Pearls and Roses, chapter 14
What a shame they could not afford the Concorde, Trish thought, as the plane raced down O’Hare’s runway and rumbled into the black December sky, on Sunday the 10th, carrying its freight of passengers and ten employees from Monique-Boyd, off to have a look at some crumbling medievalism. What a shame the Concorde did not fly from Chicago.
There was so much to think about. A business trip of even a week would terribly complicate her daughters’ Girl Scout troop schedule, not to mention volleyball practice and piano. She had had a go-round with Naperville’s village board secretary just last night on the telephone, but luckily they had patched things up this morning before she left. “Did you have a meltdown or something?” Grace asked, laughing, and Trish had laughed too and explained everything, and had been able to change the date of the mayor’s winter banquet so that the troop could serve as color guard after all. And then there was Dan, and the mortgage and the business, and her fortieth birthday coming up. Once again Dan had broached the subject of another baby. She had been sympathetic but non-committal, which she realized now was a mistake. Don’t string him along. Be honest. “The last thing I need right now ...” Somehow in the grand technological privacy of an airplane, she could look out at clouds and sky and decide what she needed. Now, or ever.
Pat relaxed in the seat beside her but for the moment she was silent, too, occupied with her own thoughts. Her husband wanted to adopt and the idea simply left her cold. Joe wanted a son. After much difficulty they had had their daughters, but now he was not satisfied. He wanted a “son,” and was willing to adopt somebody else’s to get one. Some of Pat’s friends had experience in the adoption field. Their stories made her shudder. Waiting and waiting for a baby, and the birth mother changing her mind at the last minute – sometimes the grandmother insisting she change her mind at the last minute – leaving a ridiculously decorated nursery empty, ready for a stranger, at the top of the stairs. Well of course the birth mother could change her mind, within a day or three days or a month. She was the real mother. She had given birth. Any pretense that adoption equated to parenthood was thus negated, legally, right at the start. Pat knew that prospective (“perspective,” Trish would have said, and Pat smiled) adoptive parents had to attend all sorts of seminars and workshops to be lectured on adoptive parenthood. “If you’re not ready to think totally of this child as your child, to be in love totally with this child, then you’re not ready to adopt.” And then you had your home inspected. Real parents were not subject to this. Real parents simply gave birth and went home, as she had already done. Pat was not at all sure she wanted to jump on this emotional roller-coaster. She hated duplicity, and she would not have officialdom bestowed on her from on high. She would not be sanctioned, she would not be told she measured up.
And there was Alice in seat 10J, thinking her own thoughts. She looked out at the American clouds, thinking that soon they would be Atlantic and then European clouds. French clouds.
The plane flew, over Newfoundland, over the ocean, into France. There was a short night inside the plane, and then that eerie aerial dawn, when you still wear yesterday morning’s clothes and still think in yesterday’s time. Alice and Pat and Trish thought, and chatted a little with the others, and ate a couple of the airplane meals. Tense, glint-eyed Denise drank vodka with hers – “Stoli, on the rocks,” she requested, and Alice who overheard her wondered what on earth Stoli was, while Pat also listening bristled at Denise’s assuming that the august and willowy French flight attendants would know such expressions. But they seemed to. The plane landed and taxied and everyone left, Alice dazed at the idea that this was actually Paris, or close to it. They found their bags just where the sign said ‘baggage,’ and then rented cars for the drive to the same adorable little hotel in Chinon where Peter Shepstone often stayed. Charlie drove one car and Mill the other; she had been to France before and in any case, feared absolutely nothing. Nothing bad ever happened to her. She was one of those people who flies cheerily and ignorantly through life, who never listens except when it suits her, and double-parks and advises everyone else to do the same, and then stands amazed when they get a ticket. “There are never any cops here, except maybe Tuesdays at around one. Oh! You went on Tuesday? Oh.” The world seemed to her full of churchmice. She found Chinon for them with only one hand on the wheel, all the while talking and laughing and saying, “Oh, do they drive on the right here? That’s easy. God, I’m toast. I could fall asleep right now.”
By the time they checked into the Hostellerie Gargantua, it was a Monday noon and Alice had had only surreal glimpses of this medieval town whose well, in the main square, happened still to be the very one at which Joan of Arc used to mount her horse. They were all famished and some of them, Mill and Denise especially, were already looking about for any signs of nightlife. They ate in the inn’s restaurant, and then almost all the others went out in search of the abbey, the archives, Dr. Spellman’s home, even though they had been up and travelling sine the previous, American morning twenty-four hours ago. Or was it thirty-six? Alice was too tired for that. She stayed behind in one of the rooms that first afternoon and night, as did Pat in another. Pat had brought some papers about adoption with her. Alice had brought her copy of the bylaws, squirreling it down among her clothes as if it were contraband, or a photograph of a forbidden lover. She caught up on some official bookkeeping and then ate some crackers and drank a coke and went to bed. The group out exploring returned at about midnight. She did not think she had been asleep but perhaps she was, for it seemed suddenly odd and rude that they did not lower their voices for her sake. Then it was quiet. She must have slept again. She woke the next morning to find that despite their late night, all three of her roommates were up already. It seemed they could control anything, even their own bodies.
Tuesday work began. Trish gave herself the assignment of interviewing Dr. Spellman. Pat was going with a small crew to film some sights around the town, Charlie and another crew planned to speak to the town fathers about the history of the abbey and its current problems. Out of the kindness of her heart, which was very real, Trish gave Alice an assignment which she knew would appeal to her and which she would have enjoyed herself: to go to the city’s archives and find some pretty manuscripts or other records which they could film, as background to voice-overs and music and the like. Alice, already feeling freakishly homesick, was happy with the assignment, and thanked Trish warmly. Perhaps this was the turning over of a new leaf. Maybe they were all quite decent people who would now get along and be good friends. Maybe that was why they had clashed – maybe they were too much alike. Why shouldn’t all this be the basis of a lovely friendship?
Alice who had once been an idiotically well-read pre-pubescent walked out into the delicious air, French air below the French clouds which had lain spread out at her feet only yesterday, or was it the day before yesterday, in that sleek, ordinary American plane. She walked over the cobblestones and below the shop signs and, blinking, tried to imagine medieval people tramping across these very streets in their dresses and hose and pointed shoes, or in their filthy plague-ridden rags, to be honest she supposed. It was such a freakish idea that her spirits alternately rose and fell and then seemed to leave her altogether, as if she had become another person. The first sight of, the first walk in a European town is like that. ...or who else had been here? Romans, of course, this town might have existed then, and so people might have come to market or to the temple here in their togas and drapery. Or even Greeks, now. That is what makes French history so wonderful, she thought, it begins even with the Greek traders who found their way here, founded Marseilles, didn’t they, and met Celts and Gauls and before anyone knew it, all the flamboyance and delicacy of French civilization was underway. How curiously unafraid she felt when she thought of it in those terms.
And how strange it all looked. It was a “perfectly preserved” medieval town, or so it appeared, no jarring McDonald’s anywhere, but it looked so quiet and freakish anyway. The people in modern clothes were both right and wrong. It was a living town. But would medieval people in their own proper clothes have looked so small? Even the buildings were, in a strange way, too small around the corners, the ground too close to her eyes, the sun too small and far away. We expect a historic place to be suffused with the light of history, the sun low down and comfortable as it is in story-book drawings, when in fact the place is just a place at the same latitude and longitude it ever was. We expect the storied clash of arms. In fact it just rains, or shines, and little European cars turn corners at stoplights as usual. To be whisked up in an airplane and transported across the ocean to a living town where, for most of history, the local people could never have dreamed such things, was an experience too bizarre to enjoy. Joan of Arc mounted her horse at that well, but Joan of Arc never knew America existed. Was that pleasing or unpleasing? Did it make the heroine seem more one’s possession, or less? She could not decide who seemed more real as a result, herself, or the grave shadows in long gowns and pointed shoes whom she tried very hard to fancy at every corner. And yet here were her roots, too, in a way, hers, Alice’s, the idiotically well-read. She was not French, alas, how nice it must be, but here was a place where the girls did once get married at seventeen, as she had. Here was a place where people joined orders, where a woman five hundred years ago was very likely a grandmother at thirty-five, as she might be too if Hunter and Catherine were not being careful.
Pearls and Roses, chapter 16