Feature: La Vieille
This super short story was a trial run for my NaNoWriMo project; Love, Charybdis. It was here I first got a feel for how the pieces of the story were fitting together, and started to explore the emotional dynamics of the characters. While a few of the details are are simplified or plain omitted – such as John being Marie-Noelle’s adopted brother, rather than just a childhood friend – it’s largely true to the novel. It’s named for the notorious lighthouse in Brittany’s Raz de Sein, La Vieille, or “the old lady”.
The rest is revealed in the story, but I will say this for it: researching vitriolage has been as saddening as researching rape.
University of Glasgow, Scotland, 1886
She hadn’t seen John in many years, and she had hoped that she was over that.
But when she saw him standing there, by Renard de Saville and the lectern as Saville packed up his notes, all the doubts that she had harboured about the wisdom of her coming to the chemistry conference were sucked into a violent whirlwind in the heart of her, along with all those desperate snatches of emotion so futilely buried inside her, and together they thrashed against her lungs and her spine as she made her trembling way towards the lectern.
Saville noticed her over John’s shoulder; he pointedly cleared his throat, and their conversation died.
“Brandy, Madam,” said Saville.
“Mademoiselle,” Marie-Noelle corrected him, and John finished his slow turn towards her, and the remembrance of her voice pierced his brain before the memory of her visage, and a light seemed to switch on inside him, and he shouted without realising,
“Marie-Noelle! My darling!”
His arms were around her in a moment. She stiffened in his embrace. She remembered the arms of a boy around her; these were the arms of a man, broad-shouldered and athletic under his tailored black suit. He smelled of cigar smoke and the cherry-wood aftershave he had preferred since he was a teenager. He had worn it since before he had a beard to shave.
A thousand half-forgotten moments socked Marie-Noelle in the chest. Tears stung her eyes and she laced her arms around John, but by then he was already pulling away, wanting to get a better look at her, his face shining, and she thought he might cry.
Certainly his voice shook as he said, “Oh Marie-Noelle. I heard you would be here. Are you the only woman in attendance?”
“There are two others,” she replied. She couldn’t believe this strapping young man was John! With his short wavy black hair and that expensive suit, why, there wasn’t a more eligible man amongst the two hundred chemists gathered for the conference.
Saville, standing uncomfortably behind them for this reunion, shook his head in dismay. “It should have stayed the business of men.”
He grumblingly apologised his way past John and Marie-Noelle, notes bundled messily under his arm as he strove to leave the lecture hall as soon as possible.
“Oh dear,” said Marie-Noelle, watching him go, “perhaps he thought he’d catch something from me?”
“A brain, perhaps,” John grinned. “I was going to offer him a place with our London laboratory. But I see now his powers of deduction have been made lame by presupposition.”
Marie-Noelle slapped his arm lightly. Her heart was pure glee. Her eyes kept sliding back to John, and his to her. “He’s a brilliant chemist. You shouldn’t delay hiring him for my sake.”
Still smiling, John said, “I should hire you.”
Her glee faltered. Marie-Noelle stared at the floor a moment. It felt too cruel. She met John’s eye. “Don’t jest. You know that’s impossible.”
He flinched as if struck. That light within him went dark as he hastened to make his repairs. “The Pascal Laboratories in Paris are planning to trial women chemists next year. I’m sure we won’t be far behind. I’ve seen your work, Marie. You’re brilliant. If you had the support of a proper lab, you’d be the most renowned chemist in the world!”
Marie-Noelle’s smile was curt. “I’m already the most infamous. Nobody wants us here, John. I deal with threats every week, and that’s working for myself. I received Pascal’s offer, and I believe I’ll turn it down.”
But her joy at seeing her childhood amour was faded entirely, replaced by the bitterness that no matter how equal their minds, their bodies would always keep them separate. She drifted away from him, back into the tides of the chemists in the hall between lecture theatres, where she neither had to see him, nor entertain the painful drumming of her heart.
The conference ended and Marie-Noelle returned to her home in the south of England. She spent the two days’ journey examining the notes from the lectures and scribbling the questions and hypotheses that her sex had forbidden her from putting to the lecturers.
Much to her surprise, there was a letter waiting for her at home.
It was from John. She hadn’t seen him again at the conference; apparently he had left after seeing her, on the excuse Saville represented his entire reason for attendance. In his letter he apologised profusely and wondered if he might visit her. She returned the letter the next day saying she could entertain a guest whenever it was at his leisure to visit.
While the letter seemed acceptable when she wrote it, and posted it, she returned from the town shaking very finely, and wondering what she had done. She had work to do, and the conference meant she was already a fortnight behind. Entertaining John – even entertaining the thought of John – meant that she did approximately no work whatsoever. Days in the laboratory she had built in the lounge room of her lovely house were spent not refining a more powerful microscope, but lost in daydreams of the old days. John had helped her to build her first laboratory, when they were children, and they had used it together. What a collection of old cups and spoons it had been, as good for tea parties as science.
Marie-Noelle had thought it was that love of science, reasoning, that had formed so tight a bond between John and she. Now she rather thought she had been wrong. Perhaps it was her love of John which had cemented her interest in chemistry.
But no, she thought. Why should she be the weak one? She had been working on that lab and reading books on chemistry before she’d ever met John. Perhaps it was his affection for her that had decided his career.
These were useless thoughts and they didn’t add value to her microscope. Marie-Noelle spent some days lost in them. It was on about the fifth or sixth day that the doorbell rang, and rang again, and again, and Marie-Noelle finally heard it and sprung from the laboratory and bustled down the hallway smoothing her skirts and piling her hair atop her head.
She held open the door. Hadn’t she had a maid? Perhaps she had forgotten to rehire her after the conference; that seemed likely. She saw the man on her doorstep, looked onto the street behind him for a carriage. There was none. He wasn’t John’s butler, then. He was an odd fellow, wearing a dirty suit which had probably served his father and grandfather too, and he wore a weather-proof long coat and shady hat despite the genial day.
He grunted at her, one hand in his pocket. “Marie-Noelle Strand?”
“Yes,” she said, hesitantly, her foot retracing its last step into the hall. This wasn’t right. This wasn’t right at all. Her fingers flexed around the door handle. The man in the coat wrenched something from his pocket, something small and glass and full of clear liquid. Marie-Noelle smelled the tartness of acid in the air and turned her head away as it struck her on the face and neck and blouse. The acid bit into her, peeled the skin from flesh, the flesh from bone. Marie-Noelle was on her knees, screaming, holding the door to stay upright, to keep her head from the ground, but then the pain was too much and she slipped sideways into the hallway, curling in agony, scratching uselessly at the acid eating her face and neck, and it turned her hands too to fire.
A boot lodged itself in her stomach, once, twice. A grunt, and the man in the coat shoved Marie-Noelle onto her back and kicked her harshly in the ribs and spat on her burning face.
“Whore! You disobey the Lord’s command! Throw away your learning; writhe in the fires of agony and let your sins be cleansed!”
But he couldn’t stand to watch her face burn, and he staggered backwards from the doorstep, tripping against the wall, and then he recovered himself and ran through the garden onto the street, and away.
Marie-Noelle thought she might be screaming, or was that acid in her ears? She tried to climb to her feet, knowing that if she could get help, then she might survive, with or without her face. Vertigo stole her sense of direction and she threw up, and fell head-first onto the doorstep.
And that, mercifully, was enough to knock her unconscious.
Le Conquet, Brittany, 1889
John sat at the piano, his fingers dancing over the keys, but he hit only a few, and the song was very mild.
Marie-Noelle stood beside the grand, her saucer balanced on the lid, nursing her teacup while she watching him.
John looked up but he only saw the veil over Marie-Noelle’s face. His throat worked and he looked away.
“You can take that off, you know. You can’t drink your tea with it on.”
He hadn’t seen her face in three years. He had never come to her little house in the south of England. Nor had he visited her in hospital in London. She hadn’t let him. She was regretting letting him be here now, in her new home on the French coast, so distant from her home and everyone who had known her.
John’s hands slapped the keys. The piano jarred its frustration. John leant his elbows on the keys, cupped his mouth. Glanced at Marie-Noelle. His eyes were wet. She watched him impassively from behind her veil.
“Don’t,” she said. And the knife twisted inside her. How many months, how many years had she spent recovering from the acid attack? Half of her face, her neck and her shoulder were destroyed. She was lucky to have escaped with her life. And the looks people gave her, and their lack of understanding, and how hideous she found herself. The twisted red flesh and the distortion of the muscle, her caved cheek where the acid ate her bone. When she met her own eyes in the mirror it was as if they belonged to some wild animal chained inside her, some creature in this ugly cage of flesh.
She had never taken the job with Pascal. It had only taken them the rumours of her new face for them to revoke the offer.
“Don’t,” she said again. Pleading him.
John stood up from the piano. He took Marie-Noelle by the arm. He stared into the veil. He couldn’t see a thing beyond it; Marie-Noelle had made sure of that. When chance saw her walk into town, she did not need to be treated as a monster as well as a freak.
“Please,” he said. “Just listen.”
Marie-Noelle inhaled, exhaled, let herself be calm. She had spent three years building her defences. Now John had been here half a day and she was threatening to fall to pieces. Oh, just to have him. Just to hold him. Just to feel wanted. Just to be needed by someone again. Those idle, unwanted sentiments threatened to break her.
When she spoke, her voice was a whisper. “Speak.”
John laughed, he shivered. “I don’t know what to say. It’s been such a long time since I saw you. I wanted to speak to you at the conference, but. So much has happened since then. So much water out to sea.”
“That’s how it is, John. People change. Even you’ve changed.”
He laid his hands on Marie-Noelle’s shoulders. He brushed away the veil. She flinched, expected him to. But instead he leant and kissed her on her twisted, ruined mouth.
When at last he drew away from her, his eyes dreamy and full of love, he only said, “You haven’t.”
Just to be needed. Just to be wanted.
A moment of comfort against the dark of the night.
Did you like it, hate it? If you have a moment to spare, let me know what you thought in the comments. 🙂
Posted on November 6, 2013, in Uncategorized and tagged 1880s, alternate history, chemistry, england, france, glasgow, historical fiction, romance, short story, speculative fiction, story, vitriol attack, vitriolage, writing. Bookmark the permalink. 18 Comments.