LE CHATEAU DE GEORGE SAND

Geraldine was in France staying with her ex-husband. An odd arrangement, but so far it had worked out. He and his mistress had bought the mill a couple of years ago when property in France was cheap. It had no plumbing or sanitation or electricity and it was slowly rotting down into the river. In the night Geraldine could hear the dull warping of the boards as the dry summer air ate the damp from the timbers.

Sometimes she could also hear Paul playing. Working out some melody or other on the old Bechstein he'd brought over on a friend's truck all the way from Islington, after they'd split up. He tuned it himself, but recently either the heat or the damp had got into the hammers and some of the notes jarred even Geraldine's imperfect ear.

Other nights there would be jazz. Wild, impromptu sessions with clarinets and saxophones played by the various young men who seemed to inhabit the outhouses. She met them occasionally at meals, or on the path to the chemical toilet, hidden behind the alders on the river bank.

It was high summer. Drought. The leaves bronzing on the trees in August and the ground baked a cruel ceramic under a sky of burnished tin. The river Creuse had slowed to a slimy crawl - barely visible as movement - past the wooden jetty. A fishing dinghy dangled from a rope on the rail, but the water was too shallow to float it properly.

Where the water was deepest behind the sluice, mature trout lay on the bottom in the shadow of the wheel, perfectly balanced against the imperceptible current, and the sun-shafted air above them was stained with dragonflies of silver and lapis lazuli. Geraldine leant against the rail and watched them for an hour at a time.

Behind her she could hear Yvette screaming in the crazy mixture of English, Russian and French she used when she was angry. Then she stamped out onto the jetty, swinging the fringed Indian skirt she wore against her bare brown legs, to cast an enamel bucket on a piece of cord out into the sluice, scattering fish and dragonflies.

‘He only asked you here because you were sick,' she told Geraldine. Yvette had black hair and eyes and long slim arms where the sinews quivered beneath the skin like steel wires. Yvette was strong. She guarded Paul. Making him practice. Making him eat. Keeping the young men in their places. - He must have quiet to compose. How can he hear the notes in his head if you are here?

Did she, like Geraldine, see him leave through the open windows late at night and take the path through the alders to the outhouses. Guy, Charles, Pierre - the names rotated as they came and went. Students from the Conservatoire. Yvette must have known.

The air was sterile. Only the dust proliferated. Impossible to work.

‘Geraldine writes,' Yvette had said viciously that first evening in response to a question from one of the boys. She had made it sound like an insult, rolling the Rs against her epiglottis and spitting them out through her teeth.

She writes. Present tense. Continuous action. A lie. The portable manual typewriter she had brought with her lay zipped tight on the wobbly pine table under the round window. A new A4 pad beside it. Three pens. A still life by Bonnard. The only movement a frayed cotton curtain convulsed by the air flow.

Paul was playing again. Chopin. From the jetty Geraldine could see into the kitchen where Yvette was squatting on the floor peeling vegetables, and through the door ajar behind her she could see Paul's grey pony-tail swinging to and fro like a limp phallus as he followed the escalation of the notes.

‘Chopin irritates me,' Yvette said at lunch, delivering the consonants like olive stones. ‘He's so trivial.'

‘He composed that piece at Nohant,' Paul said, ‘When he was living with George Sand.'

‘Isn't that somewhere near here?' Guy/Charles/Pierre asked in French, suspending a knife above the smoked sausage.

‘About fifty kilometres,' Paul said. ‘But there's nothing much to see.'

‘Geraldine would like to go.' Yvette said, taunting her with her eyes.

Paul shrugged. ‘Take the Renault if you want to. Personally I think it's a rip-off.'

Soon, Geraldine thought, they would go back to Paris, to the two-roomed flat off the Rue Bourget. Paul teaching at the Conservatoire, Yvette taking casual translation jobs to pay the rent. And the beautiful young men would go back to their studies. Geraldine could see them all in her mind, perfectly placed - glimpse a window, a dust covered piano, dead flowers, a stained Indian shawl thrown across a bed.

Last night Paul had asked her if she wanted to stay on. ‘We come down sometimes at weekends,' he said, ‘But you'd have it to yourself during the week.' She thought of the cold house-share she'd been offered in Newcastle. She had no ties. People envied her. She could go anywhere.

Next day after breakfast Paul's half-brother Jonathon arrived unexpectedly from the states. He was wearing a T-shirt that played the Marseilleise which he'd bought in Paris to celebrate the millennium. It had cost him three thousand francs. Crazy, he said. Three thousand francs for a T.shirt! He was on a business trip to Europe, en route for Madrid and Lisbon. He had a bottle of Armagnac with him and two bottles of Veuves Clicquot, a pound of fresh goat's cheese, a baguette and a huge basket of fruit.

‘You don't have to worry about feeding me,' he said to Yvette. ‘This is all I want.' He'd seen the kitchen before, he told Geraldine on the jetty. He couldn't risk getting the shits. Not with an Elsan. He would stay overnight, he said, and then get the fast express from Clermont-Ferrand to Madrid. It had a restaurant, proper beds and colour TV.

Jonathon had become fatter, Geraldine observed. The skin sagged away from his jaw bone, and his stomach bore testimony to the size of his expense account. She enquired about his wife, his children. His ex-wife now, he said, and the children were in college. His hair was cut too short, she decided, and his lips were too loose, blurring the words, which also had a kind of elasticity, their meaning expanding, slipping this way and that on the dry air.

He'd been sorry about the child, he said. He'd heard about her marriage. ‘That was bad luck, two bad apples in a row.' He laughed. First his brother, then that other bastard. ‘What was his name? Colin something?' She should be more careful next time.

She should come to the states, he said. Plenty of guys there would show her a good time. ‘Good solid fellas. None of this aesthetic crap.' He made a limp-wristed gesture that seemed to include the whole of the mill and its empty granaries. Geraldine could see a ball of spit in the corner of his mouth like a spider's cocoon.

At lunch one of the floorboards gave way under the leg of the Bechstein - dissolving away to sawdust as the piano lurched sideways. ‘It's the hot summer,' Jonathon said. ‘The damp's been the only thing holding this place together.' He poked a finger here and there in the woodwork, stirring up little clouds of powdered wood.

‘It's you! You!' Yvette accused Geraldine. ‘I knew if you came something would happen.'

Paul and the boys propped up the piano temporarily on a piece of board. They would level it up later, Paul said. Yvette served a cast-iron pot of ratatouille with french bread and a bowl of fromage frais. She didn't speak at all for the rest of the meal. Didn't look at Jonathon slicing up apples and goat's cheese to put on his baguette. ‘Written any good books lately?' he quipped at Geraldine across the table.

She shook her head, feeling her lips shrivel with distaste.

‘You ought to write yourself a blockbuster,' he went on, ‘make real money.'

Paul laughed, swinging back his pony-tail. ‘You'll never get her to do that,' he said. ‘Earning money's sordid. Real writer's don't do it.'

Geraldine thought she heard Yvette murmur ‘Or real musicians', but she wasn't sure.

In the afternoon, when everyone seemed asleep, Geraldine took the keys from their peg behind the kitchen door and walked up the track to the clearing where the Renault was parked. As she fiddled with unfamiliar left-handed controls the passenger door opened and Jonathon slid into the passenger seat.

‘Yvette told me,' he said. ‘You don't mind if I go with you?' And he crossed his soft leather shoes under the dashboard.

The roads were straight and black, scribbling their way across the landscape between burnt fields and brown-paper hedgerows. The old Renault's gearbox was sloppy and she smiled to see him wince as she went accidentally from second to fifth and back to fourth. It was further than Paul had indicated - a good hour's fast driving.

And then the chateau was smaller than she’d expected. Hardly a chateau at all really, although perfectly proportioned behind the curved gateways. Inside the paint was peeling from the walls and the hallway stank of damp. ‘Just like the mill,' Jonathon said. He pointed out the huge structural cracks spidering their way across the ceilings, and in the kitchen a wooden beam had been installed as a prop.

In the dining room there was a chandelier made of pink and blue barley-sugar twists of Venetian glass. Vulgar. But then, Jonathon said, the French weren't afraid of vulgarity. Not like the English. The English were born with net curtains in their minds. That was why England was going down the pan.

The table was set for dinner, with cards written out in George Sand's handwriting. Chopin, Lizst, Musset. They’d come to eat here, sleep here. Some of them with the great Aurora herself. And Chopin had stayed for seven years. Downstairs the piano he’d played. Upstairs the bed they’d slept in together. The hangings were a rich blue, and her writing desk was lined with blue silk to match.

There were twenty or thirty other people pushing round with them. Eager for a glimpse of dirty linen, Geraldine thought, of unmade beds, semen on the sheets. That was what people came for. Not to look at the desk, or the pens she cramped in her cold fingers, writing through the night to keep herself and the children, the house, her lovers. George Sand had never had any problems with inspiration. Outside the windows it was green, untouched by drought, and the light that filtered through the trees was blue-green like the wings of dragonflies. In the tiny church outside the gates Geraldine paid five francs for a candle, spiking it onto the iron stand. Jonathon found her a match to light it. The wax was creamy and translucent like skin. ‘Didn't know you were a Catholic? Or did you just go to school with the nuns?' Jonathon asked.
v Geraldine ignored him, wishing herself alone, concentrating hard on the frail spiral of blue and yellow as the wick caught hold. Religion is a kind of voodoo, she thought. It works because you believe in it. But who do you pray to when you no longer believe in God?

On the way back Jonathon talked about Yvette. Was Geraldine aware that he'd known her before Paul did? But yes, she’d known. Paul had told her about Yvette, about Jonathon, and the mill, in the long irregular letters he sent her, written on scraps of music, old programmes, once a paper napkin with the name of some restaurant on it.

‘You should be more like Yvette,' Jonathon said. ‘You need to be tough. Now she's a real survivor.'

That night after dinner Yvette sang vocal improvisations while Paul played the piano and one of the boys the alto flute. The strange sounds floated past Geraldine as she sat in darkness at the edge of the jetty. Layers of notes twisted together in strange relationships. And she thought of George Sand, manipulating the different strands of her life.

‘Bloody awful row,' Jonathon commented from the cane chair beside the kitchen door. He turned his head away from the music. ‘Not that she can't sing when she wants to.

She used to sing in a cafe before Paul picked her up. Did I tell you about that?' He dropped his cigarette in a shower of sparks onto the boards, grinding it quickly out with his shoe. ‘I'm surprised this place hasn't gone up in smoke years ago,' he said. ‘Calor gas, candles, paraffin lamps.' He paused briefly to listen to the music.

‘I just wish he'd make something of his life,' he said, lighting another cigarette. ‘All that talent!'

In the darkness of the bedroom Geraldine watched Paul make his stealthy way along the river bank, before she climbed into bed and lay sweating between rough cotton sheets.

A long silence. And then there was a movement on the stairs outside her room, the slight contact of bare soles on wood - Yvette's laughter mingled with Jonathon's softer baritone, and then in the room above, urgent, unmistakable, orgasmic noises.

She dreamed - but it seemed real - that they’d bought pastries and fruit in Boussac and a bottle of wine for five francs. It was less than a dollar he said. The same price as the candles. They ate the picnic in a clearing off the road, signposted as a prehistoric site. The dolman, empty of bones, tilted among knee-high cow parsley and mustard grass and their flung nectarine stones skipped silently across the clearing, trimming the flower heads like pebbles over water.

‘Do you want to fuck?' he asked, when they’d drunk half the bottle of wine.

Geraldine's labia were juicy like the fruit and he sucked at them, supporting her naked buttocks with his hands. She could feel the lichen on the stones scouring her back as he pressed her down. But in the dream Jonathon's face suddenly became Yvette's. They were lying breast to breast and Geraldine could feel Yvette's hair under her fingers, springy like horsehair, and Yvette was talking to her in a mixture of Russian and French she didn't understand.

Then she was dancing naked on the wooden jetty, feeling the night breeze from the stream fingering her skin. Someone in one of the outhouses was playing the flute, very high, almost out of range. And through the open doorway she could see an upturned lamp on the piano, and paraffin flames, driven by the wind, were pouring like a river of joy across the keys.

© Kathleen Jones