Speak Softly My Love
He could hear her talking to the cat in there as he fiddled with the key. The lock was getting old and worn and he really should have that looked at.
Madame Lefebvre had been back for a couple of days and yet events had ensured that they kept missing each other. Gilles had been leaving at some ungodly hour in the mornings and she came in for days only. Her day began at eight and ended at five-thirty.
They’d missed each other in the evenings as well.
The smell coming from the oven as he stepped out of the hallway and into the kitchen was something else.
“Hello, Madame Lefebvre.”
“Hello.” Her bright and bristling countenance turned to greet her employer.
He could never quite figure her out, but he thought she might still be in her late forties. A study in domestic efficiency, and he was grateful to have her.
A lumpy, fur-covered body had dropped off a chair and that was the sound of four paws hitting the floor under the table.
“Ah. There it is.”
Madame Lefebvre smiled indulgently, as she puttered by the sink and the counter.
Sylvestre came over and tried to trip him up in the usual fashion. Gilles gave a gentle nudge with the foot but it never did any good. Not with that one. The damned thing kept coming back for more.
“Hello, hello.” He’d always stopped short of using her first name, although he’d come awfully close sometimes.
This was one of those times, for whatever sentimental reason. A lonely man, the fact was that Gilles lived alone and a good housekeeper did a lot to make that bearable. He was only going to get so attached to her.
“What’s for dinner?” Gilles was famished.
He’d had lunch at the usual time when court recessed.
Man did not live on sandwiches and milk alone.
“Ah.” Beaming at her hapless charge, she launched into a full and unabbreviated explanation.
Whatever it was, it sounded good.
Pulling a chair back, he sat at the table. Sylvestre clambered up into his lap. He watched her move around the kitchen getting his plate ready for him. Her purse hung in its usual spot, and her coat and hat were on a rack by the door. She habitually wore slippers around the place, her own staid and sensible shoes placed just exactly so, on a rubber mat by the door. Fifteen or twenty minutes and she would be gone for the day. It was enough to half-listen and be appreciative. It was warm and dry and at least he had a roof over his head.
The mail and the newspapers would be in a stack by his armchair. It was a well-ordered existence in a precarious world. Some cynic had described the body as the temple in which the god Stomach was worshiped. Gilles would like to hope that he wasn’t quite that bad, but work was demanding, life was exhausting and there was little doubt that he would have let himself go without some moderating influences of the female variety.
Madame Lefebvre fulfilled a number of important functions, and she did a wonderful job of doing so. As for the expense, he could eat exclusively in restaurants. He did not really need a cat to survive, and a simple maid service might have been a little cheaper. This obviously went a little deeper than that, and yet originally she had been a total stranger.
Home at last. It was strange to think that Gilles Maintenon was the centre of the cat’s little world, and for him, there was essentially nothing else but this and the job.
It was the job that was important—not the man.
“When I find myself thinking of you, in the middle of the day, that will be the time to hang it up.” The cat looked up with love in his eyes and Gilles felt a moment of guilt.
Madame chuckled softly, doing the pots and the pans and putting them in the rack to dry.
He scratched the wretched thing behind the ears, as if to make up for lost time.
Maintenon supposed he really did love the thing. He probably needed to—to love something.
We all got to have something, as the Yanks would say.
If that thought didn’t humble a person, nothing would.
Madame Lefebvre had taken off.
After wrapping his belly around a second helping of pork Provençale with leeks and olives, garlic mashed potatoes, crusty bread thickly spread with somebody’s home-made butter…cheese, a bottle of wine and you my love. His time was now his own.
Speak softly my love, for the heart can never lie.
Speak softly to me, and lover, please don’t cry.
Speak softly my love, speak softly—
Speak softly, my love…for our love shall never die.
The ghost that was Ann always hovered in the back of his consciousness. The house was dead quiet now that Madame Lefebvre had departed for her own home and what Gilles sort of assumed was a much brighter existence. She had her own brood of adult children and consequently grandchildren, nieces, nephews. They were all good Catholics. She had two sisters living in town here and more in the place of her birth, Limoges. She seemed like a happy person, and that was all he knew.
It was an assumption. After all, he might have been wrong about it.
The chair squeaked under him. He really ought to get a new one someday.
The cat was heavy in his lap and he lifted it off. There was nothing much in the mail, the usual bills and one or two political and religious tracts. Nothing out of the ordinary.
He got up with a grunt. Making old man noises when he was alone was permitted whereas he would never do it at work.
He was in the mood for Vivaldi. The gramophone would comfort him, provide background noise, and cognac would anesthetize him. A good book, some peace and quiet and a good night’s sleep. He would sit, and think, and smoke. He would have a nice, hot bath…
He’d be a new man in the morning.
A neighbour, barely an acquaintance, had accosted Gilles in the street once. He was like a long-lost friend. He’d dropped a number of vague hints, suggesting that Madame Lefebvre was an attractive woman. He’d suggested that Gilles was no spring chicken and that he had needs. He’d practically suggested that Gilles could do worse. It was none of their damn-fool business, and yet he didn’t take it too personally. It was as much a fishing expedition as anything. He’d seen a few of those in his time. It was a technique he used himself from time to time. He’d just chuckled, and put him off with a joke that wasn’t too grotesque. Gilles had wondered for a time, if someone had put him up to it. If so, it would certainly never be Madame Lefebvre herself. She really wasn’t that kind of person. After a while, he’d put it out of his mind.
The thought returned from time to time, not that he was particularly lonely at that exact moment, but.
He had actually considered the thought. He’d even wondered how he would feel if she rejected him. He’d wondered how one would go about courting such a woman. If he had never employed her as a housekeeper, they would never have met. In that sense it was an unnatural match, and what did that say about the human condition? They were, after all, a man and a woman. They also lived in two different worlds. Then there was the whole question of what other people would think, what other people would say. That was the most tiresome part of all, for surely it was none of their business.
The trouble was, as far as he could make out, that there was nothing sexual there—and for him, even at his age, that was still important somehow. It was a kind of romanticism. He wanted to fall in love again or something completely mad like that. If he was going to go to all the trouble of having a marriage, well. He would sure as hell, like to have sex again before he died. Maybe even just once, so why get married at all? Not that he had ever taken any logical steps. Otherwise it just didn’t seem worth it. As he recalled all too clearly, it was work. That was what a marriage was, even the most happy and successful ones. It required effort, and it needed a good match.
He needed something or wanted something, or yearned for something that was never going to come this way again.
Gilles Maintenon would have killed to fall in love again, as a faded smile crossed his face at the idea.
To fall in love again is to be young again. That`s how he saw it. It would never happen now, of course.
One way or another, it all came down to motivation. He had too many qualms, too many misgivings to overcome. It was like he never left the house any more.
Once home, he generally stayed home.
The trouble was that in real life, things like that never seemed to happen anymore.
There would be no staid and comfortable marriage of convenience for Gilles Maintenon. This sort of implied that he would be alone from now on—it was difficult to see it otherwise.
While Madame Lefebvre was a wonderful woman, and a lady in every sense of the word, even in its most basic, schoolboy-chivalric way, (i.e. she wore a dress and thought womanly thoughts, a member of an alien species), she just didn’t turn his crank as the Yanks would say.
One day he’d called his solicitor. He made a new will, leaving every one of his relations very small legacies. The rest went to feed hungry children in China. On some level, there must have been some element of self-regard. But for the most part, he just didn`t give a shit anymore. His estate wouldn`t be enough to make even one of the family rich, and so why do it?
That pretty much said it all.