage to kiss. Then pleasure sighed though her extremities. Until she had taken her fill of him, she wouldn’t open her eyes.
After all, she would not stay overnight and have the boudoir maid complain that Matilda had despoiled the room for the next guests. She leapt up and pulled on her gown in one fast motion, and hurried down the fire stairs to her room, where she found everything restored: bed smoothed; curtains flung open; candle lit beside the exotic lily. From the bathroom came the strange smell of perfectly braised asparagus.
Next evening, on the cusp of the second dinner sitting, Roosi let himself into the room without knocking. Had he been skulking about all day somewhere? Matilda had been leaning against the balustrade on the balcony, waving back to the moustachioed man peddling below, his topiaried white dog yapping in the basket of his bicycle. She started. Turned to face Roosi, face flushed. ‘How long have you been here?’
She felt ill and floaty. More vulnerable than usual. In hotels it was his custom to bunt her forwards and slide between her and the locked door, like a warder anticipating a break. It was her custom to rush to the window and test that it opened, in the event of smoke or fire. In Washington hotels, her hands beat like small birds against the locked glass. Then in his confessed excitement he waited for her to touch him first.
‘The liftboy is delicious.’
‘A veritable knockout.’
Two days late without a care. ‘Do you want to sleep with him?’
‘Why are you always so competitive?’
‘I enjoyed his conversation.’
‘I … not so much.’ She brushed fastidious fingers along the seams of her jacket. ‘He omits the personal pronoun from the beginnings of sentences. I am not the first to remark on the language of liftboys.’
‘So pretentious. Do you remember how we met?’
‘I am fated to encounter bad grammar in lifts.’ Back then, in that small heated space, she had wanted him so badly, the lick and taste and touch of him, that she thought she had fallen into a cheap romance full of Vesuvian metaphors.
The Cabourg seaside holiday had been planned as a test but he had already failed. A breeze lifted her hair and she straightened strands with her fingers, half-aware of him moving towards the bed, patting the white Marcella quilt.
‘What happened to love?’
‘Love?’ He composed his mouth into a little moue of reproach. ‘Making love is part of inspecting the room.’
‘They have sea grass–fattened lamb on the menu, canard served with blood sauce, pomme tatin with crème fraiche.’
He flapped his hand against his trousers. ‘Please, Matilda. You know how much I miss you.’
‘If you’d arrived here on time instead of playing games, you might have got a warmer reception.’ She cleared her throat. ‘We should eat.’
He jumped up and closed the French doors, drew the heavy drapes against the fading brightness, the ringing of bicycle bells and children’s laughter. ‘You don’t look well. I thought the north of France was supposed to cure asthma.’ He made another attempt to gather her in but she broke away to stand in front of the mirror and smooth down her white linen dress. This was how it was with them, one step forward and then another back.
‘All right then. A glass of wine and a bite to eat might be best,’ he said.
The waiter led them to the last available table on the promenade. Roosi snatched up the menu. Seated further along, a dark-haired man tried to catch Matilda’s eye. Raised his eyebrows and corrected Roosi—coquille Saint-Jacques—who rose in his seat with a haunted look before Matilda pulled him down. The man smiled and resumed reading Sodom and Gomorrah. Roosi fell into a prolonged moody silence and she stared out to sea. Matilda hated these holding patterns.
‘What do you make of my meal?’ he eventually demanded.
Was she personally responsible for its poor production and plating? ‘It looks fine.’
The man stared.
‘Are you unhappy with it?’
‘I’m not happy with you.’
She placed her hand on his. ‘Don’t embarrass me. Please.’
He pulled his away. ‘You should apologise.’
‘I should apologise?’
‘I don’t feel like dessert.’
‘I’ll call for the bill then, shall I?’ she said. Both of them so independent, so stupidly capable.
Roosi stood up and pushed in his chair. ‘I’m going for a walk.’ Droplets of béarnaise sauce glistened on his chin.
‘I think you should pay,’ she said.
‘What happened to liberté, égalité, fraternité?’
Oh that was rich, when she had organised everything and he had arrived late. ‘I will see you upstairs.’ She turned her head to hide her prickling eyes.
He slapped a card on the table, signed, and took off along the path; fingers fishing for something in his pocket, casting at her one last look of anger or half-longing. She couldn’t tell.
If only he hadn’t loved Marcus first. But that wasn’t true. Marcus was her baby brother. She had loved him from the moment he arrived in her life—the squalling, dribbling sweetness of him—and later when he had crawled into her bed, reeking of wet nappy, shoving board books into her face, kissing her with his grubby mouth. ‘More,’ he said, when she, aged seven, had read to him, aged three, one arm slung around his plump shoulders. When their parents set on flight fussed with documents, squabbled among an archipelago of suitcases in the hall, waited for taxis that would prove the final sign of their desertion, Matilda and Marcus clung to each other at the top of the stairs, waved and blew uncertain kisses.
The waiter removed the calvados sorbet. Matilda risked a glance at the other diner before hurrying from the table. He rolled his eyes. Surely he must be a bloody writer, paying homage to Proust, he would satirise Roosi’s mispronunciation of charcuterie, boulangerie, pâtissier, crêperie on the street, his drooling at the window of Maison de chocolat, when he would laugh outright. In the lounge, she lifted Time Regained from her handbag and drank and read until the fleur-de-lys in the burgundy carpet blurred before her eyes. The token madeleine remained on her plate when she crept up the grand staircase.
Marcus died in an uptown Boston shopping centre buying jocks while she, ironically, was in American quarters near Kandahar, a dangerous place. There had been several bomb blasts during the night and she had stood at the window listening, her mood altered by every call to prayer crackling over truck megaphones. Then Roosi had rung and told her. Almost immediately she began to wheeze. Was it the dust or his tears that unhinged her, made her think that she would die? Roosi seemed to understand that she couldn’t breathe, and spoke calmly, kindly until she could rise off her knees and find her puffer—live. At the funeral, slides of Marcus, beautiful, carefree, drink in hand, shirt open, absurd in full dinner suit, slid across the screen above their heads. She had loved Roosi ever since.
‘Do not speak to me,’ she shouted at him, flinging shoes when he entered the room after midnight.
‘I won at baccarat. Against that bloke who was rude at dinner. We got on quite well. In the end.’ He lumbered towards the bathroom.
‘You should have been nicer to me. All week, I looked forward to pleasing you.’
‘Why can’t you act like a normal person?’
‘I want to surprise you, too.’
She heard water running and a crash. ‘I know that you love boys,’ she shouted. ‘My brother, for instance.’
Shower sounds drowned out his voice. Matilda thought about when she and Marcus were teenagers, home together while their parents made speeches at one of their interminably dreary think-tank dinners. How they mixed gin-fizzes, tried on mother’s beaded evening gowns, cranked up the music and paraded around, as pissed as pardalotes. With Marcus’ sweet face peeping out from behind a tasselled burnous, they once practised their kissing techniques on the full-length mirror in the hallway, until he became upset about something and head-butted the glass so hard it shattered.
‘More,’ she said and he laughed. Once in their twenties arriving home drunk after a party and attacked by the munchies, they had raided the fridge, eaten and drunk until Matilda felt so ill that she made up her mind to take the placement in Defence. She was only one person. From now on, Marcus would have to solve his own problems.
Roosi’s shower ceased whooshing. Matilda could pick out words again.
‘Paris, Évreux, Lisieux, Caen, Dives-Cabourg, Houlgate, Deauville, Trouville,’ he shouted. ‘Let’s take the train in the morning?’
It would be safer to go back to Afghanistan than talk to him now. Over there, she had been quartered in little more than an air-conditioned Nissan hut in a barbed-wire compound. In the wee small hours her friends, too at ease with American soldiers, watched porn by way of aperitif, then after the main event went back to playing Medal of Honor.
‘Tilly, get your fanny in here,’ they called out to her.
‘Guys, thanks but no.’ Redrafting policies, reading novels, watching CNN News and crying over Marcus’s ridiculous care packages, she had felt disconnected, dusty. Like everyone else, she popped Stilnox to avoid the 3 a.m. freak-out.
Matilda’s chest tightened. She snatched her inhaler from the bedside table and took it to her mouth. Pretended to sleep until she heard him breathing slow-wave. Then she balanced on her edge of the mattress, refusing the smallest point of contact that would give him an excuse to enter her during the night. They needed to talk. In the morning she awoke alone, the bedclothes on his side flung to one side. He was on the road perhaps: in search of flat fields strewn with hay bales, stone houses and tatted curtains, baskets of pomegranates, pelargoniums and tulips; or on the shore wallowing in the surf like an untidy walrus. Thrashing off his hangover.
The tide was out and the sand flats stretched in smooth corrugations towards the horizon; distant elderly figures bent in the shallows, gathering whelks.
A tap at the door brought a note, a bunch of blue hydrangeas and the weather card: ‘wind rising’. Matilda sneezed.
‘Your partner is a rude pig. Come out with me,’ the note read. ‘The car will be ready at eleven o’clock.’
Matilda showered and carried it downstairs. The liftboy served her breakfast in the morning room overlooking the beach. Matilda looked up at him from her omelette aux champignons and single espresso. Strong light beamed through the mullioned windows, causing him to blink and rub his eyes. He looked tired.
At eleven, Matilda leaned into the open-topped car and kissed the driver. ‘We have two days to discover love.’
Between the seats lay a hamper lined with Bretagne blue gingham and containing a bottle of Dupont cidre, a baguette, and ripe cheese bound in calico. A vintage Feraud scarf, tied to the handle, fluttered in the breeze. ‘Pop it on. Please. I think the candelabra-and-piano print suits your colouring. Open the gift before we set off.’
Matilda lifted the first edition Gallimard from its wax wrapping: À l’ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs, Paris, 1919: the second volume of Proust’s masterpiece. She raised one eyebrow.
‘For days, I thought about how best to make everything up to you.’ He stroked his chin. ‘Say sorry. Shave. Write new algorithm. Just for us.’
‘Nothing simpler?’ She nudged his cheek. Inhaled lemons. Laughed.
‘Jealousy. Rusty French. Sorry. Nerves. I ruined my Cabourg proposal.’
‘For all the darkness in that room and your naked face, I knew you.’
‘I love people. Not boys. I loved your brother and I love you. I do not wish to lose you too. “Love is an incurable malady.” Marcel said that. I have finished volume two.’
‘“All love evolves rapidly towards farewell”: volume six.’
‘We must decide how we can remedy that.’
‘“We fall in love for a smile, a look, a shoulder …”’ Matilda squeezed her puffer and stepped into the car.