“La femme de Valence,” an excerpt in translation

Québec Reads
Nov 7 · 9 min read

by Annie Perreault

Alto, 2018

That day, like every other day, the fish had glided back and forth overhead. With their necks craned backwards and their mouths gaped open, the thousands of visitors to the Oceanogràfic aquarium had stood for an eternity watching them through the walls of a glass tunnel.

For Claire Halde and the other tourists, the memory of these wriggling fish will eventually fade. So will the mental images of the orca and dolphin shows, despite the standing ovations they’d earned. The penguinarium and its gentoos will also be forgotten, like the names and faces of so many of the people who come and go in our lives: classmates, neighbours, teachers, colleagues, one-night stands, travel companions.

Most of the carefree schoolmates whose hands Claire had held in the schoolyard as a child, the smiles of the old ladies she’d greeted politely on the sidewalk, the voices of the many teachers who’d spent a hundred and eighty days a year screeching chalk across the blackboard, the bored co-workers she’d sat next to, pecking away at a yellowed QWERTY keyboard to pay for her tuition, and even some of the men she’d kissed hungrily in the dead of night: All would end up evaporating from her thoughts.

But Claire Halde will never forget the woman in Valencia, the strange blonde who’d approached her that afternoon at the pool at the Valencia Palace. Claire clings stubbornly to her memory — her skin, face, voice, hair, expression — even though they’d co-existed for all of ten minutes, the time it had taken to exchange five sentences, and to stare at one another in silence. Claire had never introduced herself or even asked the woman her name. She will forever remain “the woman in Valencia,” a fleeting ghost.

The woman’s skin tells the story of her life, a tale spun from the tremors that traverse her body in places. The story, one of deep despair, is written plainly on her forehead, in deep horizontal lines that arch down to meet the ends of her eyebrows. The anguish is inscribed in the corners of her mouth, furrows cultivated by bitterness, fine lines etched by hardness and worry. Her flesh sags in places where more comfortable circumstances make for skin that is firmer and healthier, scrupulously cleansed and moisturized daily in front of gleaming mirrors, at spotless vanities. There’s never really anything alarming to be found on the surfaces disinfected and polished by foreign cleaning ladies, who pick up little pots of cream and shaving accessories without resentment. These bright, spacious bathrooms are worlds away from the sinks that reek of mildew, caulking eroded by colonies of black pinpricks that look like gnats, surrounded by cracked, peeling tiles splattered with blood, semen, urine and shit that no one ever bothers to clean. For the woman from the pool, in Valencia, sinks like these are par for the course: rust‑splattered porcelain, bright orange stains blossoming from wet razors left lying on the counter. All that filth turns her stomach as she bends over to splash water on her face, pick her teeth with a fingernail, stare at herself in the mirror and assess the damage.

The woman makes her way toward the pool. First in a straight line, hips swaying in her skin‑tight pencil skirt, long, gangly legs propelling her forward in fits and starts, then in a zigzagging pattern around the patio furniture. She looks like she’s searching for a particular spot — or person — her intention isn’t quite clear. The stiff fabric of her steel-grey skirt, a perma-press polyester vise gleaming in the sun, compresses her body into dejected folds. Against the bright sunlight, her silhouette is shockingly frail and bony. There’s tension in her hips and a tightness in her jaw. She’s wearing rather conservative heels and an elegant blouse that’s partially unbuttoned, revealing a hint of waxy-looking skin underneath. Her hair is a faded blonde. At first glance, she looks like she might be foreign, Eastern European maybe. On her face, there’s a look of profound melancholy, and her expression is bleak and lifeless. Her arms hang limply, and a large leather handbag hooked over her wrist swings back and forth in the void, in time with her advancing steps.

A trick of the eye makes the handbag appear disproportionately heavy and awkward. The mauve tote bag, neither shiny nor matte, is broken in as only leather and hides can be after a certain amount of time. Aged and cracked, worn and dull, dried out in the creases — a fair representation of the woman herself. The woman who is now advancing on Claire Halde on the roof of the Valencia Palace Hotel.

In a corner set back a little from the pool, a couple of vacationers are stretched out on fully extended lounge chairs, heads lolling, feet splayed out, bellies slack under layers of fat and skin bronzing in the sun. They could be dozing or simply daydreaming behind their dark glasses. They could be mannequins in a shop window.

Claire watches her children float like starfish with their father in the pool. They’re having a great time. Jean was right: An afternoon swim does do them good. It’s exactly the kind of treat they enjoy on holiday, but it wasn’t exactly how she’d pictured her trip to Valencia, forfeiting the charming streets of the Old Town, sacrificing an ocean view — all for a pool. And now the woman with the dead eyes has appeared and she’s speaking to Claire in a foreign language she doesn’t recognize. Claire answers her in Spanish, then in English, but she’s having trouble understanding her; the woman’s voice is hoarse, thick, confused.

“Can you help me? My bag, take my bag.” She puts the purse down at her feet, revealing a square of gauze taped over the veins on her right wrist.

The dressing is white and carefully applied, as though by a nurse. Claire casts a sidelong glance at the pristine square covering the woman’s injury and her throat contracts.

Blood is trickling from either side of the folded piece of white cotton, running in red rivulets down her alarmingly pale arm. The stranger ignores it, caught up in trying to unzip her bag. Her hands are shaking, and her movements are clumsy. Claire looks away, back to the pool and her children. She feels numb and everything sounds muffled, as though someone were holding her head underwater, blocking out all the noise on the surface. The flow of oxygen to her brain has slowed to a crawl. Claire has never seen anyone bleeding like that, from a self‑inflicted wound. But she’s seen the scars before, once on a man at a party, and another time on a young woman she’d worked with as a camp counsellor. Claire no longer remembers the names of these people who’d discretely shown her the inside of their wrist, like a shared confidence. Time had marched on over their skin. The cuts had closed, healed, faded.

It dawns on Claire that the woman must’ve just come from a clinic or been discharged from the psychiatric ward of a nearby hospital. But the blood is still flowing, streaming from her wrist onto her palm and down her fingers.

Her eyes glued to the dressing, Claire asks the woman if she needs help, suggests they call someone, summon an ambulance, drive her to a clinic. This seems to spook the woman.

“No, no, no, no! No help, just the bag.”

Claire backs off. She considers the possibility that the woman might be in the country illegally, that she has her reasons for not wanting to deal with the authorities, just as she has her reasons for trying to take her life. The blood continues to run down the woman’s wrist, but she pays it no attention, rummaging frantically through her purse. Claire is seized with fright, imagining a gun, a knife, her children witnessing what’s about to happen. She’s paralyzed by the force of the premonition: This woman is going to shoot herself in the head, right here in front of me, in front of my son and daughter. The scenario is immediately replaced by the thought of the woman pulling a knife from her bag and threatening to slash Claire’s throat with it.

Then, nothing. In Claire’s mind, thoughts and fears mingle with silence, then turn to hunks of glass and metal that collide, cracking and shattering into pieces. Time seems to be splintering in slow motion, like when someone drowns or a ship flounders in a storm. At that moment, nothing else exists but the handbag, a gaping black hole that’s swallowing up the rooftop terrace, the pool, the kids floating like sea stars on the water’s surface, the Valencian sky, the fifteen floors of the Valencia Palace, the lounge chair that Claire shrinks even further into.

Finally, the woman pulls out a pack of Lucky Strikes. She offers one to Claire, who refuses it with an abrupt hand gesture. With trembling fingers, the stranger lights a cigarette. She hands her bag to Claire and moves to a corner of the terrace to smoke. Claire sets the bag down on the end of her chaise and keeps an eye on it nervously, as though a rat might suddenly crawl out of it. She inspects a cut on her finger and checks her hands for blood.

Claire doesn’t immediately grasp what’s happening. She watches her children playing in the pool. They’re laughing, clinging to their dad’s neck, splashing each other. They’re happy She can’t have them see what’s going on with this woman. All her attention is focused on them: Protect the children, don’t scare the children.

The woman smokes for a minute next to the bushes, looks down at the ground nervously, and skirts the greenery along the edge of the rooftop like she’s looking for something. Then, feet shuffling, she walks back toward Claire, who holds out the bag to her.

“Keep the bag, keep the bag!”

Her tone is harsh, annoyed. She mutters something, a question that Claire doesn’t catch. She becomes agitated and she’s having trouble forming her words. Claire thrusts her beach towel at the woman and points her toward a blue door to the right of the pool. The stranger staggers toward the ladies’ changing room, mopping up the blood on her arm.

Perched on the edge of her deck chair, Claire can almost feel her nerves thrumming. She tries to get Jean’s attention — surely, he’ll recognize the fear in her eyes or notice the look of panic on her face. She wants to call out to him for help, but she can’t find her voice. The danger is setting off alarm bells inside her. Her body is firing off a series of signals that are coursing through her: nerve impulses, a surge of adrenaline, a quickening of her heartbeat, sudden dry mouth, waves of nausea. Primal instincts kick in. Her brain is foggy, and she’s tensed like an animal ready to pounce. The balance between Claire Halde’s sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems is about to give way.

She remains there, motionless, petrified, the handbag resting against her bare thigh, watching the closed door of the ladies’ locker room. It’s midnight blue and scuffed up near the bottom, and Claire has no idea what she’ll see when it finally swings open, but then it does, and the woman emerges.

A blonde bag of bones, those are the words that come to mind when Claire sees the woman in Valencia once again making her way across the patio. Skin, too, waxy, grey skin. Narrow hips, a tight, flat stomach, scrawny arms, a sinewy neck that’s nothing but skin and bones propping up a head of washed-out blonde hair. The look in her eyes is dark and empty, devoid of all light. Her body moves jerkily, like a marionette with invisible strings that are holding up her head, and controlling her arms and legs, which carry her to the edge of the roof and over the railing in a scissor-like motion. She crouches down and rests her bottom on the ledge for a moment — a few seconds or a few minutes, who can say, time seems to stand still — and then the woman gently eases herself into the void.

Translated by Ann Marie Boulanger

Québec Reads

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