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.

 

La Vieille

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.”

“Marie…”

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.

“I’ll manage.”

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.

“Marie-Noelle-”

“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. 🙂

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About Anneque D. Machelle

Anneque "Dangerpus" Machelle (rhymes with ranger wuss) is a rebel and a rogue from way out west. Strictly banned from interactions with other human beings, she spends her days amongst molluscs, dogs and lizards, whom she counts as her closest friends.

Posted on November 6, 2013, in Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 18 Comments.

  1. Very interesting, I enjoyed this little teaser very much and am excited to see Love, Charybdis develop this month. The tone/language was spot-on, it fits perfectly with the setting. Not only do I love the scientific aspect of this, when expanded into the full Love, Charybdis I think you’ll have a great time intertwining science, romance, and a good deal of social commentary.

    Also, I don’t know if it’s just me, but there’s just something so romantic about a man named John in the 1800s. No idea why, but it fits so perfectly.

    • Thanks for the r&r 😉

      Somewhere in the realm of 50% of men were called John through much of English history. William and Charles helped make up most of the other names, and so that’s why today we end up with so many forms of John, Charles and William.

      I curse Marie-Noelle every time I need to make a chemistry reference… but then she does something sly to make me love her again. 😀

      • I love the name William. If I don’t marry a man with that name, my son will be named William.

        Marie-Noelle is such a pretty streampunk name, props on that as well.

        How is NaNoWriMo treating Love, Charybdis so far?

      • William is a lovely sounding name. I have so many protagonists with H names that my partner will have to be a Henry or a Hershel or some other H name.

        I’m glad I found a work around for using Marie-Noelle. I was almost going to call her Adelaide, but then I realised I had a character called Ruby, and having Adelaide and Ruby in an 1800s semi-romance would probably lead to me being sued by Cold Mountain.

        NaNoWriMo is being awesome ❤ Getting towards the guts of the story. Great feels.

      • One of my favorite parts of brainstorming is finding a characters name, it’s just so rewarding when you find the perfect fit. I went through a few big changes in Clarity’s character names and I look back know thinking WHY did I think that would be a good name for them? Haha

      • WHY did I think Griselda would have been a good name for Ren?
        My best one for names is Seribas from the Fallouts. He ended up with that name totally by mistake. Even worse, it was somebody else’s mistake, not mine! But in the end it suited him.

      • Evie’s name used to be Nina Madigan…I have no idea why I ever thought that would go with her lol. There were a lot of little changes that made such a huge difference in my mind. Yasmin to jasmin, Rin to Ren, Sion to Sloan.

        Seribas is a really interesting name, what nationality is that?

      • Evie is a lovely name. Nina isn’t bad, but you’re right, Evie suits her. Finn is a good name as well; all the names of the cast are quite fitting.

        Ren being called Ren is one of the reasons I read the first chapter, strangely enough. I’d just run myself out of volumes of a manga called Nana, in which Ren is one of the main characters. I wanted to read anything to fill the void, and when I saw Ren’s name it was like… it’s a sign! So perhaps there’s more to the business of names than meets the eye. 😀

        Seribas is a mispronunciation of a Greek name. The original name is spelled very differently. I heard it in a song by a band I adore and do sometimes throw bones to in the Fallouts. Once I realised the mistake, which was made by the singer, I thought about correcting it… but ended up working around it. Now the name itself is kind of a spoiler, hence the vagueness of details here.

  2. Saville’s involvement would not surprise me. The ‘two others’ at the conference with Marie-Noelle, were they attacked also?

    The attack made me angry, and the religious tones of the attacker even more so >(

    An extremely promising start. Keep up the great work =D

    • Saville does indeed seem particularly guilty. At that time in Europe, there were many such vitriol attacks, most of them crimes of passion made against women by other women. Marie-Noelle’s is the slightly unusual case in that it was fuelled by religion.

      I don’t go into other attacks on the so-called steamboat ladies, but perhaps it is worth a mention. The religious undercurrents are the driving force of the series, and Love, Charybdis in particular focusses on the marginalisation of and discrimination against women by mainstream religion.

      However… this wasn’t part of your question, but we talked a little about it before, so I’d like to clarify. In this short, Marie-Noelle is attacked by a man. In the novel, I changed it so she was attacked by a woman. It isn’t a story about men versus women. It’s a story about women versus religion. I hope that clears my name of any misanthropy.

      So perhaps, after all, it was Saville’s wife behind the attack…? And thank you!

  3. Oooo a new short story 😀 just what I need for the afternoon 😀

  4. Oh wow, how beautiful :’)

  5. An incredibly powerful snippet. You run the reader right through an incredible gamut of emotions – sympathy, outrage, sorrow, hope. Packing all that into a few thousand words is a great achievement. You also have a very definite style developing. Sentences like “That light within him went dark as he hastened to make his repairs” really struck me as something unique, a form of description I’ve never read before. I now intend to track you down on Nano!
    Also, bonus points for opening at a Scottish Uni, even if it is Glasgow and not Edinburgh! 😉

    • Thank you! It has been an interesting story to work with, being a bit shorter (particularly this piece) makes it easier to work in some nice prose. Glad it gave you the feels. That’s the great experiment with this story.

      Glasgow was quite ahead of its time in regards to women’s education. It must be that Scottish determination to ignore the flaws of the English. 😉

  6. How’s nano going? I had to skip it this year or at least push it to dec.

    • Aw, sad to hear. But taking the whole month out of other major commitments is just not easy. What have you got on that’s making it impossible?

      That said, I’ve sealed myself away in a small village in the mountains, and NaNoWriMo is going fantastically. 😀 Really enjoying the characters and the human drama, and now things are getting sinister, even better.

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