The Last of Ginette
He used to kiss her smack on the mouth, his tongue pushing against the back of his lips as if he were trying to prevent himself from expressing an expanding feeling in his chest. His hands on her luscious arms, he would be caught up in all of his passion. Yet his tongue had always stayed chastely imprisoned behind dry lips. This wasn’t sexual passion because, after all, Honoré Barbière a chaste man. No, this was passion for all things vibrant and beautiful that had been denied him by virtue of his class.
And Ginette had understood this. She understood her husband’s desire to lift himself up by pulling people into his life that could help him with that. There were the painters and the musicians, the art critics and the hangers on. And there were the beautiful girls, who were trying to find some excitement away from their staid bourgeois homes. All this, Ginette would view with philosophical disinterest. Even when he took the young women home in his car, she knew that he would never overstep certain boundaries.
She knew he would not betray her, not even with Liesje.
But Ginette was gone now and he just stood there under a hot afternoon sun such as Belgium seldom saw, even in the midst of summer. He was looking at the two women who had come to his door, a vague sense of the familiar quivering beyond the haze of his mind. In their mid-thirties, they were well preserved in the way of women their class.
“We just learned that Ginette passed away,” said one.
“So we came,” echoed the sister.
He followed her index finger trailing a line in the cement, which held together the terra cotta bricks of the façade. He could see the prickle of sweat in the little hairs on her upper lip that she self-consciously wiped dry with the back of her hand. She had a little crease just below the elbow, a little crease that suggested how white her skin could be. When she looked up from the grey pavement with a need in her eyes that made him anxious, a sense of recognition insinuated itself deep within his groin.
“You’re always welcome here,” he said. His eyes looked as tired as this unusual summer. “You don’t live around here?”
“No, I haven’t for years. I’m Liesje. I live in Greece now with Mikis. Don’t you remember?”
Mopping his brow, he shook his head briefly.
“I’m Sissy,” piped up the older one. “I came only once with Liesje but we met often when you would bring her home.”
Sissy, who had never been a part of his circle, now tried to catch her sister’s eye as if to say, this doesn’t seem the right time. But Liesje was looking down at her fingers.
“I forget my manners,” he finally offered. His eyes sunk deeply into the folds of his brow. “Let’s go inside.”
There was a change in the light and a coldness that enveloped them as soon as they stepped over the bluestone. Liesje grabbed Sissy’s arm for support. Sissy was like the Belgian bluestone that graced the entrance to homes all over this country. She had never been beautiful, not even in her youth, but she was solid and grounded. And Liesje, who had taken her life on a wild ride, depended on this sister’s steadfastness as they now made their way through Ginette’s darkened hairdressing salon down to the cramped hallway with its many doors.
This house and this man was where it had all started for her.
Once they reached the end of the hall, Honoré stood for a moment, thin hand on his sunken chest and looked from one door to another. To the left was the living room, to the right the kitchen.
The kitchen had always been Ginette’s domain.
The living room belonged to him and when Ginette was alive everyone had always been welcomed there. It was in that living room where Liesje had been introduced to a world of artists and musicians. Not only had it filled her craving for the company of creative people, there she also found a haven away from her parents’ ways.
And it was in that room that she had met Mikis, a painter of some renown. She had been twenty; he was her senior by ten years. Travelling on his father’s account, with not a worry in the world, he had whisked her off to his native Greece when he became tired of the grey Belgian weather. By now, he might also have grown as tired of her as she was of him. However, his self-absorption matched hers and it kept both of them supremely ignorant as to the state of their relationship.
Stepping from the hall into the small kitchen, Sissy gasped. The place was cluttered with objects that didn’t make sense in this picture that Liesje had built for her over the years. Ginette clearly was a woman who had never shown any interest in the loftier pursuits of her husband. Their mother would comment on it often, those first years when Liesje came here and Sissy was left behind in the Sunday quiet of their parents’ large house. And mother had been right. One just had to look at those trinkets that one could collect at any old junk store or souvenir shop: fake pots with plastic roses, little figurines that came as gifts with grocery items, souvenirs from religious pilgrimages, and a statue made of shells such as one could find on any North Sea beach.
Sissy looked at her sister. What this frivolous girl clearly never had grasped was the fact that Honoré Barbière was merely a barber whose ambitions were not in keeping with his station in life. Oh, certainly, Liesje had always talked highly of him as the friend who opened his living room to a colourful society but she clearly had not seen how well below them he was.
“He takes on airs,” their mother would ridicule. “He’s nothing more than a barber; he even has the name to show it.”
But as soon as Liesje had brought home her handsome Greek with his rich father and a growing reputation, their mother’s tune had changed. Mother always fell for appearances. Not at all like Father who had had the decency to remain silent.
When Liesje meekly took the chair that Honoré pointed out to her, she immediately jumped up again. Sissy had seen the crumbs on the chair before Liesje felt them on her bare legs and Sissy now looked how her sister carefully lifted herself to wipe the crumbs away; carefully lifted herself so as not to draw attention to any flaws. This silly sister, too old for a mini-skirt but still wearing one, seemed desperate to erase something that was not as it should be.
How different it would have been if Ginette were still with them. The one time when Sissy had come, they had been ushered into the living room where everything had been spotless, with Ginette bringing trays of canapés and other delicious snacks and he pulling out bottle after bottle of well-aged dark velvety wine. She had almost been fooled herself, back then. But for now, he still hadn’t offered them anything to drink.
Class will show.
“Six months she was in the hospital. My Ginette,” he started, clearly still unsure of his audience. “Then they simply sent her home. She was only this long anymore.” His arms barely spread themselves to indicate the length of her wasted body.
While Liesje suppressed a giggle, Sissy looked at her host, who resembled a mountain of discarded clothes more than he resembled a man.
”I still can’t remember you,” he said turning to Sissy. “You must forgive me. It’s just not the same any more ever since she died. There was no skin left on her arms, only bones. Cancer is not an illness. It’s murder.”
Sissy looked anxiously at her sister, who slunk back in her chair. It was as if Ginette were present with them in a way that she never was before. Ginette, who had never interfered; Ginette, who had stayed back whenever she was not busy in her salon, where she styled hair to make the local ladies look like movie stars.
“So good for her to die at home,” Sissy piped up in an effort to break the long uncomfortable silence.
“I’ll get us some wine,” he said, looking at her with gratitude. “I’ll be right back.”
“I’ll lend a hand,” offered Sissy and followed him through the door that lead to the living room where he always kept, amongst all the art, an ample supply of good wine.
Left alone, Liesje hoisted her purse handle that had slipped from her bare sun-browned shoulder and crossed her arms. He used to love her best, she always thought, but now it all seemed wrong. How old life could be. How futile. How irritating.
Back then, the world had seemed grand. And it had all started in that living room. Educational it had been, really, with innocent afternoons spent with painters and musicians; and with rides home in his old Sedan and the probing of his tongue behind the skin of his lips during that farewell embrace. As uncomfortable as those kisses were, they had convinced her that she too was a thing of beauty, something to be coveted, as much as the art of those men that came to his living room.
When he waddled back into the room with a disappointing Canella Rossini, he seemed out of breath. Sissy came in behind him, a tray with glasses in her hands. She found the corkscrew for him and poured the wine.
“Santé,” he said and listlessly held up the tall glass with the amber liquid.
“I don’t have to drive,” Liesje laughed. She would have much preferred one of his excellent reds but when the bubbly aperitif wine tickled her tongue she felt like the ingénue she used to be with eyes that looked big and blue in a startling face.
“This is healthy, this wine,” he said, his hands tripping over half empty packs of food that spilled over the counter. “It lightens the stomach.”
When he offered her the crumpled bag that held plain dry biscuits, she thought there finally was some recognition in his eyes. “I just,” she started but then fell silent. What was there to say? Time just seemed to be slipping through her hands like dry sand.
“So good for you that she could be at home in her final days,” Sissy started again.
“I had her bed right in there.” When he pointed to the living room, Liesje no longer wanted to be where she was. “I slept next to her in the armchair. Come, I’ll show you.”
The astonishing paintings with hulking farmers’ bodies against grey skies still covered the wall; the massive oak table with the statue of the distorted bull still took over one side of the large space; and the other half of the room still centered on the grand piano, where Honoré used to lead them into song. The lid was closed now. The musicians and painters from back then had either moved away or had died.
Liesje’s eyes finally came to rest on the statue of a Madonna that stood under the protection of a glass dome as a reminder of discarded Roman Catholic principles. Her dress was made of white lace. A mantel of a velvety blue enveloped her in generous folds. It was embroidered with gold and satin sequins.
Her face looked young. Stunned. In her arms she held an old-looking child.
“A nice Madonna, isn’t it?” He instinctively looked at her with expectation.
“But I know her,” she whispered.
With a heart racing back over time, she walked the length of the living room to rest her hand on his unyielding back. “I was with you when you bought her.”
He, however, walked over to the radio that sent playful tones of a Mozart aria into the stale air and switched it off with an almost angry gesture. Switched it off as if to say, that’s all in the past now.
“Let’s go back to the kitchen,” he said with failing voice.
As soon as they were sitting around the kitchen table again, glasses once more filled to the brim, Sissy tried to get the conversation back on track. “The process of saying goodbye to loved ones is a long one. My mother in law is still mourning her husband after all this time. She says I can’t understand. But I do. Some people can. I can.”
“Have another biscuit,” he offered.
The sisters looked at one another for the first time since they entered the house but they looked away quickly as if they had caught one another in an indecent act. They took a stale biscuit each and held it in their hands for a long time after. Not until sweat made their hands sticky from the crystals of sugar, did they place them gingerly on the table next to their glass.
When Honoré refilled their glass, he finally looked long and hard at Liesje.
“You married that Greek boy,” he said, wiping his hand over his forehead. “It’s all a fog in here. That was a long time ago.”
“Yes,” Liesje piped up, hoping he would go on.
But he never said: those were the days. He never laughed or told them how good it was to see them after all these years. He never even asked how she was doing. Instead, he shifted the conversation to cremation and the horrors of conventional burial in a land where it rained so much. Slapping a mosquito from her hot arm, Liesje tried to imagine a chilly first November day when families made a show of visiting rain soaked graves. When chrysanthemums livened up the dying season.
“Ten years. That’s all a family’s interest will last. After that no one bothers to come to your grave anymore.”
“Back where I live,” Liesje started but she fell silent again.
What she had wanted to say was that where she now lived graves sat white under a stark blue sky, where cicadas sang, and where candles burned behind little glass doors. It was a place where she had thought, long ago, that the sun would shine eternally.
“Cremation is the pure way of handling things,” offered Sissy with a sidelong glance at her sister, who was casually wiping wine from her lips. “That’s the way I want it and that’s the way my kids will have it. Our father says he’ll refuse to come to my funeral.”
Liesje downed her glass of amber liquid in an effort to cool herself down. To keep herself under control. To keep herself from lapsing into a silly laugh. Of course, Father would say that. He stood on form and tradition and he had never reconciled himself to the fact that the life he lived wasn’t necessarily the norm. Besides, what were the odds their father would come to any of their funerals? And what were the odds that one could find a country where the weather was always beneficial and where life could be filled with excitement and pleasure, day after day, year after year?
“Two hundred and seventy four people showed up for the service. It was beautiful. Serene. Her urn is now at the cemetery.” Honoré broke the filter off his cigarette at the last word.
“You’re not smoking too much, are you?” Liesje rushed in once more in an effort to reach him.
When he said, “The doctor says it can’t harm me,” she sat back and let events take their course. She contemplated the white piece of cigarette paper stuck to his lips and she wondered what it would feel like to be kissed by them again. Pieces of cigarette paper had always been a part of it, just as the dryness of his mouth against hers.
As he picked the paper from his lip, he looked at them, recognition fully breaking through a bitter smile. “It’s all coming back to me,” he said but he also got up as if to indicate that it was time for them to go.
“Liesje,” he said.
His arm came down heavily her shoulder as he ushered them out the kitchen and down the hall. “And Sissy. How nice of you to remember an old friend.”
And then they were standing on the sidewalk again where a dark cloud was hiding the sun. When he said goodbye, he shared three formal kisses with Sissy. When he took Liesje’s finally remembered face in his hands, his mouth lingered on her lips.
His tongue, however, remained still.