AFTER 45 years, two old friends meet again – and recall the man who brought them together in this extract from Maggie Ritchie’s debut novel
South of France, September 1929
I had searched for Camille for forty years. Now I was scared of what I would find. I had always believed we would meet again, but not like this.
As the train carried me through France towards my old friend, my thoughts were full of the past we had shared.
We were going to be great artists and live only for art and love. I smiled at my reflection in the carriage window as late summer wheatfields streaked past. We had been so young then, with no idea of what lay before us. My dreams had long ago been pushed aside by motherhood, and love had become as worn and comfortable as the sheets on my marriage bed. I looked across at my husband. He smiled at me and returned to his paper, and I went back to looking out the window, and remembering.
Camille. It had taken years to track her down, and then, a few months ago, a letter written in her hand arrived. She had not been ill, as I had been told, but locked away in a lunatic asylum. I squeezed my eyes shut so I could no longer see my reflection. Oh, Camille! Never, even in your darkest nightmares, could you have imagined this horrible fate.
The train slowed and the sign for Montfavet moved into the window. I twisted my gloves in my hands and watched the guard lift down our cases. I would see her again, in a matter of hours. Suddenly, I didn’t want to get off the train. My husband put out his hand and I took it, grateful now that he had insisted on coming with me.
We stopped at our hotel to wash and eat, but the coffee was sour on my stomach and I couldn’t force down the omelette they brought to our room. My husband spoke to the concierge about a car and a driver and within what seemed like minutes, we had arrived at the Asyl de Montdevergues, an austere building on a windswept hill above the village of Montfavet.
I stood in front of the asylum gates and tried not to look at the towering walls. A gusting wind tugged at my hat as if it wanted to rip it off and fling it into the valley below. In the gunmetal sky, a hawk rode the currents close enough for me to see its wingtips ruffling. I felt in my pocket for the letter that had brought me to this desolate place. It was dog-eared now and Camille’s scrawl was blurred in places from my tears. I leaned my clammy forehead against the gate and wondered what awaited me. Camille had spent fifteen years locked up behind these walls. Fifteen years! Afraid I would be sick, I grasped an iron bar.
My husband called from the car: ‘Jessie, are you all right?’
I turned and waved at him to stay where he was but he was already opening the door and getting out. He put his arm around me and I buried my face in the familiar warmth.
‘You can’t go in there alone, I’ll come with you,’ he said, but I shook my head.
‘No, we parted so bitterly, I need to see her on my own.’
His arm tightened around my shoulders. ‘But you don’t know what you’ll find – I’ve told you, these places can be upsetting.’
The nausea that had swept over me earlier had gone. I turned to face him in the buffeting wind and spoke calmly. ‘Camille has endured this horror for years, I only have to bear it for a few hours.’ I patted his lapels, a wifely gesture. I had known him most of my life. I felt a rush of tenderness towards him and kissed him on the mouth. ‘Thank you for coming with me so far, but I’ll be all right on my own now. I’m her friend and I have to help her. Camille doesn’t belong here. You read her letter, I have to help her.’
He moved towards the car. ‘Well, if you’re sure, Jess.’ He paused before getting in. ‘But be careful. You know how volatile she always was. She’ll be worse now she’s ill. And I wouldn’t be too ready to believe she doesn’t belong here.’ A wave of fury surged through me, staining my neck crimson. He knew how much Camille meant to me. I took measured breaths and fought to control my temper.
The wind whipped a strand of hair over my face and I had to raise my voice to be heard. ‘You never liked her.’
‘No, I can’t say I did.’ He studied me for a moment. ‘And you know why. Camille Claudel didn’t deserve your friendship. None of them did.’ He closed the door.
I walked towards the car and he wound down the window. I relented. He was only trying to protect me, like always. I touched his dear face. ‘Darling, can’t you forgive her, after all these years? I have.’
‘No, I’m afraid I can’t. I can’t forgive what she did to you. What they did to you. And I don’t like all this raking over the past. No good will come of it.’
He spoke to the driver and the car moved off with a crunch of wheels and a cloud of dust. When it had disappeared around a bend, I pulled my coat tight around my neck and rang the bell. It was time to see Camille.
SCOTSMAN TABLET AND MOBILE APPS
I WAS shown into a small, stuffy waiting room crammed with mismatched furniture. I sat down on a sagging armchair and waited. In the silence, my head filled with sounds from the past: the clatter and hum of a café, the haunting song of a chanteuse, Camille laughing softly in my ear while a man’s hand kept mine captive under the table. A shaft of sunlight broke through the tall windows and fell across my lap and for a moment I was back in a Paris studio where dust motes swirled lazily in a sunbeam and two young women bent over their work, their hands covered in wet clay. I took off my gloves and looked at my hands. They were crosshatched with age now, the knuckles bony lumps that ached in the chilly room.
Someone coughed and I looked up, startled to see a figure standing in the doorway. The light was streaming in from behind and I couldn’t make out more than the hunched silhouette of an old woman. She stepped forward and I made out her features. Hollowed eyes and a mouth scored into a downturn of despair. Her hair was sparse and white under a hat that was so misshapen that it would have been comical in another setting, and she wore an overcoat that swamped her over a long, stained skirt in the pre-war style. I smiled with relief: they had obviously brought the wrong patient to see me. Camille was a little younger than me and this woman was clearly in her eighties. I was about to say so to the orderly who stood behind her when the woman shuffled towards me and lifted her chin to stare into my eyes. She was so changed, so horribly, desperately, sadly changed, I wouldn’t have recognised her if it hadn’t been for her eyes, dark blue like the night sky over Paris.
Camille opened her ruined mouth and out of it came a mumble I struggled to understand. My French, once the language of my dreams, had become rusty over the years.
‘I’m sorry, what did you say?’
She clicked her tongue in irritation and moved closer. I’m ashamed to say I took a step back.
‘Who are you? What do you want?’ she rasped. Her eyes, her once beautiful eyes, narrowed and she spat at my feet. ‘He sent you, isn’t it so? That son of a whore! I know who you are – you’re one of Rodin’s spies. You can’t fool me, moi que je suis Camille Claudel.’ She banged her chest with her fist and planted it on her hip in a gesture so familiar it made me want to weep.
I reached out to her as if to implore her to come back to me. ‘Camille, it’s me, Jessie. Don’t you remember me? The studio in Paris?’
She scowled and once again I caught a glimpse of the Camille I had known more than forty years ago.
‘YOU can’t be Jessie; she is pretty with skin like a peach and hair like bronze with the fire from the forge reflected in it. You, you are not my Jessie...’ Camille was pointing at me when she caught sight of her hand, as I had earlier. She studied the fingers for a moment, as if this old woman’s claw did not belong to her. When she lifted her eyes to me, they were clouded with tears. ‘Excuse me, Madame, I am confused sometimes.’ She folded her hands in front of her. ‘What did you say your name was?’
My throat was heavy and I had to cough before I could speak. ‘Jessie, you knew me as Jessie Lipscomb. I wrote to you and told you I was coming. Don’t you remember?’
She frowned. ‘I knew a Jessie once, an English girl, a good friend, my best friend. But I lost her. We fought and I lost her. I wonder what became of her. If only she were here now. I am so alone, I have been alone for so long.’ She hid her face in her hands and began to cry.
I crossed the room in two paces and took her hands. They had always been calloused and scarred, strong sculptor’s hands, but now they were soft, the bones as fragile as those of a bird. I put my arms around her and felt how thin she had become; it was like holding a ghost.
‘Hush now, hush my darling, don’t take on so,’ I murmured. I’d comforted her like this once before, a lifetime ago, and it must have been this that jolted her memory at last. Like a blind man, she touched my face, tracing the contours as Rodin had taught us.
‘Jessie Lipscomb from Peterborough – it is you! Ma petite anglaise.’ She stroked my cheek with papery fingers and the hole in my heart that had pained me for all these years finally closed over.
She put her fingers to her mouth and her eyes widened. ‘But Jessie, what has happened? You look absolutely terrible!’
I laughed with relief to hear her sounding more like the Camille I remembered. ‘Forty-five years has happened to me, that’s what!’
She laid her head on my shoulder and sighed. ‘I can’t believe it is really you.’
‘Nor I you.’ I tightened my arms around her and we stood like that together, bathed in sunlight.
When she spoke, her voice was dreamy, like a child getting ready for sleep. ‘So many years I’ve been here! I can escape this nightmare only by going into the past. When I can’t bear it here, I close my eyes and I am in Paris again.’ She lifted her head and looked at me. ‘Jessie, do you remember the first time we met?’
‘I do, my darling, as if it were yesterday.’
But it was the day I met Rodin that came back to me – a memory I’d kept alive over the years, revisiting it during stolen moments alone like a miser crowing over a prized nugget of gold.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Maggie Ritchie graduated with distinction from the University of Glasgow’s MLitt in Creative Writing.
She was the winner of the 2012 Curtis Brown Prize, runner-up for the Sceptre Prize 2012 and longlisted in the Mslexia First Novel Competition 2014 for Paris Kiss, a fictionalised biography of the French sculptor Camille Claudel, who had a scandalous affair with Rodin. Paris Kiss is her first novel, from which this is an extract. It is published this month by Saraband.
A freelance journalist, Maggie lives in Glasgow with her husband and their eight-year-old son.