I could see she needed to speak to someone in her own class. Years a lady, and now she had to resort to nightly shake-downs on patches of dusty floor that considerate souls would mete out by the inch. Her name she said was Madame de Charlemont, but I doubted if that was her real one.
“Can I call you Claudette?”
“You may, if that were really my name.”
“It seems to fit. You’re like something out of Proust or Colette or Katherine Mansfield or Anita Brookner.”
“Or Baudelaire or Mallarme... No, No, why should I have to come out of anything at all?”
I could see she was irritated. The mane rippled like a sea, the face her beach of damp powdered sand. The hair was indeed greyer than fair, propped up at the front like a hedge in a nineteen forties style, ill-fastened at the sides with beetling hair-clips. However, it was the look, the content rather than the form, that intrigued me most.
My attention slipped to the voice. I tried harmonising my own tones and registers of speech with the contralto echoes of her; it was as if the sound was not taken from the chest but from her past, when she’d held audiences in the palm of her shell-like hand.
“Can I help you in any way?” I ventured.
I had discovered her inside a two-bit cafe near to a nameless place (an area between two well known tourist attractions of the city). She was sitting in front of a large wall mirror; so at first I thought there were two of her; twin sisters upon a sheen’s breath, as the Poet once put it. I sat myself at the next table, so close I could easily stare into her wayward eyes; the sea had already withdrawn leaving glistened pools upon them. She was picked out by the awkward late afternoon light that entered between the posters on the cafe window. I simply knew she knew that I wanted to talk to her. And vice versa. Too old to be a pick-up, I should have had no qualms. Too old to be picked-up, she eventually answered me with not even the slightest turn-away of the head.
“You could only help me, if you’d met me twenty years before.”
The remark was even more cryptic in the foreign language she spoke. I shrugged it off for what it was; a dream talking; hope expanding into the past as well as into the future, but merely skirmishing with the seedy present moment.
“You’d think they’d clean up this city for the tourists, wouldn’t you?” It felt like taking pot-shots with words: hoping at least that the target would stop wavering about.
“Yes, I stood in some finds...” She held up her dainty foot at a sharp angle so that I could see underneath the high-heel shoe. I was astonished someone of her age could balance on such dagger- points, like a filler novelty act in an anachronistic vaudeville.
“Were you indeed a famous singer, Claudette?”
“More famous than some. Put now I’m just an entry in a thousand discarded diaries.”
“Will you sing a song I’ve written?’
I held out a tattered score. I’d carried it in my back pocket for as long as I recalled owning the pocket.
“In here!” She turned to look at the waitress who was scowling at us from over the steamy counter.
“Why not? It may bring others in, and surely they need more clients than simply the two of us.”
She saw what the score was. I thought I caught a half-smile hovering in her look. “I see it’s called ‘Claudette’,” she said.
“In this city, one ceases to be surprised at coincidences,” I answered.
She stood up. I then knew she was a Diva: for common songstresses of the old school squat sing. I, for one, croon above my own finds.
She was not quite so old as I had originally believed. The dress shone upon her pedigree flanks. The breasts relayed the blurring flow of shimmer and sea light. She hummed her voice into tune, as the Poet said, like a coterie of ambivalent musicians using colours as well as sounds for the ultimate accompaniment. But I never really understood poetry.
I tapped my fingers on the unpercussive table, finding it difficult to keep up with the other rhythms of the city around us, for the surface was tacky with ancient meals. I opened my mouth, as if that would encourage her to follow mine in a composer’s lip-reading, a listener’s sight-reading.
She eventually sat down without singing the song, though I could have sworn there had been at least something in the air (not my song, but one that had been written by one of her past lovers).
“Did you not like my song, Claudette?”
“I liked it very much, my dear.”
I turned to the waitress, seeking confirmation that Claudette had not sung it at all.
“It’s got a nice tune, Mister, I’ll say that for it...” Her voice was coarser than the Diva’s, despite the youthful breasts upon the sound-box.
I turned back to Claudette, for somehow I knew I would love her more than any song could sing. But she had already disappeared into the gathering mysteries of the city’s night. I heared the distant tolling of the engulfed cathedral and shuddered.
“But you need a lady to sing it rather than you,” the waitress continued, as she sat back into the coffee-coloured gloom of the counter. I barely heard her trying to mimic my song.
I looked into the large mirror on the wall, but its steamy surface swam with an uncertain gloss: Usher’s tarn dimming in the man made light of early evening.
I swayed out into the quiet street on alcoholic points, wondering why her real name had gone from my mind. Nameless or no, I’d always love Madame de Charlemont.
Published 'The Banshee' 1992