Sun | Sep 20, 2020

Le coeur de la ville (Heart of the city)

Published:Sunday | March 15, 2020 | 12:21 AM

A short story by Karen Thompson – set somewhere in Western Europe

The majestic twelfth-century fortress guards the city’s possessions: its glorious cathedrals, exquisite emporiums, and ethnic markets.

In this city dwells a civilisation of culturally diverse people: a melting pot of the sophisticated and the ruthless, the well-to-dos and the grotto dwellers, the intense-looking brown faces, the perceptive pale faces and the ­cunning in-betweeners. A ­concoction of hedonists.

But there is a secret to this city. It isn’t the dogs sporting designer coats and studded collars. Nor is it the criss-crossing of dark alleys and rivers. The secret comes to life at night. The lewd spirit of its merrymaking inhabitants: gorgeous devils with heaving bosoms, the lecherous, the sultry and the androgynous. A city in moral decline.

It is the hour of darkness in a muggy tavern. Lowered heads and laughing faces with fixed, dark eyes. Watching. Waiting.

As he enters the smoke-filled aromatic room, there is an uneasy feeling. A pair of almond-shaped eyes pierce the darkness and penetrate his being. He feels her approach and looks up from his fluted glass, her gaze resting on his face. Fixated. Their sporadic chatter. Their on and off laughter. Instant flushes when their eyes lock. His chest stirs. They depart separately for the night.

A week passes, same time same place. Chatting and hobnobbing. The sound of intoxicating music fills the air while bodies sway slowly. She greets him with an endearing smile, which has a potent effect on his thoughts. He can’t seem to get her out of his head ….as long as the night is dark.

Reveal her secret

It’s another starry night as she sits by her window, writing. She’s about to reveal her secret to him, with passion and in a language unfamiliar. She takes pen to paper. She closes her eyes and savours what she has written. The view from the window is bewitching. But there is a presence that she is drawn to. She looks out, and down. He’s standing beneath her window! How has he found himself in the street under the brilliantly lit lamp? He’s lost in deep thought.

Her face frames the window as she stares, intrigued. A fleeting thought crosses her mind. She can have him now if she wants. She opens the window and drops the letter in the street.

As he heads for home, he reads and savours, stopping at intervals to absorb its contents. She’s asking indiscreet questions, this mysterious force that she is. Should I present myself to her? Perhaps become her lover? A feeling of trepidation overcomes him. At this moment, he decides to meet her. What is this curious relationship that springs between them?

It is late when he returns to his humble dwelling, his head swirling with strange thoughts. The children eagerly rush to him and his heart warms when he hugs them, they who await him, rather than yield to slumber. His wife greets him, a patient woman with warm, sincere eyes. Yes, he’s home. The room is filled with tenderness and love, of children giggling and squealing.

She’s tender and respectful as she questions him. What has come over you? Are you listening to me? She asks these questions of him, but he doesn’t answer. He says he’s tired, but she is doubtful and it is causing her excessive agitation. Do you understand what I’m saying? But in his confusion, he doesn’t answer.

She can’t decide what to do as she has no one to consult. For she has no friends and her family dwells in another land; a privilege she has sacrificed. Why should she feel ashamed by a thoughtless act? A woman with an amazing spirit, he knows she’s trustworthy and loyal.

Flustered

Another night approaches, and he roams the streets flustered and undecided. He glances at his watch nervously as the hours slowly evolve into minutes. It seems like eternity. He awaits her in the city street. Instantly, he hears footsteps, heels ringing on the cobblestones. He remains still. In the shadows of this erstwhile neighbourhood, he makes himself invisible. The slender-footed belle approaches, black coat with a furred collar and cuffs. Striped stockings and buckled boots flash past. Bizarre. Intense it would seem. She stops. She’s at the end of the street, with nowhere in sight.

He waits among the shadows, looking. She frantically scans the street. No one. She calls, but he doesn’t answer. She stumbles and begins to weep. The light of the moon marks the spot where she sits, her legs curled under her coat, her face in her hands. She holds her head, short, brown curls falling between her fingers. Her face impassioned, with an absence of thought in her eyes. She cries out into nothingness. She‘s alone.

“It’s only a jest”, she wails. “I swear!” But he doesn’t answer. There is a rush of emotion as he bursts at the seams. A thought. Life without his family who means the world to him. A family that he’s not about to sacrifice. He stealthily leaves the street with warped knees while she sits and weeps.

It is the hour of dawn when he arrives home. The rooms are dark and silent, except for a faint glow from a lamp. She is writing about passion while she weeps. About mixed feelings and love. About time that passes so slowly. About the revelation of a secret and a meeting of minds. About ancient architecture and streets laced with chimneys and spires. About an acquaintance that begins with passion and ends with God’s quiet intervention. She writes about the hopes of honourable intentions and quiet independence, about the theatrical events of her life.

She is writing this tale.