Virtue — Clare Healy

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Photo by Olia Bondarenko on Unsplash

 

Virtue

A light rapping at the downstairs window was enough to wake Julia up, like someone tickling the soles of her feet.  Mamie thundered down the hallway towards the front door, and there came a voice Julia had never heard before, a man’s voice, low and growly.  He entered the house without stopping to wipe his shoes on the mat.  Julia rolled out of bed.  She was sleeping poorly these days, probably because she refused to sleep naked.  She had tried it for the first time last night in a fit of overheated desperation, and lain across the mattress staring up at the ceiling like a soldier waiting for the sound of footsteps through the brush.  A number of scenarios in which she’d be forced out onto the lawn, with no time to even throw a bed sheet around her shoulders, had suddenly become inevitable.  A fire, a break-in, a gateway to Hell opening up behind the house and inhaling it brick by brick.  She had put her camisole back on and gone to the bathroom to fish a towel out of the laundry basket and rinse it under the cold tap.  Then she’d jumped back into bed and covered herself from neck to toe with it.  It had been marvellous, but not for very long.  She had played this game with herself multiple times throughout the night, getting up to re-moisten the towel and trying to fall asleep before she once again found herself stewing in her own body heat.  Birds had been chirping above her window by the time she had finally managed to drift off.

It was nearly nine o’clock.  She twisted her sweat-soaked hair into a plait and slipped on a pair of denim shorts and a T-shirt before going downstairs.  Mamie, dressed in an olive-coloured smock and linen trousers, her silver hair gathered into a bun at the nape of her neck, was bent over the stove.  The man, a stumpy fifty-something with a head like a red potato, sat in silence at the kitchen table clutching a glass of milk, a strip of white foam glistening on his upper lip.  His gaze rested on Julia’s bare legs as she entered the room.

“Bonjour,” she said.

“Bonjour, ma petite,” said Mamie.  Julia approached the man, staring down at him and murmuring a hello.  He straightened up in his seat to be kissed, breathing hotly on her face as he squashed his lips against her cheekbones.

He said, “And who are you?  Where did you spring from?”

“Jean-Baptiste, this is my granddaughter, Julia,” said Mamie.

“No kidding?  Noé’s daughter?”

“That’s right.”

“Has he ever thought to take a paternity test?”

“Why d’you say that?”

“Well, look at her, for God’s sake.”  He grinned at Julia, exposing a set of long, browning teeth.  “You’re like a little porcelain doll.  You must have been hiding in the cellar all these years.”

“No, I’m just Irish,” replied Julia.

His eyes bulged.  “Don’t yank my chain.”

“She isn’t.  Noé married an Irish girl, didn’t you know that?”

“Well, those Celtic genes must be awfully strong, then,” he cackled, and touched Julia’s wrist.  “I hope you don’t think I’m insulting you.  On the contrary, I think you’re simply magic.”

Julia yanked her arm away and turned to join her grandmother beside the stove.  She caught a glimpse of an oily, greenish-brown mush bubbling in the saucepan.  “What’s that?”

“Aubergine caviar,” said Mamie.  “For the concert.”

“Cat’s vomit,” said Jean-Baptiste.

“It tastes better than it looks, I promise.”

“So we should hope.”

Julia turned to Jean-Baptiste again and eyed him cautiously.  “Are you going to be there tonight?”

He shook his head.  “Sadly not.  I’m leaving for Marseille this afternoon, for the wine festival.”

“Jean-Baptiste owns a vineyard on the other side of the village.  Twenty hectares.”

“Twenty-five.”

“That’s nice,” said Julia, inspecting the various paper bags containing half-finished loaves of bread strewn across the counter, before snatching up a raisin-laced baguette.

“You can come over anytime you like.  Do some grape-picking for me.  I’ll pay you.”

“I already have a job, but thank you.”

“Where’s that?”

“At the bar.  The Pentaiaré.”

Jean-Baptiste knit his brow.  “That’s a night-time job.  You can come and do this in the daytime.  Think about it.  A bit of sunshine will do you good.”

“Don’t you have enough slaves already?” asked Mamie, with only a tincture of humour in her voice.

“Only one at the moment, and he’s no good.  A Swede.”

“Oh yeah?  No good, really?”

“Useless.  Doesn’t speak a word of French.  He works three hours in the morning, maximum, then he drives off in his Volvo and I don’t see him again until dinnertime when he makes sure to suck up all my food and flirt with my wife.”

Mamie burst out laughing.  “He flirts with Henriette?  Really?”

“Oh, I’m sure of it.  They only speak English together.  I find it terribly disrespectful.”

“What else can he do, Jean-Baptiste, if he doesn’t speak French?”

“He can keep his mouth shut.”

“Oh, let Henriette have her fun with the young Swedish buck.  Assuming he’s young, of course.  How old is he?”

“I have no idea.”

“But he’s young, yes?”

Jean-Baptiste shrugged.

“How can you not know if he’s young or not?”

“I have no interest in him.”

“Let me put it this way.  Would he make a more appropriate friend for Julia than for Henriette?”

“It’s very hard to say.  He’s probably no older than …” said Jean-Baptiste, casting his gaze upwards as though he were doing long division in his head, “oh, thirty, let’s say.  I really can’t be more precise than that.”

“Well, you should tell him to stop by the concert this evening,” said Mamie, “and maybe Julia can talk to him and find out for you.”

Julia, chewing her bread in the corner of the room, threw a look of amusement at her grandmother.

“There’s no use inviting the guy anywhere.  He always has his own ideas.  It’s Friday, so he’s probably planning on going up to Toulouse and touring all the nightclubs.  Or going down to Narbonne for a midnight swim in the sea.”

“Sounds like a real adventurer.”

“The word you’re looking for is a bum.”

“Yes, anyone who exercises a little bit of personal freedom is a bum,” Mamie sneered, crossing her arms.  “You’re a bum, flitting off to a wine festival for the weekend.”

“I’m a winegrower.  It’s an entirely professional matter.  I’m not going up to Marseille to do anything … lewd.”

Mamie raised an eyebrow.  “Did I say you were going to do anything lewd?”

“Well, that’s what you were implying, isn’t it?”

“Not at all.  That just shows where your mind is,” said Mamie, and flashed a grin at Julia.  “Men are all the same, aren’t they?”

Jean-Baptiste massaged his broad, dampening forehead.  “Anaïs, now—I don’t appreciate the way you’re trying to frame me up in front of the young lady, who I’ve only just met this minute.”

“Oh, lighten up.  I’m joking.”

“Yes, to be sure, but … I can take a joke, but …”

“You can take a joke, as long as it’s not about you.”

“Yes.”

There was a silence, broken only by the sound of the flickering flame under the saucepan.  Then Jean-Baptiste drained his glass in one squelching gulp and slammed it back down on the tabletop.  Julia wondered if her grandmother was really going to let him leave on that note.  She didn’t know Mamie well enough yet to be able to forecast her every move.  Her other grandmother, the one who lived in Ballaghaderreen, would beg Jean-Baptiste to sit back down and probe him with questions about his health until the disagreement had been largely forgotten about.  But Mamie continued twisting the pepper grinder over the mush with her dark, industrious hands while Jean-Baptiste checked the time on his third-generation iPhone and wiped imaginary breadcrumbs off his thighs.  At last, he rose, looked at Julia, and offered her his hand.  “Well, I’d better go home and finish packing,” he said.  “It was a pleasure to meet you, princess.  I hope I’ll be seeing you again.”

“Alright,” said Julia, shaking his hand weakly.

“Anaïs, do you have anything to request from the festival?  A bottle?”

“Nothing, Jean-Baptiste, thank you,” said Mamie, still standing with her back to him.

“Right.”  He heaved a guttural sigh and turned to face the door.  “A bientôt, girls.”

“Au revoir.”

He waddled out of the kitchen and Julia heard the front door shut.  Mamie turned to look at her, shaking her wooden spoon.

“For God’s sake, Julia,” she said, “lock the door.”

Julia laughed and put her arms around her grandmother.

*

As she did most days, Julia hung around the house, reading in the hammock and pulling up weeds on the front lawn, until it was time to head to the bar.  Mamie drove her into town half an hour earlier than usual so that they could help set up the seats and the snack table for the open-air concert.  Julia sat outside and chatted with Mamie and the owner, Mamie’s niece, for a few minutes, drinking homemade lemonade and squinting in the afternoon sun.  At five, Mamie went home and Julia tied an apron around her waist.  That evening, while a Spanish polka band entertained a handful of families and groups of friends in the courtyard, Julia stayed inside, cleaning cutlery behind the bar.  Her American friend Andie sat across from her, periodically refilling her glass from a tall, white bottle of anisette.  Andie was a short, plump girl with a moon-shaped face, who had an au pair job in a neighbouring mountain town.

“The mom wants to go on a pilgrimage next week,” she said.

“Lourdes?” asked Julia.

“That’s it.  I told her I’d go, but my plan is to fake being sick on Monday morning so I can stay home and sit by the pool all day.”

“Don’t do that.  She’ll make you go to Lourdes so the Virgin Mary can cure you.”

“Shit, you’re right.  I’ll say I’m having period cramps, then.”

“I’m sure the Virgin Mary is well capable of curing those, too.”

“You think?”

“Andie, she’s the Virgin Mary.”

Andie blew out a puff of air.  “Goddamn it.  Well, I don’t know.  Maybe I should go.”

“Sure, why not?”

“Mary’s the original boss bitch, after all.  She had two guys on the go at once, and neither one was getting any off her.”

Julia laughed.  “What a queen.”

A man came in from the courtyard and approached the bar.  Andie turned her head and looked at him, her face twitching faintly with surprise.  She pushed her bottle of anisette out of the way so he could come and stand beside her at the counter.  He stayed where he was, looking at Julia with uncertainty.  There was an unusually long pause.

“Bonsoir,” said Julia.

“Uh, bonsoir,” he replied.  “Do you speak English?”

“Yes.”

“Could I have a glass of water, please?”

Julia dipped a freshly-dried glass into the ice bucket and filled it from the tap.  She passed it over the counter without saying anything.

“Thank you.  Merci,” he said, meeting her eyes briefly and cracking a smile.  He had an angular face, wispy, blond eyebrows, and perfect orthodontic work done on his teeth.

Andie pointed to the glass and said, “Go easy, now.”

“What?” he said.

“Go easy.”

“Oh.  I’ll try,” he said with some uncertainty, before picking up his glass and walking back towards the door to the courtyard.

“Do you think he’s American?” Andie asked Julia.

“No, I think he’s Swedish.”

“Oh, maybe.  Could be.  Or Dutch?”

“No, I think I know him.  I mean—I think I know the man he works for.  Some vineyard owner was at my grandmother’s house today and he mentioned he had a Swedish guy working for him.  I have a feeling that’s him.”

“Oh.  Well.  Zero percent interest in me,” sighed Andie, lifting her drink to her lips.  “I think he liked you, though.”

“Everyone likes me when it’s thirty degrees outside and I’m their only access to drinking water.”

Andie chuckled and resumed her rant about her host family.  Julia half-listened to her while scrubbing pesto-stained forks and periodically sneaking glances at the slither of the audience visible through the window.  The Swede had taken a seat beside two or three other young men and was ravenously munching on crackers from the snack table.

The sky was alight with stars when the band played their final bombastic song of the night.  The accordionist thanked the audience and plugged the band’s ten-euro CDs in broken French, then vacated the stage.  A number of yawning mothers and old men clutching their jackets rose from their chairs and began filing out onto the street.  Andie went home, too, groaning about having to bring the kids to a cello recital in the morning.  Nadine, the bar’s owner, instructed Julia to start clearing the tables and stacking the chairs as a passive-aggressive signifier to the laggards that they were closing the terrace.  Julia grabbed a tray and went outside.  The Swede was still there, listening in silence as a beret-wearing Englishman babbled in his ear.  She worked her way slowly around the tables, filling her tray with half-finished beer bottles and glasses of melted ice.  She approached the Swede’s table and, seeing him keep his eyes trained on his neighbour, briefly felt a little stung.  When she lifted the empty dish in front of him, however, he leaned forwards in his seat with a start and said, “Excuse me, but do you have any more of those inside?  Those crackers with the—the spread?”

“Oh, no, we don’t,” she said apologetically, but added with a smile, “They’re homemade.  The spread, I mean.  My grandmother made it.”

“Your grandmother made it?” said the Swede.  “What is it?  It’s really tasty.”

“It’s called caviar d’aubergine.  It’s like, boiled aubergines, blended up with some oil and salt and pepper.”

“Well, tell your grandmother she’s a genius.  It’s exactly what I came to Provence for.”

“That’s very nice.  I will tell her that,” said Julia.  She made an imperceptible movement towards the next table, but stopped herself, and, blinking bashfully, said, “Are you from Sweden, by any chance?”

“Yes, I am.”  He smiled widely, dimples showing.  “I try to hide my accent, but I guess I should try harder.”

“Oh, no, it’s not because of your accent.  It’s because … you work for Jean-Baptiste, don’t you?”

“Yes!” the Swede laughed.  “How do you know that?  Who are you?”

Julia laughed too.  “It’s because I was speaking to Jean-Baptiste today, and he said he’s got a Swedish guy working for him, and, well, around here it’s rare to come across someone as pale as I am, so …”

“You’re not from here either?”

“No, I’m Irish.  Well, half-Irish, half-French, but I’ve lived in Ireland my whole life.  I’m just here for the summer.”

“I’m just here for the summer, too.  Well, I’m actually leaving tomorrow, to go to Gibraltar.”

“Gibraltar?  You gonna work over there?”

“Work, yes, in a hostel.”

Julia nodded enthusiastically, despite the pit of disappointment in her stomach.  “That’s great. Gibraltar, that’s exciting.”

The Englishman, who had been following their entire conversation with intent, saw his opportunity to join in. “I’m just passing through,” he said.  “I’m on my way to Narbonne for my ex-girlfriend’s father’s wedding.”

“Oh, cool,” said Julia.  Her eyes darted towards Nadine, standing and watching her behind the two men’s heads.  “I’m sorry, but I’d better get on with this.  On the clock, you know?”

Julia walked inside and started washing the fresh batch of glasses.  Through the window, she could see the Englishman slurring into the Swede’s ear again.  The Swede nodded distractedly.  He craned his neck towards the bar and caught Julia’s eyes for a half-second before whirling around to face his friend again.  Julia felt good.

*

“Don’t ask me that.  Ask me anything else,” said Julia, whipping his arm with a dishcloth.  “It should be illegal to ask people at this age what they wanna do with the rest of their life.”

“You’re going to have to figure it out eventually,” the Swede replied, grinning at her from across the bar.

“Do I?  Y’know?  I’ve got a year until I graduate.  Who knows what could happen in the meantime?  I could fall in love with a Japanese salaryman twice my age, get married and be set for life.”

The Swede tutted.  “That’s not very feminist of you.”

“Yeah, well, desperate times …”

“I remember that feeling.  I just graduated last May.”

“What did you study?”

“Engineering.”

“Engineering?  And how exactly does that apply to grape-picking?”

The Swede laughed.  “It doesn’t.  But that’s the beauty of it.  You see, I was going to do the normal thing—get a job straight after college.  I even did a few interviews, and got some offers, too.  And if I had said yes, I would be living … quite comfortably now, I must say.  But I realised that I’m never going to be this young again. And if I jumped into a nine-to-five job now, then I might never be able to get out of it.  So I decided to go and drive around southern Europe instead.”

“And it’s going well, obviously.”

“Well, I can’t complain about a lifestyle where I pretty much get to do what I want all the time.  I have to work, of course.”  He chuckled.  “Just enough to keep Jean-Baptiste’s head from exploding, anyway.  But most of the decisions I’m making right now are totally spontaneous.  Like, for example, this afternoon, I felt a little hungry and I decided to stop into a little bakery and buy a slice of pizza.  I noticed the two guys ahead of me in the queue were speaking English, and I spontaneously decided to speak to them.  They said they were going to an open-air concert in the evening, and I spontaneously decided to come with them.  And without those spontaneous decisions, I wouldn’t be having this conversation with you right now.”

Julia cracked a helpless smile.  The floorboards creaked as Nadine walked by, wrapping on the counter.  “Ça va?” she asked.

“Oui,” said Julia, startled, pulling a face at the Swede.  She fervently wiped the countertop with the dishcloth until Nadine had disappeared into the back.

“What time do you close?” asked the Swede.

Julia looked at her watch.  “Well, now.  It’s nearly two.”

“Jesus.  Where did the time go?”  The Swede looked down, fixing his eyes his long fingers splayed across the countertop.  “Are you going home now?” he asked, his voice softening.  “I guess you must be tired.”

This was true, but only now that he’d reminded her of it.  Julia stretched as she considered the possible ways in which she could answer.  He hadn’t really given her many options.  “Yeah,” she said, her tone falling with a deliberate hint of regret.  “Yeah.”

“Where do you live?”

“A little bit outside of town.”

“You’re not going to walk, are you?”

“No, Nadine drives me.”

“Okay,” he said, “well … I have a car, and I didn’t drink anything.  If you wanted to stay out a little longer, I could bring you home instead.”

Julia opened her mouth, suddenly unable to look at him.  “I … I could stay out for a little, yeah.”  Then she frowned.  “I don’t know where else we could go, though.  There’s not much open in this town after 2 am, you know.”

“Right.  Fuck.”

She searched the depths of her brain for ideas.  They could drive to the next town over, but she doubted the situation would be much different there.  She was nearly going to suggest simply going for a walk through the winding residential streets, or hanging out in the square, like teenagers out past their curfew.  She debated with herself over whether or not that was, in fact, an incredibly lame idea.  The Swede piped up, “I mean, there’s Jean-Baptiste’s house.”

Julia paused, then made a noise that sounded like a cross between “Yeah”, “Nah”, and a proto-human grunt.

“I mean, not his house.  I live in a self-contained studio on the property.  If you wanted to, we could go there and hang out for a while.  It has a record player.  Most of the records are ’70s dance music, but still …”

“Mmm …” Julia began.  All of a sudden there was a tightness in her chest.  After a long pause, she said, “I don’t know.”

“No pressure, obviously.”

She chewed her lip.  “Is it … like … where is it?”

“The property?  It’s close by.  You can actually see it if you go out on the street.  Come on, I can show you.”

Julia took a cautious scan around her shoulders for Nadine and then followed him through the glass door, across the lonely courtyard and out onto the cobblestoned street.  The street was on an incline, leading down towards a hairpin bend, from which there was a view of the valley below.  In the moonlight, Julia could make out the shapes of the hills, the massive poplar groves, and the smatterings of dark stone houses.  The Swede, standing beside her, stretched out his arm and pointed.  “You see that big red house there?”

Julia moved her head curiously.  “No.”

“Here,” he said, and put his hand on her waist to pull her closer, positioning her just in front of him.  “You see where I’m pointing?”

“Jesus, that’s a mansion.”

“It’s overrun with dogs.”

“Dogs?”

“I don’t even know how many they have.  They’re all horrible shih tzus that look like they’re suffering from PTSD.  One of them came up to me today while I was washing my shoes with the hose and he just stopped and stared at my combat boots and I thought, ‘Fuck, they must be giving him Vietnam flashbacks.’”

Julia laughed, her voice bouncing off of the facades of the townhouses.  She knew she ought to keep quiet, but the longer she laughed, the longer they’d be suspended here.  If only the rest of the night could be just this.

Eventually, her giggling began to die away, and Julia looked down in anticipation of the silence, allowing it to fall like snowflakes on her eyelashes.  The Swede coughed briskly and said, “So.”

“So.”

“What do you think?”

Julia looked at him, sucking in her breath.  She held it, then let it out again in a long, barely audible sigh.  “I think … I think I should just go home.”

He nodded.  “Okay.”

“It’s a real shame that you’re leaving tomorrow.”

“It is,” he said, looking down at his shoes.  Then he raised his head again.  “But, hey, if you’re ever passing through Gibraltar …”

There was another silence as the two of them exchanged small, melancholy smiles.  “Sorry,” Julia added.  It was a word she felt she said too much, a word her mouth often spat out without waiting for the brain’s permission.  This time, though, she really meant it.

Slumped in the passenger seat of Nadine’s family van, Julia stared up at the yellow moon winking at her from behind the branches of the plane trees that lined the road.  Nadine coughed at random intervals, saying nothing.  A gold chain had been draped over the rearview mirror, an Our Lady of Lourdes medallion jittering with every pothole they crossed.

Once home, Julia crept upstairs to her room and began changing into her nightclothes.  She stopped halfway to look at herself in the mirror.  The dim overhead lighting created shadows under her round breasts and a long dark line from her sternum to her belly button.  Her hair, tossed free from her plait, hung over her sharp shoulders in two unbroken sheets.  She looked simple and beautiful.  It was a crying shame.

 

Clare Healy is an undergraduate student from Dublin, Ireland.  Her work has previously been published in Banshee and The Honest Ulsterman.

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