Pearls and Roses, Chapter 15
She got into the city archives not through explaining her assignment, nor through some preordained magic in her employer’s name, but by mentioning Trish Markham. “Oh yes!” a chic blonde woman exclaimed, “she called yesterday afternoon about someone’s coming down. I will help you,” and she led Alice along the corridors and into a beautiful little wood-paneled room, filled with sunlight, that smelled almost frighteningly of must and history, and ancient days when people could be killed for believing the wrong things. What a dumb thought. Though not so very ancient days, actually. So this was Europe.
The woman laid out an old folio volume on a table, and handed her a pair of white gloves. “Careful,” she said, and then left. Alice felt foolish. This could not be too valuable, if the lady left it with her, gloves or not. It must be all right to touch it, to open it. Obviously she was not doing any original research. How many tourists and how many film crews came to romantic rural France every year and asked for information on the same things, were shown the same things, were given appointments to be told the same things? She felt more as if she were renewing a driver’s license than hearing old whispers form a subtler, prouder, more interesting and frightening world.
She put on the gloves and reached out to touch the volume, feeling a little dizzy. She wondered where the really valuable things were, and who got to look at them. What more should she ask to see? Was this it? What if she reported back to Trish that she had found enough “visuals” to film, and it turned out that she had missed the most important documents in Chinon’s archives, documents that everybody else knew about? Suppose by her ignorance and oversights she lost them the Peabody they all so wanted? This was why Mr. Boyd said they should only film American projects, she fumed. If she was sitting in an American town’s archives right now she would know what to ask and how to behave. Here she was at the mercy of a nice foreign woman who knew her language while she knew nothing at all. It took very little to turn Alice morbid, bitter. Or was that a recent development?
She opened the old volume and found herself, with the passing of another minute, absorbed, obliterated. There was square, hooked writing – what, French or Latin, she could not tell – and a few cartoons that someone centuries ago appeared to have doodled in the margins. Who was this, and how did he dare? Another meandering soul, like herself. There were beautifully decorated capital letters on every page. There were ladies in wimples, looking as they always used to look, drawn there, and there living, forever. How could the artist have imagined that fashion would ever change? And there were the drawings of animals, so odd, all looking the same, pigs and horses and dragons all equally long-snouted below wide human eyes.
She crossed her legs, swinging one ankle past the other. When she turned each page it made a thick crackling sound. Lists and lists in a square hooked hand fell beneath her eye. A shaft of sunlight came in the window of the room, lighting up the contrast between her reddish hair and her purple knit dress. The morning ticked by. Already she had been there close to forty minutes.
Peter was padding down these halls he knew well when that movement, a swinging ankle in what was usually an empty room, caught his eye. He stopped, backed, and edged curiously to the door. Alice was completely oblivious of him and he was normally the most reticent of men. He could have stood there staring as long as he liked; he could have turned and walked on, and no one would have ever known. When she straightened up to turn a page, he thought he was about to be found out. He knocked on the doorjamb as if this was her room and walked one step in, saying “Pardon,” in case she was French.
She was not. “Oh! Hello.”
“Sorry. Did I startle you?”
“Oh, that’s all right. I think I’ve been forgotten.”
“The nice lady who gave me this book.” She was in fact startled out of her wits and was already struggling to close the giant book. This man was evidently permitted to wander the place at will and she felt a fool. “I’m afraid I don’t know a thing about what belongs in archives. The nice lady who brought me here seems to have moved on to other things.”
“Can I help?”
“Do you work here?” she said and then wanted to die of embarrassment. What was this, a shopping mall?
“Sort of,” he smiled. “At least I’m here enough that they almost give me free run of the place. What are you researching?”
“I’m not sure. I mean I’d be embarrassed to tell you how little – “ she stopped stammering and laughed. “Visuals. I’m looking for pretty documents to take pictures of and put in a documentary film about this area.”
“I’m sorry you’ve been forgotten. Who was the lady who brought you here? Perhaps I can find her for you.”
“Oh no, don’t do that. Don’t bother her. Heaven knows I’m no scholar who has to see or do anything. I thought I would give her ten more minutes and then leave and get back to my real job. It’s just that I did get a little absorbed in this. It’s the oldest book I’ve ever seen, I know that.”
He cocked his head and looked over her shoulder. After some observation he said, “It’s a copy of the necrology from Fontevrault. Since eleven hundred and something. A list of deaths, in other words. Important ones.”
“Good Lord, you’re hired,” she exclaimed, and he laughed. “Can you read that?”
“I’ve been here before.”
“More than I can do.”
“And will that give you a nice visual?”
“Actually I think it will. How do you pronounce that name again? With an F?” He said it. “That’s why we’re here,” she nodded. “I’m with a film company that’s filming a restoration project on that abbey. We make documentaries and we always need visuals to fill up some time.”
Boyd, he thought, and remembered the afternoon in Texas years before, and the vanished Mrs. Nathan, and his phone conversation in the wee hours with Trish last summer. So they had arrived. “Visuals?”
“You know, outdoor shots during pieces of narration and that kind of thing. My boss asked me to come here and find what I could, documents or whatever.” She laughed. “I’m afraid we’re true barbarians. We don’t need to read them, just show them. My specific instructions were to find something pretty. Isn’t that awful?”
“Not at all,” he smiled. “And I’m sure Marguerite can help you find things with a bit more color, too.”
She thought she had bored him already and that he was on the point of taking his leave. “Really? But I’m surprised she even left me here with this. What’s to prevent me from being a thief or a psycho or something? Suppose I make off with this priceless document?”
He had turned aside a little and gazed down at her obliquely, in a pose like an old statue. “You’d be caught on that priceless video camera up there,” he nodded toward the little gray boxed eye up at the corner of the ceiling. “And then the flics would come running and there would be horrible sirens. And then your company would never set foot in France again. That’s just for a start.”
“Ah-hah,” she nodded, as if with a new respect for French ferocity. She sensed also that this was about the right time to ask him about his work, but for all her potty little lectures she had probably never asked an adult man a personal question in her life. She took their occasional compliments with enchanting modesty, but reciprocated nothing. Now was the time for something new. She took a breath. I’ll never see him again, she thought, and besides, he interrupted me.
“And what do you do?”
“Soils engineer. I serve on the commission that’s helping restore Fontevrault.”
“Oh.” Something about what he had just said seemed familiar, but she had gotten distracted looking at his face. “Then perhaps – “
Footsteps sounded outside. He glanced to the doorway. “I think your guardian angel has returned,” he said. He held out his hand and said goodbye. “Yes, I hope so,” she said foggily.
He nodded to Marguerite and departed. Alice bent earnestly over the other volume she brought in, looking at old medieval things in an even more respectful spirit than before.
She returned to the hotel in plenty of time – almost forgetting to give back the gloves; Marguerite had to remind her – for the staff meeting at one that afternoon, arranged to be held at a table in the hostellerie’s restaurant. Their jolly habits died very hard. Alice debated whether or not to point out that this was hardly proper use if the foundation’s money. She decided against it. Baby steps, she told herself. Be compassionate.
During lunch she was able to give a detailed review of all the visuals she had found in the city archives. The word ‘necrology’ came back to her and she used it without acknowledging where it came from or what it meant. Pat, Trish, and Mill were impressed. After they had heard each other out, they divvied up assignments for the afternoon. “Alice, could you handle a camera on your own?” Trish asked.
“Of course,” she answered. “What do you want me to do?”
“I talked to Peter Shepstone this morning, and he told me he’ll be at some meeting of the planning committee today at three-thirty. I thought if you could get some of that on film, maybe just a few minutes, it would serve for a voice-over later explaining what these people are doing and how it all starts. The drudgery of it, you know, decision-making, problems. Bureaucracy. The meeting will be at the city archives so you’ll already know where that is.”
“Okay, that’s easy enough. You know, I wonder if I ran into him today. At the archives. Some man came up to me and introduced himself – no, come to think of it, he didn’t – but he said he served on the commission about Fontevrault. I wonder if that was him.”
Trish kept her balance. “Oh. Really? What was he like?”
“Very nice. We hardly spoke five seconds.”
“English?” Mill asked.
“Yes ... yes.”
“Oh. Okay, well, it was probably him. Well, that does make your job easier,” Trish broke out her bell-like laugh. “I got permission for you to sit in on the committee’s meeting and very discreetly film what goes on, film everybody. Just be sure and get him on camera quite a bit. He told me he’ll be easy to spot because he’s usually the only one wearing interpreter’s headphones. He can’t speak French.”
“That’s weird,” Alice said. “He can certainly read it. He deciphered for me what I was looking at today. Unless that was Latin,” she added.
“It may be that understanding a language is not the same skill as reading it at your own pace,” Pat drawled, as usual hastening to declaim.
“That’s true,” Alice replied. She was too pleased with life to ruffle at Pat’s old habits.
Three-fifteen found her back at the archives, this time in a small lower-level room all paneled in rich dark wood, with a furnished gallery running all around the perimeter where spectators might look at whatever was happening about the plush seats and fine desks and little lamps a bit below them. She was permitted into the meeting room once again on the strength of Trish’s name and borrowed business card, and directed to an unobtrusive seat close to the railing. A group of about fifteen men sat in the small room. Quietly and slowly she unlatched her gear and laid her hands on her equipment. Too slowly, evidently, for without preliminaries, someone began to speak and she was hardly ready. She caught up her camera. For a moment she marveled inwardly at the memory of herself at nineteen, just applying for a job as a secretary at Monique-Boyd, not knowing a thing about it, only thankful to have gotten a job anywhere. Who would have thought where it would lead?
She scanned the room through her unblinking late-twentieth century eye, this medieval room full of people in tortures over a medieval structure and its medieval problems, but could not find Peter Shepstone – whoever he was. “They’ve all got nameplates,” Trish had said, “you can’t miss him. Look for those.” He’ll be the only one wearing headphones. Maybe Trish was wrong about that. She had never met him. Alice panned and panned, back and forth, wasting God knew how much film. She put the camera aside for a moment and looked with the naked eye, then put it back and used it as a kind of telescope. Maybe he was not there. Maybe she would not be able to remember his looks even from this morning – if that was even him – she thought she had behaved easily, but his sudden appearance was quite a shock. The more fool her. She was about to shut off when, inexplicably, he appeared under the camera’s glass as if under a microscope, in profile in a near seat, listening steadily from under heavy brows to the man talking. He was wearing small headphones. Yes, that was him. From the archives, the necrology this morning. Sweat misted her shoulder blades. He was the one who had called Trish from bed or something.
No wonder she had not recognized him. He looked utterly at work. He looked like a man who could command armies without ever thinking about a woman. He looked twenty years younger. She dwelt on his face long enough, she assured herself, to provide a visual for a long voice-over about his name and maybe his titles and career and who knew? Something personal. Was he married? Do married men normally introduce themselves to strange women in medieval cities’ record offices? She shut off the camera when she thought she had covered more than enough, not forgetting the elderly ordinary folk all around him, but sat through the rest of the meeting anyway, watching, packing, not understanding a word. When it was obviously breaking up, she left without speaking to him and returned to the hotel. That evening all the staff ate dinner very companionably, and laughed and compared notes, and went to bed early in preparation for a full day tomorrow.
Thank you for reading this far. If you care to finish the novel, you may go to the page "Pearls and Roses (the rest of it)." You'll find the link at the top right of the home page, along with the choices "Home" and "Slush." November 8, 2010.