Hello, my friend (short fiction).
A story about the impact childhood friends have throughout our lives.
1000 Day MFA: Week Eight.
Hello, my friend.
“If I could take this for him, I would”.
Practical Simone sighed.
“Honestly Mama, anybody would think that he was the first boy to have his appendix removed. It is a very routine procedure nowadays. Marcel is going to be just fine”.
Claudia’s blue eyes were wide with worry.
“When I spoke to him on the phone last night he was fretting, and that was before he was admitted into the ward. I can only imagine what Marcel is feeling now”.
“It is nothing that he cannot handle”, Simone insisted. Claudia was unconvinced. Though she understood Simone’s point of view, she did not agree that pretending everything was going to be okay was the answer. Her grandson was only six and Claudia could not help but worry, so much so that she had caught the first flight back into London just to be with him. Marcel needed her help and she was not going to leave the hospital before doing everything in her power to make everything better.
Marcel smelt the waft of lavender perfume from around the corner of his ward. He forgot about his stomachache, and was soothed by the memories of bonbons, being told stories, the quaint little house by the river and the woman residing there who loved him very much.
Grand-mère Claudia, enchanted by her grandson’s beaming smile, raced over to his bedside to give him a hug.
“You’re here! You’re home! I’ve missed you, grand-mère, so so much. How was your trip?”
Grand-mère Claudia took great delight in telling him about her latest jaunt to Paris. Ever since moving to London, after the death of Grand-père Henri, Claudia made a point of visiting her birthplace once a year. As she recounted her adventures with her two childhood friends, Babette and Suzanne, she smiled as Marcel’s dark eyes grew wider and wider. The boy had always been fascinated with France. He listened with rapt attention, only interrupting occasionally to ask “have I been there?” When Marcel was four, he and Simone had been able to come along for a visit. He had loved exploring this pretty city and finding surprises around every corner. Especially he had loved the street performers, with their bright costumes. Their antics and tricks had been so amazing that Marcel still remembered them fondly.
At last, Claudia forced herself to shift the focus back onto him.
“So how are you feeling, Marcel?”
As she feared, the question upset him greatly. His coal coloured eyes, puffy from crying were now lost in serious thought. The boy scrunched himself up in bed, his hands cradling his knees and nauseous stomach. He was desperate for relief, from his worries as well as his pain. As Claudia had feared, he was terrified.
“Maybe another visitor will cheer you up. I came across somebody when I was away who would love to meet you”.
“Really? Did they really come all the way from Paris just to see me? Who is it?”
Grand-mère shook her head and gave her grandson a mysterious smile.
“He is waiting inside of my handbag”.
Marcel eagerly tore the gold tissue paper away from his present. Inside was a cream coloured box.
“Marcel, I would like for you to meet Monsieur Heureux”.
Marcel unwrapped the cellophane and pulled out a Harlequin doll. He smiled as he brushed his fingers over the bright, sequined costume; half red and half gold. Moving upwards, he felt the smooth white paint of his complexion. Taking in Heureux’s bright, beady gaze and shy smile, Marcel smiled too. Lastly the boy gave the doll a little shake. He chuckled as the four bells dangling from the doll’s hat jingled.
“You haven’t even seen the best part yet”, Claudia prompted. She reached out so that she could turn Heureux around. Stuck out of his back was a golden key. After giving it a good crank, she turned the doll around so that he could perform.
Heureux sprung to life. His eyes opened wide and then closed again.His smile grew bigger too. Amidst the sound of circus music, he let out an infectious giggle. Knowing what was going to happen next, Claudia placed him upon Marcel’s serving table. The gears inside of Heureux whirred and clicked until the unexpected lift off. The clown raised its hands and then rolled onto its head. After hovering in that position for a moment, he completed a most spectacular front flip.
Marcel roared with laughter and clapped. He watched eagerly until Heureux ran out of power and then had a go at turning the key. The second performance was just as delightful as the first.
Head over heels in love with his present, Marcel held Heureux up to his nose in order to examine him. Giving him a squeeze, he was delighted to find the padding underneath the clockwork soft enough to hug.
“Do you still remember how to say hello in French?”
Marcel nodded. Of course he remembered. He had loved saying the phrase so much during their trip together that Claudia had called him her little parrot.
“Bonjour, mon ami”.
It was Claudia’s turn to clap.
“Bon. Bravissimo Marcel.I can tell that he is just as happy to make your acquaintance too”.
Grand-mère Claudia stayed with her grandson as long as she could. At last, she was directed to the waiting room by a nurse. Marcel’s surgery was scheduled within the hour. Claudia got to her feet and gave him a kiss. Her heart leapt with worry as she felt the fever through his skin.
“Have I chosen a good protector for you, mon cher?”.
Claudia knew she was at risk of fussing but she just had to know that Marcel was going to be okay.
“Monsieur Heureux can keep you entertained until your surgery. He can keep you company the whole time and watch over you when you go to sleep”.
Claudia got her answer when she was pulled into a fierce hug. She and Heureux had made all of the difference in the world.
“Marcel, the trailer is here. Finish up with those boxes and then bring them downstairs”.
“Okay, Mum. I will be there in a minute”.
Simone greeted her brother, Adrian, and then patiently waited. As to be expected, when kept waiting Simone’s patience ran out, fast.
“What is keeping that boy? Wait here, Adrian. I will come and chase him down”.
Adrian nodded and smiled. He did not mind waiting in the least. At least it was his nephew and not himself who was about to be the target of Simone’s fury.
Simone stormed up the stairs and entered Marcel’s room. Sitting amongst open boxes, he was staring sentimentally at some old art prints and not packing at all.
“Honestly Marcel. You have barely started”.
Marcel turned to his mother and gave her a cheeky grin.
“You were the one who asked me to clear out my things, remember? I don’t see why I must be made to throw out so much when you are still going to be living here. Can’t you just store my belongings while I am away at college? Wouldn’t that be easier?”
“Easier for you, maybe. You and I both know if we don’t do this now then it will never get done. You’re a bowerbird, Marcel, always bringing home the strangest things for your art. Half of it you never touch and none of it ever gets thrown away. This is getting done now, by your selection now or all in one go after you are out of the country.
Marcel paled. He would not put it past his mother to torch all of his belong in his absence.
“Very well then”, he sighed and picked up the pace. While he saw the beauty, or the story behind everything that he sorted, Marcel tried him best to be ruthless and throw out as much as he could. Having disappeared to fetch Adrian some tea, Simone returned just in time to hear Marcel laugh.
“Bonjour, mon ami”.
Simone wrinkled her nose. Some water had obviously gotten into Monsieur Heureux’s padding. The doll stunk like a soggy dog’s blanket.
“Marcel, really? Don’t you think you have outgrown that toy? It would be one thing if he was a well kept antique but he looks like one of those horror clowns. Toss him away and get on with the sorting. You are keeping your uncle waiting”.
Marcel brushed his fingers across the faded harlequin outfit, taking out a couple of loose sequin casualties along the way. He felt the cracks in his complexion but was pleased to find his faded smile retained its sweetness. It did not matter that one of his eyes did not close properly. Though the bells were a little rusty, they still jingled. When Marcel turned the key, Heureux laughed as cheerfully as the day they had met. He even attempted to do a handstand, though this time the poor clown got stuck on his head. Marcel laughed. He could forgive his friend for not making a successful flip in his old age.
“Marcel”, Simone called impatiently. Marcel flinched, stood up, and then opened up his suitcase ready for Art College. Making a nest out of his clothes, he wrapped the doll safely inside.
“Bon voyage, Heureux. It’s time to take you home”.
Grand-mère Claudia was a sight when she got off the train. Channeling Audrey Hepburn she was wearing pearls, long gloves and a fashionable pair of sunglasses along with her sleek new dress. Marcel waved. Claudia spotted him and enthusiastically waved back. As was the ritual between them now, Claudia look up at her grandson and reached for the top of his head. For the first time she was not able to do it.
“When did you get so tall?” she marveled, still remembered him as a tiny six year old in that hospital bed.
Marcel responded with the usual: a shrug and the reply that he was a growing boy.
Claudia shook her head for that was no longer true. At eighteen years old, Marcel was no longer a boy.
She rubbed her hands together with delight.
“Do you remember the last time that we were here together? You were thirteen and I took you to every gallery we could find within Paris? This time is going to be better. I cannot wait to introduce you to some belles femmes. The French ladies are just going to eat you up”.
Flabbergasted Marcel nearly dropped Claudia’s suitcases. He laughed, half with amusement and half with genuine concern. It seemed like he had gained himself a wingman and it was his eighty-six year old grandmother!
Later that afternoon, Marcel took his grand-mère for a stroll amongst the Seine. All was peaceful, until Claudia suddenly exclaimed: “ Look, Marcel. We must go and see!”. Taking off with a speed Marcel did not know she still possessed, she led him over to a cafè. When they sat down Marcel understood why she had been so enthusiastic. Sitting here they had a gorgeous view of the bustling street. On one corner was an artist, decorating the pavement with his colourful chalk drawings. On the other was a mime with a white painted face, entertaining the growing crowd with his silent antics. Marcel smiled and tapped his art case. He had planned on surprising her later but this moment was too perfect.
“I’ve brought somebody here to see you, grand-mère”.
When Claudia saw Monsieur Heureux appear from the case, she chuckled. How wonderful.
“You’re looking quite dapper in your old age”, she complemented the gentleman. “With a lick of paint and a new suit I am certain you will pull up as good as new”.
“I’m glad that you think so too”, Marcel remarked. Though he had moved past playing with toys, he was still moved by this gift. Pleased that he had made Claudia smile, he started to put Heureux back inside of his case.
“Is he still able to perform?”
Marcel looked at her and was amazed by Claudia’s hopeful expression. It seemed she shared the same enthusiasm for toys as a little kid.
He handed Heureux over and told her of classmate, Gideon. The lad had an incredible knack at fixing machines and using them as a part of his sculptures. Having spotted the harlequin on Marcel’s he had offered to replace Heureux’s padding and fix up the gears for free. Thanks to Gideon, the harlequin was in terrific condition.
“Would you like to do the honors?”
Delighted, Claudia turned the key. Placing the performer in the middle of their table, the clown cheerfully performed flip after flip without stopping.
This amazing performance was interrupted by an unexpected round of applause.
“C’est magnifique. What a wonderful performance. Wherever did you find such a delightful toy, madam?”
Claudia smiled at the stunningly pretty waitress.
“That’s a question you will have to ask my handsome, grandson. His name is Marcel”.
“Grand-mère!”, Marcel hushed her. Thankfully instead of being scared away, the waitress was charmed.
“My name is Juliet. It is lovely to meet you, Marcel”.
Marcel smiled and mumbled a quick bonjour before clamming up.
Marcel was flung out of his shy silence, startled by Claudia clearing her throat, very loudly. Any concern he had disappeared when she read the wickedly determined look in her eyes. If he did not make a move quickly, she was going to make it for him.
“I..I don’t suppose you have time to have some tea with us?”
Inwardly Claudia groaned. If there had been any doubt that the boy was English, it was now confirmed. She started to think of how to salvage this situation, just as Juliet was blushing.
“My break is in ten minutes. If it is really alright, I would love to join you. My grand-père made his living fixing watches and making all sorts of clockwork toys. I would love to find out more about this wonderful creation”.
You took the words right out of my mouth.
Aloud he told Juliet that she was very welcome.
As Marcel watched her disappear into the kitchen, Claudia nodded respectfully at Heureux.
“Well played, Monsieur. Everything appears to be going swimmingly”.
“Come in, Marcel”.
Claudia smelt the waft of paint from around the corner of her ward.
She forgot about her fear and gave him a beaming smile.
Marcel raced over to her bedside to give her a hug.
“I am sorry that I wasn’t here sooner. I was in a production meeting and I had my phone switched to silent. You wouldn’t believe how much work it is putting on an exhibition”.
Marcel had once believe the job of an artist meant that he could sit around and paint all day. After being flung towards every corner of Paris today to make arrangements he was quickly realising that this wasn’t true. It was very lucky that Juliet had managed to get hold of his assistant in time.
“But you’ve heard enough of my moaning, I am sure. How are you feeling, grand-mère? Has somebody notified Mum and Dad?”
Claudia replied that she had felt better. As for Marcel’s parents, they had been informed about her fall and were booked onto the next available flight from London.
“As for you, mon cher, don’t apologise. I could listen to you moan all day”.
Their chat was interrupted by a tap upon the shoulder. Marcel stood up and had a word with the doctor. She confirmed the news he had been told on the phone. Before he could sit down again, Claudia gazed upwards and placed a hand as far as she could reach. She got as far as his left shoulder.
“When did you get to be so tall?”.
Marcel started to cry, knowing how much he would miss this ritual.
“It was bound to happen, grand-mère. I’m twenty eight now”. Claudia smiled at that. Despite this statement, she could still see within him that puffy eyed boy of six.
There was another wrap upon the wall of the hospital ward.
“I’ve brought you a couple of visitors, Grand-mère Claudia”.
Juliet pushed the pram into the ward. Gently she lifted her newborn daughter out and rested her next to Claudia.
“Ma belle, Isabeau”.
Little Isabeau squirmed and giggled, causing her great grand-mère to giggle as well. She did not regret moving back to Paris for a second. This last year, caring for Juliet and seeing Isabeau come into this world had been so precious. Claudia admired her beautiful granddaughter. She could see in her Juliet’s chestnut curls, Simone’s nose and Marcel’s intense black eyes and lashes.
While the two of them were lost in each other, Juliet fished around in the pram.
“I brought him like you asked”.
Marcel smiled appreciatively and accepted the doll from his wife. Giving Heureux a quick brush down, he presented Monsieur Heureux to Claudia.
“His gears no longer work, I am afraid”.
Claudia said that she did not mind. Her gears were no longer working either.
“Bonjour, mon ami”, she greeted him. Suddenly overcome with an overwhelming surge of affection, her watery blue eyes turned back to Marcel. Taking in one last, long look, she smiled proudly and then closed her eyes.
“If I could take this for her, I would”.
Supportive Juliet, squeezed her husband’s hand.
“ Chin up, mon amour. Our girl isn’t the first to fracture an arm. The surgeon will perform the realignment this afternoon and everything will be well.
Juliet did not know how she had managed it but all of a sudden, Marcel was chuckling.
“Isabeau certainly isn’t the first. She isn’t even the first one in the family to manage it”.
To Marcel’s delight (and horror), Isabeau had inherited her great grand-mère’s spirited nature and fearlessness. Six year old Isabeau, just like Claudia before her, had fallen out of a tree in a spectacular fashion.
Isabeau smelt the waft of sandalwood from around the corner of her ward.
“Papa! You’re home!”
She recognised her father’s scent at once. He had started wearing it for her, ever since she had mentioned not liking the smell of paint.
Not wanting to risk hurting his daughter with a hug, Marcel instead gave Isabeau a kiss on the cheek. Most unexpectedly, Isabeau buried herself in her papa’s shoulder and wept.
“What’s the matter, little lion?”, Marcel asked, stroking Isabeau’s curls. Though she was only six, usually she was one who told her emotional father to stop crying.
“Are you really going to let them cut into me, papa? I don’t want them to”.
It seemed like Isabeau was more like her father than he suspected. She was terrified.
Marcel tried to explain that the surgery was necessary, in order to fix her beautiful arm.
“I can’t promise you that it is not going to scary. What I can promise is that you are not going to go through this alone”.
He reached into his shoulder bag and pulled out a box, covered in gold tissue paper.
The artist, having just returned from a business trip in London, noticed the toy store on his walk back from the National Gallery. Being shaken up from his phone call home more than reason should allow, he was drawn to the doll section. It was his hope to find her a guardian angel, somebody to watch over Isabeau just like Heureux had watched over Marcel. When he locked eyes on the young English rose, with long gloves and rosebuds around her skirt and hat, Marcel knew that she was the one.
As her father had hoped, Isabeau’s face lit up. She hugged the doll with her good arm.
“Bonjour mon ami. Hello, ma belle English madamoiselle”.
Marcel laughed, then corrected her.
“Hello, my friend. Hello, most beautiful Lady Grace”.
Isabeau eagerly repeated the phrase, causing Marcel to grin. How funny that while he had spent all of his life trying to be French, Isabeau was desperate to become English.
Eager for the moment of truth, Marcel told her that she had not seen the best part yet. Showing her the clockwork key, he wound it up. Lady Grace smiled, raised her arms, and started to spin in time with gentle accompaniment of a music box reel. Isabeau gasped, watched attentively and then giggled with delight when it was over.
“I love her. Can Grace really stay with me the whole time?”
When Marcel nodded, Isabeau gave him the fiercest hug she could manage with one good arm.
Thank you, grand-mère. Heureux
Marcel knew this moment would not have happened without them. He would have to thank them both properly the next time he visited the pretty hilltop grave, watching over the streets of Paris.
Image sourced from www.freeimages.com.
This story is the original work of Danielle Nolan, 2017.