Chapter Three – ‘Suzette’ (Part 1)

As the carefree Suzette breezes into Serenity’s world, dare she confide in the capricious young Comtesse the incredible truth?  And just who is the mysterious stranger who enters her bedchamber – long after the clock strikes midnight?

-oOo-

The clink and rattle of glasses ever nearer, Serenity’s lifeless gaze drifted in the direction of the laboured breathing, the floorboards of the adjacent room creaking from the heavy tread.

“Ah, child!  I return!” proclaimed Dr Pavier as he appeared in the doorway, an off-white handkerchief pressed to his furrowed damp brow.  The jangle of bottles inside his battered black bag even louder than before, upon reaching the tapestry chair beside the bed, he slumped into it with a fatigued sigh.

Eyes straying towards him, Serenity watched the flushed-faced doctor as he fiddled with his spectacles, humming tunelessly as he yet again delved into the bag’s cavernous depths, at length retrieving a miniature smoky grey bottle.  A sudden clatter from her left beyond the bedside table, turning her face she glanced down at the plump ankles having just entered the room.  Her eyes running the full length of the redhead’s corpulent body, Serenity observed the woman as she rounded the foot of the bed, a small glass tumbler half-filled with white liquid held in her dumpy fingers.

“The milk you requested, Doctor.

“Ah!  Indeed!” he replied, arm poker straight as without looking up, he reached out to receive it, engrossed by whatever was written on the fluted bottle in his grasp.

The maid stopping short of handing the tumbler to him, the doctor waved his stubby open hand to and fro, the woman merely clearing her throat in response.  A scowl on his face, Dr Pavier shot her a glance.  “Hold this, child!” he ordered, as in a jerking movement he prised the glass from the redhead’s hand, passing it to Serenity.  “That will be all!” he snapped, pushing his spectacles up the bridge of his nose.

The pokerfaced maid pinching the fabric of her dress, with a brisk nod she curtsied, retracing her icy footsteps around the foot of the bed, the doctor – his head again lowered as he unscrewed the tiny glass stopper of the bottle – all the while peering up at her through his circular lenses, his blotchy jowls wobbling from side to side in obvious displeasure as he followed her every step.

“The milk, child!”

Wrenching the tumbler from Serenity’s fingers, he tapped the neck of the bottle against the rim of the glass, his pitted bulbous nose tilted upwards, the loose skin on his neck stretching as he observed clumps of the yellowish-brown powder tumble into the milk.  Face creased in a wizened grin of satisfaction, he handed the glass back to Serenity.

“The smallest of sips.  Let the potion do its work!” he commanded.

With his bag snapped shut, heaving himself free from the elegant restraints of the padded chair, Dr Pavier made for the end of the bed where, momentarily, he paused to catch his breath.

“Now, I will return later to see all is well!” he wheezed, stretching wide all five fingers of his chubby hand, as, with a final nod, he commenced his lumbering passage back along the corridor.

The final lump of powder almost dissolved in the tumbler, chest heavy with emotion, Serenity watched as it now fizzed to oblivion – aware of the resemblance to her own situation – for she knew she’d too vanished without trace from her own life – her own existence – already no more than a memory to all those she loved and who loved her.

Without another thought, she raised the warm glass to her dry lips as she took the first sip, then another, conscious although remote to the detectable bitterness as she continued to drink the peculiar concoction.  Now placing the empty glass on the bedside table, Serenity slumped back into the firm pillow, eyes squeezed closed as she rolled over away from the sunlight, uncertain as to whether the growing drowsiness was no more than a wishful fragment of her imagination or the powder taking effect.

In fact, so powerful was the sedative she was already at peace from the strange new world beyond the yellow chintz walls as the faraway tinkle of the quarter hour announced the approach of midday, unaware of the rumble of carriage wheels which passed to and fro beneath the billowing taffeta curtains, hour upon hour, as the heavy golden sun descended to meet the horizon.

Nor was she aware, much later, not long after midnight distantly chimed of the dark room around her fill with the gentle flicker of candlelight – or the three separate tears that dropped to the pillow only inches from the peaceful contours of her face, the soft dance of light illuminating the tenderness of the strong fingers as they caressed the smooth skin of her right cheek, the delicate lace of the trailing cuff concealing the damp patches of silk as the light now receded, its flickering now dim as the room once more returned to darkness.

***

Friday, 3rd September 1751

“Very well child.  Since it is such a fine day.”

“Oh, thank you, Doctor!” squealed a euphoric voice from the landing.

Numb with the dawning reality of her situation as she took one more sip of the hot sweet tea, Serenity placed the fragile porcelain cup back on its saucer, the pert click of footsteps quicker as they drew near.  Glancing in the direction of the sunlit room beyond the bedroom, she was surprised by the unexpected sight of a radiant young blonde scurrying past the two maids, neither of whom she’d seen before, who’d stood conversing in the window recess for the past ten minutes, their voices rapid, yet hushed, eyes darting every now and then at Serenity as she’d taken breakfast alone.

“Finally I get the opportunity to meet you!” rejoiced the girl, her lovely face incandescent with delight.  “Sometimes they can be so unreasonable!”

Too dazed to respond, Serenity could only raise a half-hearted smile as the girl, almost slipping on the polished wooden floor, made straight for the tapestry chair.

“I heard what happened to you the other day,” she prattled, spreading the silken lavender and white stripes of her beautiful dress beneath her as she lowered herself into the wide chair, “and I’ve been so dreadfully worried” she went on, her elegant fingers fumbling with the large colourless crystal suspended from the length of pink ribbon she wore around her neck.  “Please forgive me!” she continued, “I’m Suzette.  Suzette de Lemoncy.”

“Hello, I’m Serenity, Serenity Shore.  I’m not sure what happened exactly, but …”

“Oh, they told me all about it!” the girl enthused – the beauty of her straight, pearl-white teeth marred by a discoloured grey eye-tooth.  Her small sapphire eyes sparkling with the clarity of the jewel she toyed with, the tiny freckles beneath her ash blonde hairline complemented her fresh-faced allure.  “You were so brave!” she cooed, eyes wide and alert.  “I fear I should have died withfright!”

“I really don’t remember the accident,” replied Serenity, “although one of the maids yesterday told me it happened …”

“There’s so much I want to tell you!” interrupted Suzette, hands pressed together as if in prayer.  “But first my sister has arranged for you to take a bath.  Your maids are waiting for you and I’ve managed to persuade Dr Pavier to let me take you out for a walk in the gardens.  Oh, do say you will!”

“Yes … yes of course,” laughed Serenity, weakly.

“How wonderful!” gushed Suzette.  “Listen!  Finish your breakfast, take your bath and I’ll meet you outside in the garden.  Now, I must dash!” she proclaimed, the castors of the chair screeching over the parquet floor as she bounded from it.  “There’s so much to be done and so much to tell you,” she giggled.  And with that, in a blur of lavender and white she was gone from the room, her rapid footsteps already nearing the landing, all that lingered in the warm air of her brief presence, the subtlest trace of violets.

***

The loose muslin of her long skirt caught in the warm breeze, Serenity crunched her way over the gravelled terrace that fronted the central facade of the château, the parched white stones precarious beneath the smooth soles of her sandals.

What’s that? she wondered, noticing ahead two white peaks of a tent.

A cacophony of sawing and hammering from within, having now reached the pitted grey marble of a wide flight of stone steps, Serenity gaped at the enormous gazebo below pitched lengthways across the uppermost part of the immaculate formal gardens – the flawless carpet of grass running downhill fringed on both sides by two paths, each dotted with a succession of statues behind which dense groves of mature trees formed a high leafy wall.  Several small boats moored at the far end of the grounds, upon running her gaze back along the far right path it was then Serenity spotted the solitary figure of a young woman alone on a bench, her face turned towards the river.

“Suzette!” she gasped, already hastening down the steps, “I’ve got to tell you the truth!”

***

The startled girl tapping closed her lace fan, she edged along the lichen-encrusted stone.  “Forgive me,” she announced, voice wistful.  “I’m afraid my mind was quite elsewhere.  Please, take a seat.”

“Thanks, I spotted you from the stairs.  It’s not very restful, is it?” replied Serenity, nodding towards the gazebo as she took her place.  “Is there some kind of event taking place?”

“Yes,” responded Suzette, as she adjusted her dress beneath her, “they’re preparing for the festivities tomorrow.  My sister’s been busy all morning and I’m due to help her later.  I don’t suppose anyone has mentioned it to you, have they?”

“No, nobody”

“Oh, everyone is due tomorrow!” gushed Suzette, the twinkle now returning to her pretty blue eyes.  “His Majesty and all our friends!”

“The King will be there?” exclaimed Serenity.

“Of course!  And one very special friend,” laughed the blonde, nose wrinkling with delight.  “That’s what I wanted to tell you.  Oh Serenity, he’s simply adorable!” she squealed, unfurling her fan.  “His family live just a little upstream, old friends of His Majesty, very well connected.”  Here she broke off, her gaze drifting down the path towards the river from where the haunting cry of a peacock could be heard.

“Look at Mr Smith, not a care in the world,” she remarked dreamily, the bird now visible as it hopped onto the central carpet of grass, adjacent to the tall black railings of a closed gate set diagonally into the boundary hedge of the grove behind, its tail feathers shimmering as they quivered in full display.

“The peacock?” commented Serenity.  “Why is he called Mr Smith?”

“Oh, a gift to His Majesty from an elderly British Ambassador of whom he was rather fond, although I wasn’t actually aware they had peacocks in London, but, yes … it was last summer,” blurted Suzette, again animated as she turned back, “at these very festivities we were first introduced.  Oh, how I wish you could have seen him!”

“The festivities are held every year?”

“Indeed, it’s all so very exciting!”

The young Comtesse’s gaze lowering to her lap, as if lost in thought she began to stroke the broad lavender stripes of her skirt, the exuberance having drained from her face.

“You see,” she announced pensively, glancing in the direction of the château, “the celebrations are to commemorate the birthday of a young woman whom His Majesty once held much affection for, the daughter of a very old family, true and loyal friends, you understand.  They found her murdered.” added the Comtesse with a frown.  “I never actually met her, I was too young, but I heard she was extremely beautiful and kind, very kind.  Are you married?” she enquired eagerly, sapphire eyes lustrous as they searched Serenity’s face.

“No,” uttered Serenity hesitantly, the jagged tips of her broken nails scratching against the roughly hewed underside of the bench.  “Suzette, there’s something I’ve got to …”

“Oh, I was married,” interrupted the effervescent blonde as her fingers grasped and tugged at the large crystal suspended around her neck, “and not so very long ago, to the Comte de Lemoncy,” she went on.  “It was my sister, the Duchesse de Valzac who introduced us, but it was all so very tragic, so sudden,” she continued, a vagueness clouding her lovely eyes as, distractedly, she gazed back towards the château.  “I now live with her and her husband the Duc on the rue de la Surintendance in Versailles,” she sighed.  “The Duc was allocated lodgings there, immediately next door to the Foreign Office when he became War Minister to the King many years ago.”

“You don’t live here?” responded Serenity, voice noticeably tremulous.

“Goodness no!  Both my sister and I are guests!” insisted Suzette in a brittle laugh, letting the crystal fall to the smooth, creamy skin of her décolletage.  “My sister was granted the position of lady in waiting to Mesdames, His Majesty’s daughters, soon after she returned from the frontiers.”

“The frontiers?  I’m sorry, I don’t …”

“You see,” interjected Suzette, a nerve twitching in her eyelid, “during the military campaign against the Anglo-Dutch forces at Flanders, I myself being a child at the time, of course, the Duc who was then Marquis was posted to the frontiers.  My sister was in the service of the King’s mistress, Madame la Duchesse de Chateauroux as lady-in-waiting, but upon her death in 1744 His Majesty saw fit for my sister to join her husband at the frontiers.  I was taken too.  Oh, Serenity, it was terrible!”

With a trembling hand, Suzette covered her mouth and nose.

“It was such a dreary little place, so isolated and my poor sister suffered most dreadfully with depression.  Do you know,” she went on, turning to face Serenity, eyes laden with tears, “I used to lie awake at night and listen to her crying through the wall, sometimes uncontrollably.  The poor Duc, he was quite unable to console her.”

“How awful,” replied Serenity.

“But that was not all,” continued Suzette, an explosion of laughter bursting from within one of the groves on the far side of the garden as she squeezed closed her eyes.

Pressing the colourless jewel to her lips, a single tear escaped the curve of her long black eyelashes, spilling its way over her raspberry pink rouged cheek.

“Not long before we returned to Paris in 1749, my sister contracted the smallpox.  We really were not sure whether she’d survive, but by the grace of God she did, thankfully, but I know it affected her deeply, more profoundly than any of us were aware at the time.”  Breaking off, she rolled the glimmering jewel in her fingertips.  Sniffing softly, she gazed across the immaculate lawn.  “For a long time she could not bring herself to look in a mirror, any mirror and on occasion, even in our present lodgings I could still hear her cry out in the night.  Oh, there she is now!”

Following the direction of Suzette’s gaze, Serenity watched as the tall brunette made her way up the opposite path, having just exited the grove beyond the gazebo – her head high, spine erect, the voluptuous chocolate satin silk of her long dress trailing several feet behind her.

“I must go!” exclaimed Suzette gathering huge handfuls of her wide skirt in her hands as she quickly rose from the bench.  “But we simply must talk again, there is so much more I want to tell you!”

“Yes, of course,” stammered Serenity, shooting a confused glance back across the lawn – the woman having vanished behind the white canvas.

“And please!  Enjoy the gardens!” announced Suzette, already hastening up the path, her hem swishing in a wide circle over the gravel as she turned back to Serenity.  “Goodbye my friend, I must leave you.”

“Yes, goodbye,” replied Serenity, voice hoarse with repressed emotion as she watched the girl skip over the taut string of a tent peg as she slipped from sight.

“I cannot believe this is happening!” she spat, stubbing the edge of her sandal heel into the gravel as another burst of raucous laughter erupted from the far grove.  Fist clenched, she pounded it onto the warm stone as she too rose to her feet, where, beginning down the sunlit-dappled path, she again spotted the peacock ahead, its tail feathers now withdrawn, head tilted questioningly as it peered through the bars of the gate.

“Yes, not a care in the world, have you!”

***

The strands of viscous, deep emerald algae adhering at waterline to its whitewashed wooden panels, the large boat sat moored close to the riverbank, a length of thick grey rope securing it to a colossal black iron hoop set several feet back into the stone quay.

An inch of mottled brown water swilling rhythmically around the base of the boat’s substantial interior, two oars lay widthways over its top, their wooden lengths secured just short of the bulbous, slimy paddles by a pair of rusted rungs which jutted out of the bobbing hull.

“There’s no-one around,” muttered Serenity anxiously, glancing over her shoulder as she surveyed the immense lawn, heart racing as she looked back to the padded peach velvet of the boat’s upholstered seats.

“Why don’t I just get in? I could be gone!”

Stepping forwards, she squatted at the quayside’s edge where, reaching out, she tugged at the thick rope, the boat juddering against the current as she pulled it towards her.

“But where would I go?” she sighed, rising unsteadily to her feet as her gaze ran the distance of the dense wooded shore opposite.  

“I don’t even know where I am.”

A sudden grating from somewhere behind – the memory of the heavy iron padlock and chain she’d noticed strung around the bars of the gate whilst making her way down the path at once clear in her mind – the gate she’d earlier noticed the peacock peering through, Serenity stepped back from the water’s edge.

“Someone’s there!” she protested turning around, as, peeking in the direction of the metallic screech and clatter, she made her way towards the shady bench which nestled beneath the overhanging branches of a chestnut tree that faced the locked grove.  Taking her seat on the cool marble, Serenity shot another furtive glance in the direction of the gate – the abundant foliage of a nearby bush obscuring her view of whoever it was entering or exiting.   Her gaze lowering to the soft muslin that gently billowed around her ankles, a new thought at that moment entered her mind.

Wasn’t it odd that not a single person had mentioned her clothes?  Not even the effervescent and skittish Suzette?

Glancing uphill, she observed the facade of the château visible beyond the gazebo. Upon meeting Suzette for the first time that morning, she’d had no idea the girl was indeed a Comtesse – a widowed one albeit.  The magnificence of the building in which she’d found herself now spoke for itself.

As the overhead leaves rustled in the growing breeze, with a snigger of acknowledgement Serenity accepted the folly of her earlier impulsiveness.  Certainly Suzette struck her as honest – if not a little flighty, but she now accepted with empty resignation there was no way she could have confided in her the terrible and implausible truth.  Her long oval thumbnail scraping at the pale green lichen that marbled the bench, Serenity mumbled distractedly to herself.  “You’ve just got to play it carefully, girl.  Find out as much information from them as you can, where the accident happened, exactly where it happened and let’s just get back to the forest!”

A single tear escaping down her cheek, Serenity watched as it splashed onto the speckled surface of the mottled stone – aware in her blurred, lateral vision of a flutter from the far end of the bench.

“Maybe, just maybe, things might reverse,” she sniffed as another tear trickled to the corner of her mouth. “If it can happen one way, then … Oh!  Hello there!” she laughed, a sparrow having hopped forwards only inches from her hand.  Inclining its head, feathers appealingly dishevelled, the tiny bird took another small hop forward, its sparkling bead-like eye fixed directly on Serenity.

“I’m sorry little bird, but I don’t have anything to give you!” she said, the sparrow tilting its head further.  “But what would you do?” she enquired softly, “If you were me?”

Its ruffled plumage catching in the breeze, for several moments the bird did not look away.

“Tell me,” she pouted at length, “I promise I won’t tell anyone!”

And then, just as unexpectedly as it had taken its place beside her, in a flutter it was gone.

A peculiar sensation of loss re-awakening in her, Serenity watched as it flew across the lawn and landed in the upper branches of a bush at the corner of the padlocked grove, whereupon all at once, it again took flight – this time darting straight through the boughs of the trees which lined the locked grove.

The melancholy heavy within, Serenity’s gaze strayed back to the bush from where the bird had only seconds before lifted, immediately thinking it strange to what extent the spindly twigs shook considering the diminutive frame of the bird – just then catching sight of something until now she’d failed to notice – the black leather boots and off-white breeches of a man, who, as if aware of being spotted standing there, having released the branches from his grasp had now turned as he retreated back along the shady passage, away from the open sunlight of the garden, the twigs now falling still.

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Chapter One – ‘The Promise’

An indeterminable shade between grey and violet, Denny’s bewitching kohl-rimmed eyes remained fixed on the small silver key that dangled from the soft leather dashboard.  Her manicured fingernails skimming the slant of her ebony bob, emitting a weak moan she took hold of the solitary golden tassel that cascaded from her earlobe, rolling it between her finger and thumb – the claret gloss she’d applied with customary precision to her wide lips somehow less complementary today, its intense pigment emphasizing the tautness in her beautiful face.  The squelch of wheels over waterlogged gravel the only sound as the car continued its reverse down the driveway, Denny released the earring from her grip letting it swing free – its delicate reflection shimmering over the smooth, tanned skin of her slender neck as it swayed to and fro.

Dazzling certainly, but for one of her young daughters it was the only thing that now shone in a world deprived of sparkle.

Through the rivulets of water which meandered down the front windscreen, Serenity could still make out the black beams of the abandoned house – a house for so long her home, the only one she’d ever known.  But now it stood empty, desolate beneath the sullen gunmetal grey sky that loomed over the French countryside with grim determination for the last fortnight.  The springs of the rear seat creaking as the car reached the pavement, heartbeat quickening, Serenity shot a glance towards her father’s reflection in the angled rear-view mirror.

How could he do this to his own family?

His abundance of damp, ash-blond hair tousled from the blustery draft through the open window, with another rev of the engine he manoeuvred the car forwards, flush with the pavement’s edge.  Raking stained fingers through his unkempt tresses he turned to look back at the vacated half-timbered house, the expression on his rugged face inscrutable.

Through an area of glass curiously devoid of raindrops, Serenity too peered out through the rear passenger window to her side – at once catching sight of the diamond leaded windowpanes of the kitchen, her favourite room, where so much love and laughter resounded.

But on this most bleak of June mornings, a mournful inky black, they stared lifeless into the cold dampness as if the very soul of the house had died.  Rendered a sombre shade of charcoal by the relentless rain, the saturated thatched roof dripped huge drops of water onto the neat garden border below, some catching the radiant yellow petals of the sunflower that grew not far from the window causing its bright but downcast head to bob up and down, puppet-like.

The knot in the pit of her empty stomach tightening, Serenity bit hard into her lip.  Although having promised herself she would be strong, the salty tears pooled in her eyes already raw from a sleepless night.

“Cheers, all the best old girl!”

Jack’s splintered husky voice shattered the perfumed silence, his mellow Cockney lilt devoid of its usual humour and warmth, as, with a double click of his tongue the quiet purr of the engine built alarmingly.

Unable to shut out the image in her mind’s eye of her father’s leather sole pushing down onto the worn brass of the accelerator pedal, Serenity knew the dreaded moment had finally come.  Pulse racing, palm pressed flat to the window, she was convinced her chest would burst – for she could only watch, helpless, as the black-beamed house slid from view behind the padded beige wall of the car.

In one violent motion, she turned in the direction of her two younger sisters.  Their pretty faces blank as they stared onwards, neck straining, Serenity twisted her body further around in the seat – at once horrified to remember the monstrous height of the pile of blankets, clothes and dolls she’d helped her mother stack in the boot the previous evening.

Hastily unfastening the seatbelt, she clambered to her knees, throat dry as with feverish hands she pressed downwards on the pile – the black and white walls of her home distorted yet still visible through the sinuous rivulets.  Every inch of her young body trembling, Serenity attempted what she could of a final smile – just as the car picked up speed as it rounded a bend.  Her bare knees slipping backwards off the edge of the leather seat, she grasped out for the slippery black fabric of the loose seatbelt – but just as quickly lost hold – a howl escaping her as her left cheek impacted off its metal clasp end.

“Idiot!” snarled a voice from the far side of the car.

Unable to face her younger sister’s sarcasm, Serenity settled back into her seat.  Her gaze fixed hard on the rain-spattered windowpane, it was now the stark reality descended upon her that the gnawing sensation of loss was farworse than she’d feared – for in an instant she knew her childhood was no more than a memory.

With a deep breath, she let her brow thud against the chilled glass, but unable to ignore the rhythmic pounding of the backseat springs beneath her, Serenity turned her attention from the window – startled to find herself looking directly into the contorted pink face of her youngest sister – her round eyes squeezed shut, small ruby lips stretched tight in a zany grimace which showed off to full advantage her two missing front teeth – but now was not the time for Harmony’s pranks.  She could not bear it.

Instinctively reaching for the nearest of the two red buttons above the rear wheel ramp, with a sustained push the glass retracted a good eight inches.

At once flinching against the onslaught of raindrops which spat into her tender eyes as the breeze of her beloved forest whipped the lengths of her strawberry-blonde hair, Serenity knew only too well from this part of the woodland road she could see into its mysterious, dark interior, as row after row of trees sped past her window – two weeks having passed since the inexplicable incident – an experience she refused to put down to imagination.  For twice from an area of woodland deeper than they’d ever dared venture she’d heard the voice call out her name as she and her sisters played in their favourite clearing, deep within the forest’s sacred woody heart – a woman’s voice she was certain – but upon both occasions could see no-one and with her father’s announcement later that evening of his family’s imminent relocation to England sending all three girls into shock, the events of the afternoon were pushed from Serenity’s mind.

“Oh close the window, I’m getting wet!” yelled the strident young voice, but this time the demanding tone of Felicity’s words didn’t register.  As the spluttering rain tickled her lightly freckled face, jaw firm, Serenity’s finger remained pressed on the small red button.

“Dad!  Tell her to close the window!”

Without moving her head, Serenity flashed a glance in the direction of the angled mirror – in time to see her father wink back at her, the glow of empathy unmistakable in his clear blue eyes – but too ashamed to let him see her cry, she turned her face back to the emerald infinity beyond the open window as the gritty resolution swelled inside her.

“Darling, please!  Your sisters are getting wet,” came the dulcet plea from her mother.

Lips pursed, finger firm on the first button, Serenity could not bring herself to press the other.  A solitary tear rolling down her cheek as she struggled to swallow, she at length pressed down onto the red plastic.

Her windswept tresses falling still, for several moments she could only watch as the rain droplets outside continued their confused journey to the bottom of the glass until her gaze drifted to those having blown in through the window, splashing onto the exposed fair skin of her leg – and it was then, in her childhood innocence, it struck Serenity those droplets were in fact the tears of the forest – it letting her know that its heart was breaking too as it witnessed their separation – and for that reason she did not wipe them away, instead allowing them to trickle the full length of her leg savouring every moment of the tender caress of its farewell.

The strain in her throat almost choking her, she let her cheek fall against the cold glass, a single strand of saliva quivering between her bow lips as they parted in a world of silent torture – and at that moment, as the bitter tears fell from her eyelashes one by one, deep in her soul she made a promise – a promise she would live with from that day forwards, a promise which would give her the strength to face the unknown days and years ahead – and with that her lips closed, a new determination flashing in her tear-swollen eyes as the silver car broke free from the verdant sanctuary of the vast forest, speeding onwards through the endless patchwork of fields and pasture towards the distant horizon – its long journey still ahead – as well as the new life which awaited upon English shores.

 ***

Saturday, 21 July 2007

“Soisy-sur-Seine, s’il vous plaît?”

With a quintessential Gallic shrug and perfunctory grunt, the sallow-skinned taxi driver pulled out of the airport taxi rank.  As the final over-laden luggage trolley disappeared from view beyond her rain-speckled window, imbued in a delicious sense of freedom, Serenity slid her lithe body down against the plush upholstery of the rear passenger seat.

The breeze that entered through the window gap chopping without mercy into the crown of her tousled waterfall of loose curls, she tilted her face away, her attention returning to the morose driver.

From somewhere behind her a pair of concealed speakers were doing their utmost to infuse the tension filled car with the powerful, serpentine journey of Ravel’s ‘Bolero’, its passionate military style rat-a-tat-tat percussion grounding Serenity to the reality of the moment, charging the summer air with an impending sensation of anticipation for the journey ahead – but something else had now caught her attention.  Positioned between the front windscreen and the driver’s mirror, a small plastic horse hung suspended by a length of transparent red string.  Its casing crafted out of ordinary colourless plastic, it was filled with a crystal clear liquid, a depth of azure so pure it dazzled in its brilliance.

Her soft full lips twisting, Serenity observed it as it jiggled and bounced, quite oblivious to the rhythm.  Good for you, little horse!  Dance to your owntune!  Pouting in a smirk of self-satisfaction, she slid further down in the seat as the pine-scented taxi now picked up speed as it joined the southbound lane of the autoroute, the futuristic glass-fronted offices and airport hotels streaming past her window in endless succession.

“Accident!  Accident!” grumbled the driver.  Puffing, his blunt fingertips drummed against the dashboard.

“Really?” replied Serenity, as leaning forwards, she looked beyond the headrest of the passenger seat.  Ahead she could indeed see the red lights of a tailback of at least ten cars all moving at barely more than a crawl – her gaze darting to a group of workmen who stood behind a line of plastic cones.

“You are on holidays, yes?” enquired the driver, his dour face breaking into a surprisingly attractive smile as his dark brown eyes met Serenity’s in the rear view mirror.

“I’m here to visit the town where I grew up,” she answered, her attention still fixed on the workmen.  “Actually, I don’t think it is an accident.”

“Ah, but you live in England now?” replied the driver, chin jutting upwards as he too noticed the group of workmen.

“Yes, I live with my family in Rochester in Kent,” answered Serenity as she slumped back into the seat, satisfied the driver was wrong.  “It’s certainly picturesque, very English, but I’m looking forward to exploring Soisy again.  It’s been so long!”

“Ah, Kent!  ‘Le Tunnel’, oui?”

“That’s right, pretty handy for the Eurostar connection.”

“You work in London?”

Sometimes,” drawled Serenity as she peeled a strand of windswept hair from her eyes, the gust strengthening through the rear window, “but most of the time I work at home with my dad,” she added.  “He’s a photographer.  He used to specialise in fashion and catwalk, that kind of thing when he lived in Paris but his work took him to London back in the nineties.  In fact,” she went on, “when I finished art-college he took me on, training me as his assistant.  He’s got a studio near the house.  It was an old windmill when he bought it, really run down,” she added with a laugh, “but over the years he’s converted it.”

“Ah, that is good, to work with your family!”

“It’s cool.  We’ve actually just got back from Holland this morning,” continued Serenity.  “Dad was helping out an old friend in Amsterdam.  His daughter’s just started a rock band with some university friends and he’d asked dad if he could work on the photography.  There wasn’t room for the three of us on yesterday’s flight, so I took the option of going home via Paris.”

“But you had a good time?”

“Yeah, although I finished up modelling for the album cover.  Not quite what I’d hoped,” smirked Serenity.  “I do a bit of modelling every now and again in London,” she scoffed, “photo-shoots for beauty magazines, that kind of thing.  It’s fun,” she added, “but I don’t take it seriously.  Mum was actually a model in Paris and that’s how she met dad.  They’ve both been really supportive.”

A sudden torrent of rain battering the windows, the conversation fell quiet.  Gazing out through the rain-spattered glass, Serenity could only watch as the dense grey clouds overhead steamed their way southeast.  With so many years having passed since she’d left in a downpour, she could hardly believe she was now returning in one.

***

With a sharp flick Serenity shook her candy pink umbrella, the rain droplets plummeting towards the wet tarmac path like a myriad of diamonds. A hollow rattle from the thin metal bar of the tarnished latch, the dusky green wooden gate clattered shut behind her.  Her bewildered senses enveloped by the dense, earthy aroma of the damp forest air, she turned around. “I’m back!” she whispered, fingers trembling as she lifted them to her parted lips.  “I kept my promise and here I am!” she added, her words barely perceptible above the majestic breeze through the boughs.

Ahead, the path that led from the Parisian suburban street from where she’d entered continued uphill at a gentle incline for some fifty feet before branching off into two separate wider roads.

The salty taste building in her mouth, Serenity shot a glance in the direction of a small red car parked a short distance along the left roadway – the child’s voice which rang out from somewhere just beyond startling her.

Forced to suppress her emotions, she stood and watched as a full-figured dark-skinned woman of around thirty emerged from the passenger door, the vivid black, green and yellow pattern of her loose-fitting ankle-length garment similar in design to the length of fabric she wore wrapped around her head.  Dropping her car keys into the handbag clutched to her bosom, the woman nudged the door closed with her rounded hip before making her way to the opposite side of the car – the child’s voice at that moment again piercing the solitude of the forest – the woman re-emerging several moments later with two young children with whom she laughed and talked – a boy of seven or eight and a girl, presumably his sister, a few years his junior, their small arms heaped with silver and gold foil-wrapped gifts.

Uncertain as to whether it had stopped raining, hesitant to put down her umbrella, Serenity began her ascent in the direction of the small party.   The woman noticing her approach, beaming, she called out.

“Bonjour, Mademoiselle!”

“Bonjour Madame,” replied Serenity, acknowledging both children as they drew near, the young boy grinning up at her every bit as effervescent as his mother – his younger sister attired in a gauzy fairy dress, however, unable to muster more than a scowl, her shoulders hunched, lips sucked to a pout as her eyes narrowed to slits.

Making her way past the red car as the trio started down the path, it was then Serenity noticed the two wooden stumps hammered into the grass verge signalling the start of one of many trails that traversed the vast forest.

Upon reaching them, she peered along the tree-lined track that led off from the road, deep into the forest – the earth untouched by the recent shower.  Unable to access the forest by her preferred method – that of leaping over the log fence in the back garden of her childhood home – she’d had no option but to enter through the public gate in an attempt to somehow find her way back onto the same path she as a child had first chosen to follow, along with her two younger sisters, as that was the path which led to the clearing.  Gauging the track would more than likely lead in the direction of her former home, with a mischievous smirk Serenity collapsed her umbrella.

Stepping off the smooth tarmac, she tiptoed over the wet grass, giddy with excitement as she started along the dry earth path that led onwards into the shady distance – the sight of a small ravine running parallel to the path some fifteen minutes later causing her heart to leap yet soon after mourn for the memory of the stream which once flowed bounteously through the ancient forest – its parched mud walls now only channelling a pitiful, almost silent trickle of leaf-clogged water – but follow its course she would, for she knew where it led.

The haunting rattle of a woodpecker high above echoing through the leafy canopy, the distant whine of a chainsaw gnawed its way into the otherwise calm of the forest.

The glade itself having changed very little from how she’d remembered it all those summers before, Serenity bit hard into her lip as she surveyed the scene now before her.  The long grass strewn with a multitude of daisies, their tiny petals shimmied in the soft breeze, the shallow ditch, where the babbling stream once flowed, making its way into and around the far edge of the clearing as it continued onwards, disappearing from view.

A sudden gust of air disturbing the leaves of the lower branches, Serenity closed her eyes.  This was not how she’d imagined her return.

But what had she expected?

Serenaded by the mid-afternoon birdsong, she felt a stranger, as though she were intruding into this most secluded of worlds.  The words of her younger sister ran through her mind, words spoken on that final afternoon they’d played together in this very place, words which for a long time had stung her developing intuitiveness into apathy.

But even she accepted as a child her imagination was prone to bouts of fancy.  Appreciating what she’d then interpreted as Felicity’s innate sarcasm, Serenity now accepted her sister’s harsh words were in reality the truth.  The voice she was so sure had called out to her really was nothing more than the wind through the leaves.  How ridiculous she’d been to allow her childish curiosity to drive her here to finally accept this.

Of course Felicity was right.  It really was “time to get real”.

The sunlight attempting to break through the clouds, several shards pierced the treetops illuminating random pockets of grass on the far side of the glade.  Unable to ignore the heaviness of her heart, forced to accept her folly, Serenity turned away.  As she retraced her footsteps back towards the path, the raucous cry of a carrion crow rang out from somewhere behind, not so far away, but from the area of woodland where neither her sisters or herself had ever dared venture – the same direction from where she’d imagined the woman’s voice.  A lump in her throat as the repugnant image of Felicity’s sneer loomed clear in her mind, footsteps dwindling to a halt, Serenity again closed her eyes – the distant drone of the chainsaw, as if aware of her stillness, itself spluttering before falling silent.

“Why am I here?” she asked herself softly as she opened her eyes, face raised to the swaying treetops.  “What am I doing?”

As another rasping cry reverberated through the forest, the flimsy hem of her loose ivory muslin skirt catching in the calf-length grass, Serenity turned back to face the glade – her attention at once drawn to a section of sunlight-dappled grass from where a host of brown and white butterflies fluttered playfully in small circles, zigzagging towards the thicket of elm trees on the opposite side of the clearing that separated it from the woodland beyond.

The gentle breeze gathering strength around her, Serenity watched the delicate procession as it gradually disappeared from view beyond the trees, aware of a new emotion now forming within her – an instinct in its very intensity at once unsettling – and yet strangely comforting – a sensation sooverwhelming her sandal-clad feet were already pushing forwards through the long grass in pursuit of the butterflies – in the direction from where so many years past she was again certain she’d heard the voice.  Impeded by the stubborn undergrowth that tugged at the fabric of her skirt, the image of Felicity’s smirk once more manifested in Serenity’s mind as she advanced towards the thicket.

“Ignore it and follow your instincts!” she hissed.  “That is why you’re here.”

And follow them she did, fuelled with renewed determination, accepting with a delicious sense of peculiar delight she was in fact now powerless to turn back towards the forest path as onwards she ploughed through the grass and beyond the elms as if enchanted, overcome by something – something she did not understand.

The coterie of butterflies having mostly settled on a sunlit area of bare earth, surveying the until now undiscovered area of woodland before her, Serenity’s lips parted in wonderment as her gaze came to rest on a small stone bridge which spanned the grassy banks of the stream, its own dwindling journey continuing onwards, underground, into the forest.

“I never knew it existed!  I cannot believe we were so close!” she gushed, as she stumbled headlong down through the flower-sprinkled grass of the incline concealed by the swaying elms, whereupon even at a distance she could see the bridge was very old – its five, bulbous vertical stone pillars forming the balusters on the near-side crumbled away in places.

Tip-toeing over the springy, damp earth towards the banks of the stream, Serenity glanced down into the narrow ravine, yet again saddened at how its flow had dissipated over time, but choosing to shake off the despondency she turned her attention back to the bridge.

Aware of her quickening pulse, she hurried towards it, her pace slowing as she approached the gentle mound of earth that partially obscured the first of the twelve or so horizontal stone slats that formed the humped archway – three or four of which were missing.  Hand outstretched, she stepped onto the mound, her trembling palm flat on the left handrail as, pausing, she gauged whether the slats would safely take her weight.  Grinding the fine gritty dust of the ledge between her fingertips, with caution and a silent prayer, Serenity stepped onto the bridge – the slats to her relief considerably more solid underfoot than she’d initially feared, observing as she reached the apex the broken-off final section of the handrail.

I wonder what happened? she reflected, peering into the dry stream bed below as she envisaged the sight of the chunk of masonry swept away in the more substantial current of years gone by.  Turning around, it was then she noticed something that had quite escaped her attention.  “Oh, how beautiful!” she exclaimed, captivated by the serene beauty of the solitary statue which stood alone in the centre of the leafy glade, its grass-fringed plinth surrounded by an elliptical ring of bluebells.

But bluebells in August?

Considerably more sap-stained than the bridge, even with the ravages of time the statue was still recognisable as that of a young woman – the timeworn, benevolent beauty of what remained of her features more identifiable as Serenity drew near – the once-smooth hair chiselled to drape around her graceful neck, flowing onwards down the pitted marble of her outstretched arm, the moss-gloved fingers of her open hand cradling what appeared a sap-blemished bird.

Although impossible to know just how long it had stood so deep in the forest, the gentle, almost melancholic beauty of this most mysterious of antiquities had lost none of its magic.

If only I’d explored that little bit further I’d have found it! lamented Serenity, as looking away, she surveyed the surrounding woodland – her innate sense of mystery urging her that perhaps whoever had called out to her all those years before may somehow still be there, aware of her presence as they observed her confusion.

“Perhaps you do remember me,” she whispered, her gaze lowering to the tiny lavender blue petals at her feet – and it was at that moment the overwhelming impulse surged within her, prompting her to reach out and touch the pitted marble of the statue’s face.  With care, Serenity stepped over the bluebells, the delicate lace of her loose muslin tunic tumbling to the crease of her elbow as her fingertips caressed the mellow coolness of the dinted marble of the right cheek.  At once consumed by a wave of blissful calm, for some time an eerie quiet pervaded the forest, the stillness broken only at length by the harsh cry of the carrion crow, its call reverberating far into the woodland.

A gentle gust catching the tendrils of Serenity’s hair, it was as it gathered strength that she removed her hand from the stone, transferring her fingertips to her own cheek – aware as the leafy boughs groaned high above of a new feeling awakening in her – a profound sorrow, an intense sorrow, a sorrow beyond the boundaries of anything she’d ever experienced as the cool breath of the breeze billowed the soft fabric of her tunic against her smooth skin.

The temperature dropping noticeably, sufficient to cause the downy hairs on the back of her neck to bristle, a distinct chill traversed the length of Serenity’s spine.

“What’s happening?  Why am I feeling like this?” she uttered, rubbing her upper arms for warmth as she turned on the spot – startled to see as yet some distance beyond the bridge thick white smoke rolling towards the clearing.  Logic telling her it was no more than the forestry workers burning leaves, her intuition urged her to move away from where she stood, to vacate the clearing.  “To be dragged away once was bad enough, but to be forced away again!” she protested, her indignant glance darting along the endless avenues of trees.  “Why should I leave now?”

A rigid determination fuelling her resistance to the gut feeling within, hugging herself for warmth, Serenity stepped back over the bluebells.  Chin high in defiance as the temperature lowered further, she made straight for the swirling haze that continued in its steady advance as she reached the bridge.  Unable to ignore the quiver in her hand, she again laid it flat on the damp, gritty surface of the handrail, palm sliding upwards over the flaking stone as she now approached the summit – the thought occurring to her as odd there was no sound of a fire from anywhere nearby – none of the crackling, snapping and spitting usually heard when leaves were burned, nor any smell.

A swell of apprehension within her, Serenity continued onwards down the far side as the first wisps of mist caressed her skin – the diaphanous fog that rolled over and beyond, chilling her to the bone.

Unable to see through the pearly haze, the fog now so intense, Serenity wondered if the peculiar sensation of giddiness was merely disorientation – or a result of the overpowering bouquet of daffodils unmistakable in the vapour.  Sandals catching in the grass, she stepped onto the spongy forest earth, the undergrowth perceptibly dry compared with that on the other side of the stream.  And where is the birdsong? she thought, aware as the moments passed of something else which had until now evaded her.  “The stream, it sounds different,” she remarked, angling her face in the direction of where it flowed – and it was then, from the opposite bank, that she heard it.

“Who are you?” shouted Serenity, heart pounding as she spun around.  The voice distant, frail at first – as if drifting in and out of time – the name it called out through the dense, opaque mist was undeniable.

Spine stiff, pulse racing, for the moments that followed she wished with all her might that her sister’s accusation had been the case.  The fragrance of daffodils by now nauseous, the first five or six slats of the arch visible yet faint before her, Serenity dashed towards the bridge.  Sandals again catching in the grass, she grasped out for the stone ledge – her fingers stubbing against the broken-off section that, even in her panic as she hastened up the ancient span, struck her as much nearer the grassy bank than she’d remembered.  Aware the fog was now starting to dissipate, Serenity felt the softness of the grass once more beneath her toes.  Heart still thumping, she scanned the emerging woodland for whoever it was who stood there.

“I don’t know who you are,” she whimpered, swallowing hard as she peered into what remained of the fine vapour, “but I don’t want this!  You’re scaring me!”  No reply forthcoming, unable to see anyone, she hesitated on the spot.

“Why are you doing this?” she insisted as she turned in the direction of the statue.  “No!” she exclaimed, gaping at the tree stump which protruded from within a ring of daisies where only moments before the bluebells had grown.  “This is ludicrous!” she spat.  Raking her fingers through her hair, she stumbled backwards.   Her breathing shallow as she turned again and again on the spot, Serenity stared back at the stump, open-mouthed as she collapsed to her knees.  “This is impossible!  I only crossed the …”

But her words fell silent, for somewhere as yet far off a distant sound had triggered a disturbance through the treetops, the crashing from the branches intensifying as birds took flight all around.

“What is that?” she uttered, just then hearing it again – only this time nearer.

A curious noise at once mournful and eerie, the thin, warbling moan was now joined by the unmistakable sound of barking dogs.  Breathing faltering, Serenity spun in the direction from where she was certain the barking emanated.  Shooting random glances along the infinite columns of sturdy trunks, one tree in particular, an oak, some thirty feet ahead caught her attention due to its exceptionally broad girth.

“Get behind it!” she ordered herself as she dashed forwards through the long pockets of grass.

Now reaching the tree, she threw herself against its warm bark, but as her fingernails dug into its rough exterior she became aware of a new disturbance, this time from even nearer – an agitated rustle in the twigs of a thicket of bushes to her right – a noise increasingly frantic as she stared in alarm in the direction of whatever or whoever approached.

“Why have you done this to yourself?” she shrieked, edging away from the fracas – just as a fully-grown stag crashed through the branches.  An undeniable stare of terror in the creature’s eyes, its hooves skidded on the dense undergrowth as it noticed her in its lateral vision, but just as quickly found its footing as it veered away from her, changing course.

Body rigid but trembling, Serenity shoved herself away from the trunk.  Her foot stubbing against an unseen rock, she was unable to prevent herself sprawling her full length to the dry earth, her umbrella landing well beyond her reach.  The yelp of hounds now at a crescendo, Serenity managed to struggle to a squat, but her foot catching on the inside of her skirt as she attempted to make for the tree, she stumbled forwards on her knees.  Eyes half-closed, she pressed her grazed palms to her ears, as, in a frenzied blur of white, brown and black the hounds raced past, the clamour almost deafening.  Teeth clenched, Serenity lunged forwards, hunkering down into as tight a ball as she could, too terrified to move – the tumult at length passing.

Without so much as a second thought she struggled to her feet, bounding from behind the broad oak in the direction of the tree stump – aware as she careered over another parched section of earth of the ground beneath her feet pulsating, a heavy jangle of metal and dull thud of hooves approaching from her right.  The hoarse cry of a man piercing the air over the leaded clanking of the riding tackle, his shout was accompanied by the agitated yells of others.

Panic-stricken, Serenity turned her face in the direction of the commotion – at once catching sight of the three horses which thundered towards her at full pelt, the white horse out in front much taller than the others, its huge brown eyes wild, the network of veins pulsing below its sweat-glistening face.  Frozen to the spot, Serenity could only watch as the front rider kicked the sole of his black leather boot downwards onto the stirrup as, frantically, he tugged on the reins in an attempt to control his beast, its powerful neck straining, head bobbing wildly as it reared backwards in fear.

Shoulders hunched, forearms up to shield her face, in one last attempt to escape the impending carnage, Serenity propelled herself forwards – her knees giving way beneath her as she staggered aimlessly on the spot – now looking directly upwards into the mottled grey underbelly of the huge white stallion which towered above her, its two arched front legs already descending on her in slow motion, the cold black iron of its hooves only inches from her face – mere seconds before a sickening pain exploded in her head, radiating at lightning speed down through her body as the world tipped sideways and a carpet of soft but sharp blades of grass rushed upwards to meet her face.

Copyright © 2011 Audrey Graham. All rights reserved.