“Possibly that was you, Ann?”
“Very possibly, my dear. I played more than any of them. I played badly â I'd only just learned â but I played a lot.”
The thought that he had stared at her so many years earlier, before falling in love with her, before he'd even known who she was, the thought that there had once been a moment in which they had
looked each other in the eyes, in which they had perhaps spoken â he to hand her the lost tennis ball, she to thank him â this thought exalted him. How many distances had been traversed between the white-clad tennis player bending towards him for a moment with her racket in hand, on an August evening in 1926, and that familiar, painful Ann!
He could still see the municipal train that made the regular run to Satu-Lung, its yellow carriages, its outmoded engine, the disproportionately loud shriek of its whistle in the minuscule stations, a train glistening at night when it got delayed in BraÅov and he returned home on the last run on the local line ...
On a night like that, the train had been stopped before Noua by the group from Satu-Lung, who blocked its path, sitting down on the rails and waving their illuminated flashlights, their white jerseys, their scarves ...The passengers were indignant, the on-board staff, their self-respect wounded (“A train stopped like an ordinary wagon!”), threatened legal action and fines, everybody was clamouring at once, but they seemed not to hear any of it, or maybe really didn't hear. They were coming from RÃ¢Ånov, one of the more reasonable ones said, they were dead-tired and couldn't miss the last departure. They invaded the carriages without being aware of the scandal they had caused.
It was late, the passengers were drowsy, the train was emptying out, with people getting off at DÃ¢rste, at TurcheÅ. The revolt was assuaged ... Beyond TurcheÅ nothing was heard but the silence of that August night, occasionally broken by the locomotive's whistle. Then they began singing: a romantic song that was in fashion, and was sung by fiddlers in BraÅov, but which now, at that hour of the night, in their youthful voices, took on an unexpected melancholy.
Paul, remembering that moment, would have liked to silence all the instruments with a single gesture, like that of an orchestra director, leaving only the soloist's violin audible; he would have liked to be able to suppress in his memory the voices of all of the others in order to preserve Ann's voice as it would have been on that August night in 1926.
“Why didn't I meet you then?” she used to say. “Why did so many years have to pass before I met you? Why didn't somebody say to
me on that evening: âSee that young gentleman next to the window? One day you're going to fall in love with that gentleman ...'
“Even so, how can I know it wasn't better that way? I think you wouldn't have become my lover and I think I would have been too thick and I wouldn't have liked you. I used to like boys who danced well, and you dance so badly! I don't know how much I've changed since then. I used to wear awful hairdos and short dresses, I was scatterbrained, I was wild, I was ... look how I was.”
And taking from the table a charcoal pencil, she drew on the sketch pad a fine outline of a scatterbrained girl with her legs in the air as if leaping, with her arms open, with her hair floating in the wind. In a few seconds the pad was full of images, which repeated the same sketch of the wild girl, seeming to relay the stylish leaps from image to image. From this game emerged, over a few days, an entire series of drawings and watercolours, some of which had been shown that same autumn at the Black and White Gallery, while others, later that winter, came to occupy a whole wall at her one-woman show bearing the same title:
Paul watched the birth of these images with astonishment. Her charcoal pencils seemed to revive them, releasing them from her own memory. Nothing was missing: neither the walk from Cernatu, nor the tennis court, nor the municipal train with its yellow carriages, nor the minuscule train stations full of sunlight, where a few young Saxon women sat waiting with their immense hats of yellow straw on their heads and their huge, flat, rural handbags ...
For a long time he had known nothing about her, in spite of the greeting on the street, even though they had happened to exchange a few words on a couple of occasions. The mere mention of the short form of her name, that pretentious “Ann,” irritated him, when Anna would have been such a pleasant name.
Now, when their love had become such a grinding agony for him, he tried to locate again in his memory that lost, indifferent Ann of the early days, to pin to small truths from the past the appearance of this young woman whom he had barely known and
who, at that time, could do him neither harm nor good. In his mind there were certain calm territories, certain zones of indifference, to which he returned when the image he had today of his lover struck him as intolerable. He took pains to reconstitute each detail of those old events and to return to them with care, as though to a few old photographs that he was afraid to find drained of colour by the years.
He relived with a feeling of long-awaited revenge the day in which they had met in a cinema on the Boulevard. He was at the ticket window when someone tapped him on the shoulder. To his surprise, it was Anna, whom he didn't know well enough for such a familiar gesture. “Don't you want to buy me a ticket as well so that I don't have to stand in the lineup?”
They had entered the cinema together, but he refused, almost impolitely, her request that he come with her to the front row, where she usually sat because of her slight myopia. “Forgive me, but I can't sit too close to the screen.”
And, leaving her to continue on her way, he sat down in a middle row, happy to have remained alone.
How removed, how restful, how unlikely that event seemed now, when in any cinema he entered the thought that she, too, might be there, possibly accompanied by someone else, tortured him, forcing him to be always on his guard to recognize her in the gloom among the long rows of moviegoers, her blonde head gleaming for a second in the glow of an usher's flashlight and then slipping away into the darkness of the theatre ...
He saw again in the same way the far-off January day in which they had met in a train coming back from Sinaia. He was reading a book when Ann knocked on the windowpane of his compartment.
“What a surprise! I thought I was the only person I knew on the whole train. Why don't you come to the restaurant car with me? We can have a tea and chat ...”
He had refused out of boredom, giving vague excuses: there were too many people in the restaurant car, he preferred to stay in the compartment, he had reading to do ...
At that time he wasn't sure what her name was.
That she was a painter he didn't find out until much later, and only by chance.
It was at an official art exhibition (one of the first official exhibitions, organized on the Åosea), to which he had come with a friend. He stopped in front of a group of watercolours in which he was startled by an outburst of blue, a little bit metallic, in indelible pencil. The drawing was uncertain, nervous, tangled by her capricious lines like hurried handwriting, but with an unexpected exactness of detail, as though from time to time her brush had halted to dot an i or insert a comma in a confused sentence. These small touches seemed to be orthographic clues to the meaning of a mysterious writing.
There was a collection of street scenes â houses, trees, carriages
â all seen from above, and what seemed oddest in them was precisely the elevated vantage point from which they were observed. The gaudy aniline blue gave them an early morning air, full of sun, full of light.
“It's amusing and trivial,” Paul said. “I have the impression, too, that they're works I've seen before.” He thought of certain paintings by Raoul Duffy7
: race tracks, decorated doorways, images of the same childlike disorder.
He was just preparing to move away when Anna, who happened to be near them, and whom he had greeted in passing, stopped him.
“Forgive me for being indiscreet, but I heard you talking about my paintings and I'd like to know what you thought.”
“What do you mean, your paintings? Do you paint?”
“You didn't know?”
He tried to make excuses for the double faux pas of having shown her that he knew her so little, to the point of not even knowing that she was a painter, and of having said unpleasant things about her work in a loud voice. He wished he could retract or explain his words, but she didn't let him finish.
“Please, don't go on. You made me happy, and now you want to spoil it for me. You're the first person I've heard speaking openly
about my work. Here everyone's kind to me and compliments me. It's more comfortable for them, but it's not at all useful to me. Go on, tell me what you really think. Above all, be hard on me. Please be hard on me.”
She was speaking without flirtatiousness, with sincerity and a serious gaze, like a pupil waiting to show him an exercise book that she knew contained an error.
Paul told her again that he wasn't competent to speak about painting, that anyway he'd liked her paintings, especially that bold blue and her spiritual drawing, which had the daring to be so casually artless.
“That's very nice and I thank you. But I sense that you're keeping to yourself some things that you don't want to say to me. Why? I would have been so grateful to you! Go on, try to be frank.”
At a loss, he looked again at the paintings, trying to find one appropriate word. “All right, since you insist, look: I have the impression that they're too verbose.”
Ann didn't understand the word because, certainly, among all the possible objections, only this one could not have been anticipated.
“Don't ask me to say more,” Paul excused himself. “I don't think I could. I have the impression that there's something gesticulating in your paintings. They're too hearty, too talkative, too familiar at the first glance ... But at the end of the day, is that a fault?”
Ann stood thinking for a moment. Afterwards, she barely responded to his questions. “Yes, I think it is, and a very serious one. How can I know whether I'll ever be able to overcome it? I am talkative, I am frivolous ...”
Then she smiled, not without a certain sadness.
They met a few months later, on a Sunday morning in the spring, at Snagov, where Paul had come for a few days, invited to a villa belonging to some friends.
He halted with them in passing at the small monastery at the edge of the lake, and to his surprise found Ann there, alone in the cold church, with a sketch pad in her hand.
“I didn't know you were so hardworking.”
“I'm not. I ended up here by pure chance. I came to Snagov with a large group of friends, but I left them to the lake and the fishing, and I took a moment to see the monastery again. I don't know if you know it well. There are some enchanting works.”
She headed towards the exit and from there, from the doorway, turning around to face the interior, she showed him on the wall in front of him, at the entrance to the nave, a fresco in muted colours, but with an admirable group of women. The first woman on the right was turned towards the others with a graceful movement, which caused her garment to fall in soothing folds.
“But that's not all that I like a lot here. Come this way, please, and I'll show you something truly miraculous.”
She took him by the hand and led him into the centre of the church, next to the altar, from where she showed him the other fresco, of the descent from the cross, on the opposite wall.
“There are a few mistakes of perspective here that I find moving. And look, in the background there's an old man stroking his beard with a gesture â how would you describe it? â with a familiar everyday gesture ... It's a secular gesture and I'm so astonished to find it on the wall of a church!”
She was speaking with whole-hearted enthusiasm, with passion, although in a whisper, for meanwhile the church was filling with visitors. A tone of conviction and deep emotion, whose existence Paul never would have suspected until now, ran through her words.
It was late, his friends were in a hurry to go to lunch, and, as he would have liked to spend more time talking to her, he apologized for having to leave.
“Stay,” she insisted. “The boat's coming to pick me up in twenty minutes and I'll accompany you back to the villa.”
He was compelled to refuse, but he left with a promise that they would see each other again, a polite promise like any other.
They saw each other again, however, a short time later.
Paul came out of the law courts, having wasted a whole day in a small meeting room at a witness hearing in a boring trial. As when he had been at school, the most horrendous days at court were
those that took place in the spring. The tender sunlight that flooded the streets, and which for hours at a time he saw through the window of a meeting room, made him ill; he felt ill at seeing the drab, pale faces stirred by the new colours, worn-out people dozing on park benches in an archive-dusty yellow light. He stopped on the street, drowsy with sunlight, and closed his eyes for a moment. He felt dirty, his clothes were too heavy, his collar had wilted, his tie was twisted. He would have liked to shake himself free, as though of soot after a long train trip. The whiff of the archives accompanied him, and on his lips was a taste of yellowed old papers.
He went slowly, with heavy steps, around the back of the courthouse. He felt old, and everyone who passed him seemed young. His briefcase hung heavily, as though made of lead. If he hadn't been embarrassed to do so, he would have put it down for a moment, like a porter taking a respite from a heavy load.