It was the first decision she had ever made on her own, the very first time she was able to determine the course of her life.
Marianne decided to die. Here and now, down below in the waters of the Seine, late on this grey day. On her trip to Paris. There was not a star in the sky, and the Eiffel Tower was but a dim silhouette in the hazy smog. Paris emitted a roar, with a constant rumble of scooters and cars and the murmur of Métro trains moving deep in the guts of the city.
The water was cool, black and silky. The Seine would carry her on a quiet bed of freedom to the sea. Tears ran down her cheeks; strings of salty tears. Marianne was smiling and weeping at the same time. Never before had she felt so light, so free, so happy. ‘It’s up to me,’ she whispered. ‘This is up to me.’
She took off the shoes she had bought fifteen years ago – the shoes she had needed to resole so many times. She had purchased them in secret and at full price. Lothar had told her off when he first found out, then gave her a dress to go with them. The dress was bought directly from a factory, and was reduced due to a weaving fault; a grey dress with grey flowers on it. She was wearing that too today.
Her final today. Time had seemed infinite when she still had many years and decades ahead of her. A book waiting to be written: as a girl, that was how she had seen her future life. Now she was sixty, and the pages were blank. Infinity had passed like one long continuous day.
She lined up the shoes neatly on the bench beside her, before having second thoughts and placing them on the ground. She didn’t want to dirty the bench – a pretty woman might get a stain on her skirt and suffer embarrassment as a result. She tried to ease off her wedding ring but didn’t succeed, so she stuck her finger in her mouth and eventually the ring came off. There was a band of white skin where it had been.
A homeless man was sleeping on a bench on the other side of the street that ran across the Pont Neuf. He was wearing a striped top, and Marianne was grateful that his back was turned.
She laid the ring beside her shoes. Someone was bound to find it and live for a few days from the proceeds of pawning it. They could buy a baguette, a bottle of pastis, some salami; something fresh, not food from the bin for once. Maybe a newspaper to keep themselves warm.
‘No more food past its sell-by date,’ she said. Lothar used to put crosses next to the special offers in the weekly newspaper inserts, the way other people ticked the TV programmes they wanted to watch. Saturday – Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? Sunday – True Detective. For Lothar it was: Monday – Angel Delight past its best-before date. They ate the items he marked.
Marianne closed her eyes. Lothar Messmann, ‘Lotto’ to his friends, was an artillery sergeant major who looked after his men. He and Marianne lived in a house in a cul-de-sac in Celle, Germany, with a lattice fence that ran along the side of the turning bay.
Lothar looked good for his age. He loved his job, loved his car and loved television. He would sit on the sofa with his dinner tray on the wooden coffee table in front of him, the remote control in his left hand, a fork in his right, and the volume turned up high, as an artillery officer needed it to be.
‘No more, Lothar,’ whispered Marianne. She clapped her hands to her mouth. Might someone have overheard her?
She unbuttoned her coat. Maybe it would keep someone else warm, even if she had mended the lining so often that it had become a crazy multicoloured patchwork. Lothar always brought home little hotel shampoo bottles and sewing kits from his business trips to Bonn and Berlin. The sewing kits contained black, white and red thread.
Who needs red thread? thought Marianne as she began to fold up the light-brown coat, edge to edge, the way she used to fold Lothar’s handkerchiefs and the towels she ironed. Not once in her adult life had she worn red. ‘The colour of whores,’ her mother had hissed. She had slapped Marianne when she was eleven for coming home in a red scarf she had picked up somewhere. It had smelled of floral perfume.
Earlier that evening, up in Montmartre, Marianne had seen a woman crouching down over the gutter. Her skirt had ridden up her legs, and she was wearing red shoes. When the woman stood up, Marianne saw that the make-up around her bloodshot eyes was badly smeared. ‘Just a drunken whore,’ someone in the tour party had remarked. Lothar had restrained Marianne when she made to go over to the woman. ‘Don’t make a laughing stock of yourself, Annie.’
Lothar had stopped her from helping the woman and tugged her into the restaurant where the coach tour organisers had booked them a table. Marianne had glanced back over her shoulder until the French tour guide said, with a shake of her head, ‘Je connais la chanson – the same old story, but she can only blame herself.’ Lothar had nodded, and Marianne had imagined herself crouching there in the gutter. A need for escape had been building in her for some time, but that was the last straw – and now she was standing here.
She had left even before the starter had arrived, because she could no longer bear to sit there and say nothing. Lothar hadn’t noticed; he was caught up in the same conversation he had been having for the past twelve hours with a cheerful widow from Burgdorf. The woman kept squeaking, ‘That’s amazing!’ to whatever Lothar said. Her red bra was showing through her white blouse.
Marianne hadn’t even been jealous, just weary. Many women had succumbed to Lothar’s charms over the years. Marianne had left the restaurant and had drifted further and further until she found herself standing in the middle of the Pont Neuf.
Lothar. It would have been easy to blame him, but it wasn’t that straightforward.
‘You’ve only got yourself to blame, Annie,’ whispered Marianne.
She thought back to her wedding day in May forty-one years ago. Her father had watched, propped on his walking stick, as she had waited hour after hour in vain for her husband to ask her to dance.
‘You’re resilient, my girl,’ he had said in a strained voice, weak from cancer. She had stood there freezing in her thin white dress, not daring to move a muscle. She hadn’t wanted it all to turn out to be a dream and come grinding to a halt if she made a fuss.
‘Promise me you’ll be happy,’ her father had asked her, and Marianne had said yes. She was nineteen. Her father died two days after the wedding.
That promise had proved to be one big lie.
Marianne shook the folded coat, flung it to the ground and trampled on it. ‘No more! It’s all over! It’s over!’ She felt brave as she stamped on the coat one last time, but her exhilaration subsided as quickly as it had come. She picked up the coat and laid it on the arm of the bench.
Only herself to blame.
There was nothing more she could take off. She didn’t own any jewellery or a hat. She had no possessions apart from her shabby handbag containing a Paris guidebook, a few sachets of salt and sugar, a hairclip, her identity card and her coin purse. She placed the bag next to the shoes and the ring. Then she began to clamber onto the parapet.
First she rolled onto her tummy and pulled her other leg up, but she nearly slid back down. Her heart was pounding, her pulse was racing and the rough sandstone scraped her knees. Her toes found a crack, and she pushed herself upwards. She’d made it. She sat down and swung her feet over the other side.
Now she simply had to push off and let herself fall. She couldn’t possibly mess this up.
Marianne thought of the mouth of the Seine near Honfleur, through which her body would sail after drifting past locks and riverbanks and then float out to sea. She imagined the waves spinning her around, as if she were dancing to a tune that only she and the sea could hear. Honfleur, Erik Satie’s birthplace. She loved his music; she loved all kinds of music. Music was like a film that she watched on the back of her closed eyelids, and Satie’s music conjured up images of the sea, even though she had never been to the seaside.
‘I love you, Erik, I love you,’ she whispered. She had never spoken those words to any man other than Lothar. When had he last told her that he loved her? Had he ever told her?
Marianne waited for fear to come, but it didn’t.
Death is not free. Its price is life. What’s my life worth?
A bad deal for the devil. He’s only got himself to blame.
She hesitated as she braced her hands hard against the stone parapet and slid forward, suddenly thinking of an orchid she had found among the rubbish many months ago. She’d spent half a year tending and singing to it, but now she would never see it flower. Then she pushed off with both hands.
Her jump became a fall, and falling forced her arms above her head. As she fell into the wind, she thought of the life insurance policy and how it would not pay out for a suicide. A loss of 124,563 euros. Lothar would be beside himself.
A good deal after all.
With this in mind, she hit the ice-cold Seine with a sense of joyous abandon that faded into profound shame as she sank and her grey flowery dress enveloped her head. She tried desperately to pull down the hem so no one would see her bare legs, but then she gave up and spread her arms, opened her mouth wide and filled her lungs with water.
Dying was like floating. Marianne leaned back. It was so wonderful. The happiness didn’t stop, and you could swallow it. She gulped it down.
See, Dad. A promise is a promise.
She saw an orchid, a purple bloom, and everything was music. When a shadow bent over her, she recognised death. It wore her own face at first, the face of a girl grown old – a girl with bright eyes and brown hair.
Death’s mouth was warm. Then its beard scratched her, and its lips pressed repeatedly on hers. Marianne tasted onion soup and red wine, cigarettes and cinnamon. Death sucked at her. It licked her; it was hungry. She struggled to break free.
Two strong hands settled on her bosom. Feebly she tried to force open the cold fingers that, little by little, were cracking open her chest. A kiss. Cold seeped into her throat. Marianne opened her eyes wide, her mouth gaped and she spewed out dark, dirty water. She reared up with a long moan, and as she gasped for air, the pain hit her like a keen blade, slicing her lungs to shreds. And so loud! Everything was so loud!
Where was the music? Where was the girl? Where was the happiness? Had she spat it out?
Marianne slumped back onto the hard ground. Death hit her in the face. She stared up into two sky-blue eyes, coughed and fought for air. Feebly she raised her arm and gave death a limp slap.
Death talked to her insistently – asking a series of quick-fire questions as he pulled her into a sitting position. Marianne gave him another slap. He struck back immediately, but not so hard this time. No, in fact he caressed her cheek.
She raised her hands to her face. How had this come to be?
‘How?’ Her voice was a muffled croak.
It was so cold. And this roaring noise! Marianne looked left, then right, then at her hands, which had turned green from clutching the damp grass. The Pont Neuf was only a few yards away. She was lying beside a tent on the Rive Droite, and the hum of Paris filled the air. And she was not dead. Not. Dead. Her stomach hurt, as did her lungs. Everything hurt, even her hair, which dangled wet and heavy on her shoulders. Her heart, her head, her soul, her belly, her cheeks – everything ached.
‘Not dead?’ she spluttered in despair.
The man in the striped top smiled, but then his smile faded behind a cloud of anger. He pointed to the river, tapped his forehead with his finger and gestured at his bare feet.
‘Why?’ She wanted to scream at him, but her voice disintegrated into a hoarse whisper. ‘Why did you do it?’
He raised his arms above his head to illustrate a dive, and pointed to Marianne, the Seine and himself. He shrugged, as if to say, What else could I do?
‘I had . . . a reason, many reasons! You had no right to steal my death from me. Are you God? No, you can’t be or else I’d be dead!’
The man stared at her from under thick black eyebrows as if he understood. He pulled his wet top over his head and wrung it out.
His eyes settled on the birthmark on Marianne’s left breast, which was visible through the buttons of her dress that had come undone. His eyebrows shot up in surprise. Panic-stricken, she pulled at her dress with one hand. For her whole life she had hidden the ugly birthmark – a rare pigment disorder, shaped like fiery flames – under tightly buttoned blouses and high necklines. She only ever went swimming at night, when no one could see her. Her mother had called the birthmark ‘a witch’s mark’, and Lothar had called it ‘a thing of the devil’. He had never touched it and had always closed his eyes when they were intimate.
Then she noticed her bare legs. She tried desperately to tug down the wet hem of her dress and simultaneously do up the buttons to cover her chest. She knocked away the man’s hand as he offered to help her to her feet, and stood up. She smoothed her dress, which clung heavily to her body. Her hair smelled of brackish water. She staggered uncertainly towards the wall of the embankment. Too low. Too low to throw herself off. She would hurt herself but wouldn’t die.
‘Madame!’ the man begged in a firm voice, and reached out to her again. She rebuffed his hand once more and, eyes closed, swung wildly at his face and his arms, but her fists encountered only air. Then she kicked out, but he avoided her blows without retreating. Onlookers must have thought they were lovers performing a tragicomic dance.
‘Mine!’ she yelled with each kick. ‘My death was mine and no one else’s. You had no right to steal it from me!’
‘Madame!’ he said again, encircling Marianne with both arms.
He held her tight until she stopped kicking and finally leaned, exhausted, against his shoulder. He brushed the hair from her face with fingertips as rough as straw. He smelled of sleepless nights and the Seine, and of apples lying in the warm sun on a wooden shelf. He began to rock her in his arms. She had never been rocked so softly before. Marianne began to weep. She hid herself in the stranger’s arms, and he continued to hold her as she wept for her life and for her death.
‘Mais non, non.’ The man pushed her away a little, lifted her chin and said, ‘Come with me.’
He pulled her after him. Marianne felt unbelievably weak, and the rough stones hurt her bare feet. Refusing to let go of her hand, the man drew her up the slope to the Pont Neuf.
When they reached the bridge, the stranger shooed away a couple of tramps who were inspecting two pairs of shoes: Marianne’s pumps and a mismatched pair of men’s boots. One of the homeless men was clutching Marianne’s coat to his chest, while the other one, who was wearing a woolly hat, pulled a face as he bit her wedding ring. The taller of the two took out a mobile phone, while the smaller one held out the ring to Marianne.
Now Marianne began to tremble. The shivers rose up from the depths of her body and swept through her veins. She knocked the ring out of the tramp’s hand and attempted to climb onto the parapet again, but the three men jumped forward as one to restrain her. In their eyes Marianne saw pity, and a fear of being accused of something.
‘Get your hands off me!’ she shouted. None of them slackened his grip, and reluctantly she allowed them to guide her to the bench. The taller man laid his heavy coat around her shoulders, and the other scratched his hat and then knelt down to dry her feet with the sleeves of his jacket.
Her saviour was making a phone call. The other homeless men sat down on the bench next to Marianne. They held her hands gently as she tried to bite her nails. One of them bent forward and placed her wedding ring in the empty nest formed by her palms.
She stared at the dull golden band. She had worn it for forty- one years. She had only ever removed it once – temporarily – on her fortieth wedding anniversary. That day she had ironed her grey flowery dress and copied a chignon from a three-month-old magazine she had pulled out of a recycling bin. She had dabbed on a little Chanel perfume, a sample from the same discarded magazine. The perfume had a floral fragrance, and she’d wished she had owned a red scarf. Then she opened a bottle of champagne and waited for her husband to come home.
‘What do you think you’re doing?’ was Lothar’s first question. She gave him a twirl and handed him a glass. ‘To us,’ she said.
‘To forty years of marriage.’ He had taken a sip and then looked past her to the table where the open bottle stood. ‘That is an expensive bottle of champagne. Really?’
‘It’s our wedding anniversary.’
‘That’s still no reason to splash out. You can’t just spend my money like that.’
She hadn’t wept right then. She never wept in front of Lothar, only in the shower where he couldn’t see.
His money. She would have loved to earn her own money. She’d worked hard, though; by God she’d worked hard. Recently she had volunteered at a hospice. Her first job had been on her mother’s farm in Wendland, then as a midwife alongside her grandmother, and finally as a housekeeper, where she had actually earned a small salary, until Lothar had married her and barred her from running other people’s households as she had to run his.
She’d been Lothar’s cleaner, his cook, his gardener and his spouse. She’d nursed her own mother, who had lived with them for many years before the old lady had eventually died on Marianne’s forty-second birthday. Until then, Marianne had almost only ever left the house to go shopping – on foot, because Lothar had banned her from taking the car. Her mother had a number of health issues – she often wet the bed – but she could still insult Marianne every day, and Lothar increasingly spent his evenings at the barracks or went out on his own. He wrote his wife postcards from his holidays and sent his love to his mamushka.
Marianne dropped the ring. At the same moment she heard a siren and shut her eyes until the shrill sound drew closer through the city’s winding streets and right up in front of her. The homeless men retreated from the pulsing blue light, and when two paramedics and a small woman carrying a case rushed towards them, the man in the striped top stepped forward, pointed to Marianne, motioned to the Seine and tapped his head again.
He thinks I’m mad, thought Marianne.
She tried to force the same smile she had been giving Lothar for decades. ‘You’re much prettier when you smile,’ he had said after their first date. He was the first man ever to call her pretty, in spite of her birthmark and in spite of everything else.
She wasn’t mad, no. And she wasn’t dead.
She gazed over at the man who had pulled her out of the Seine without her consent. He was the madman. He was mad enough to assume that one only had to survive to thrive.
She let the paramedics strap her to the stretcher. As they lifted her up and rolled her towards the open doors of the ambulance, the stranger with the sky-blue eyes clasped Marianne’s hand. His hand felt warm and familiar. Marianne caught a glimpse of herself reflected in his big dark pupils. She saw her pale eyes, which had always struck her as being too big; her nose, which was too small; her heart-shaped face, and her grey-brown hair. When she opened her hand, her wedding ring lay on her palm.
‘I’m sorry for all the trouble,’ she said, but he shook his head.
‘Excusez-moi,’ she added.
‘Il n’y a pas de quoi,’ he said earnestly, patting his chest with his palm. ‘Vous avez compris?’ he asked.
Marianne smiled. Whatever he was saying, he must be right.
‘Je m’appelle Eric.’ He handed Marianne’s bag to the paramedic. I’m Marianne, she wanted to say, but thought better of it. It was enough that he could tell his friends that he’d fished a madwoman out of the water. What good was a name? Names meant nothing.
She reached for Eric’s hand. ‘Please. Please keep it,’ she said. He stared at the ring as she returned it to him. The doors of the ambulance closed.
‘I hate you, Eric,’ murmured Marianne, and it was as if she could still feel his rough but gentle fingers caressing her cheek.
Marianne lay on the stretcher; the straps cut into her skin during the drive. The paramedic prepared a syringe and pricked a vein in the crook of her arm. Then he took out a second needle and pushed it into the back of her hand before attaching it to an intravenous drip.
‘I’m sorry they had to call you out for me,’ whispered Marianne, gazing into the paramedic’s brown eyes. The man glanced quickly away. ‘Je suis allemande,’ mumbled Marianne. I am German.
‘Allemande.’ It sounded like ‘almond’.
The paramedic laid a blanket over her and began to dictate a report, his words taken down by a young assistant with a beard. The strong tranquilliser began to take effect.
‘I’m an almond,’ mumbled Marianne before falling asleep.
Excerpted with permission from The Little French Bistro © 2017 by Nina George. Published by Crown, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC.