The letters began arriving on her 21st birthday, light and feathery and carrying with them the scents of peaches and summer. She imagined them coming from Spain (she didn’t know for certain that they grew peaches in Spain, but she imagined that they did); from Barcelona or perhaps Madrid. Those were the only two places in Spain she knew. She carried the letters with her everywhere, a secret envelope of sunshine in her pocket that made its presence known in her smile.
The letters always came written in the same flowing hand. Always in black fountain pen. Always on cream paper. She would have written back (in childish handwriting that was round as a pudding, black biro, lined notepad paper) but there was never a return address.
On her 35th birthday, the letters changed. No longer warm and exotic, they instead started to bring a cool, dark fragrance that she came to recognise as despair. Some were carelessly splashed with wine, others burnt through on one corner from a smouldering cigarette. The acrid smoke always lingered. She read them all, when she was sober enough. When she realised that they smoked the same brand, she toasted it – this deeper bond with the unknown – in a bar somewhere near Montmartre. She never knew how she kept finding her way home.
The letters always came with a smudged postmark, and a date that was exactly thirty years before. At first she had assumed it was a mistake.
By her 50th birthday, the letters were delivering the sting of bitterness. Words whipped off the page in an orgy of self-pity; they recalled peaches and summer but couldn’t recreate them, not against the harshness of winter and their own reek of loneliness and illness. She read and re-read them alone in her apartment, eventually piling them up to gather dust in a corner. Somewhere, she had read that loneliness could be in the genes.
The letters were never signed with a name, only with an X. She never did decide if that was simply laziness, or whether it was a kiss.
On her 65th birthday, there was no letter. She knew why; it had been long enough coming. She, too, was ready.
She settled down to wait.
She could still hear Madame’s voice. It had cut across the piano like a sword; with barely a break the accompanist’s fingers had swung back to the beginning, and her feet had obediently followed. They bled. No matter, blood could be washed off. She had ached, but rest was for the weak. Over and over again. She had been young enough then for her body to still feel like a stream, flowing and bubbling to the music like the one in the mountains of Provence, and she had never stopped. Not for anyone. Not for anything. Coupés, relevés, pas de chats. She had danced even in her sleep.
From up here, she could see the Palais, a cluster of gold and rubies dropped from the black ribbon of the Seine. Half a mile of rooftops. Twenty years. If she closed her eyes, the soft, voluptuous waves of the breeze would lift her effortlessly into the pas de deux; her broken feet would spin past chimney pots and slate gutters in thirty two perfect fouetté turns and the whole city would watch, spellbound. Again. He would always catch her if she stumbled. She had bewitched him, after all, but back then she had never needed him.
She moved to the edge of the roof, and held out her arms.
Elodie Rose Barnes is an author and photographer. She can usually be found in Paris or the UK, daydreaming her way back to the 1920s, while her words live in places such as Reflex Press, Nymphs, Crêpe & Penn, Spelk, and Ellipsis Zine. Current projects include chapbooks of poetry & photography inspired by Paris, and a novel based on the life of modernist writer Djuna Barnes. Find her here, and on Twitter.
- Featured image, by Amar Saeed.