Robert King’s heart pounded. His mind raced with a strange mixture of joyous anticipation, tempered with more than a little apprehension. He tried to push the apprehension aside, to pretend it was simply excitement, but there was little he could do about it.
He could not even control the random thoughts racing through his mind. He found himself wondered why French bedrooms, even in modern hotels, always looked as if Louis XV’s personal architect had designed them.
This bedroom at “Les Trois Couronnes” was no exception. Plain cream walls, white and silver shimmering stripes on the bed linen, emphasising the rich red carpet, gold and red upholstery of the chairs and the curtains made from the same or very similar material. Of course to supplement the curtains there were the ever present wooden shutters across the window.
Ah! That was it! The woodwork! The woodwork was raw wood, varnished. Quite different from the fashion elsewhere where costs were kept down by using minimal woodwork painted white.
He walked to the window and opened the shutters.
There, across the River Aude, illuminated by a thousand lights was the towering bulk of La Cité, the most perfectly preserved medieval castle in Europe.
Castle! No! It was a city in its own right with, a labyrinth of narrow streets, several different squares in which to socialise and eat, a central palace and even a cathedral.
As he lingered over the view, through the open window drifted the seductive strains of Beethoven emanating from the terrace of the restaurant where Robert had recently dined with Fabienne. Was it his imagination, or had the pianist now moved on to the more stirring of the Sonatas?
He could still smell Fabienne’s perfume. Was that a deliberate characteristic of women’s perfumes that the smell lingered; that it was impossible to forget the woman who was wearing it?
He turned and looked at the door; multi-panelled varnished wood, in keeping with the rest of the room. The door was furnished with a large round brass knob and paradoxically, in a hotel with electronic security, a large brass keyhole, which Robert knew was locked from the other side with a matching brass key.
Earlier in the day, Fabienne had caught the early Ryan Air flight from Paris to Carcassonne. The French genes in her made her resent bitterly having to use an Irish air line to travel internally within Metropolitan France.
She then had to wait for the arrival of Robert’s flight from Liverpool. While she waited she had several coffees in the tiny restaurant which overlooked the air strip. From this position of vantage she was able to watch Robert disembark. She smiled with satisfaction. He had changed little. Tall, well built, just like a rugby wing forward should be, but slim. Then again, he was so light on his feet; he prowled rather than walked, like a big cat ready to pounce. She was surprised to experience a shudder of pleasure as he moved towards her. Robert had a shock of black hair, indented cheeks under high cheek bones, a determined chin and relatively tight mouth, but above all bright but kindly eyes.
They both chattered inconsequentially as they dealt with the formalities of car hire then travelled into city. The car park was underneath the hotel and access to the hotel was by a tiny dilapidated lift.
The receptionist appeared genuinely confused as she looked at the passports. She addressed Robert.
‘I am sorry Monsieur. There seems to be a mistake.” She hesitated and looked from one to the other querulously. “There are two rooms booked, are you brother and sister?’
Fabienne smiled as Robert cleared his throat. “Non, Ma’moiselle, we are not brother and sister and there is no mistake, we have indeed booked two rooms, but I hope that each room has a double bed.” He cleared his throat again. Fabienne smiled again, Robert was blushing,
He spluttered an explanation. ‘I do not sleep well in a single bed.’
The receptionist looked even more puzzled. She now looked for guidance to Fabienne.
“But Madame your names are the same! Madame and Monsieur King.”
Fabienne told her in French that the booking was correct; providing each room had “Le Grande Lit” She decided that it was better to tell the receptionist the truth. “We used to be married but now we are divorced. However we have decided to take a holiday together.”
A brilliant smile lit up the receptionist’s face. “Ah Madame, Je comprend, formidable.” She had obviously decided that Robert did not speak good French and she focussed her attention on Fabienne before she dived back into a drawer full of room folders underneath her bench.
As the receptionist sorted and re-sorted the folders, Fabienne had a momentary panic. What was she doing here with this man to whom she had been briefly married fifteen years ago, when she was very, very young?
She consoled herself that it was really a business trip. She was Robert’s research assistant and they would spend the holiday working on his book.
Robert had noticed the smiles exchanged between Fabienne and the receptionist. They had, he believed, reached some sort of Gallic understanding.
The receptionist lifted her head, indicating that she had made a decision. Robert understood enough French to follow the conversation. ”We do have a slight problem , I have two rooms on the third floor with views of La Cité as was initially booked, but there is some maintenance work required. There are however alternative rooms on the fourth floor, still with a view of La Cité. She smiled coquettishly. The rooms are adjacent and have an interconnecting door.” Again another shy smile. ‘I will make sure Madame, that the key for the interconnecting door is on your side.’
Robert had to turn away, it was his turn to smile. How typically French! The receptionist had taken control.
He also knew that within seconds the whole hotel would know their situation; he did not mind. He knew that they would get superb service; fresh linen every morning and preferential seating at lunch and dinner. They would probably bring Fabienne a bottle of champagne at seven in the morning to tempt her to share it with him. Anything, in fact, to get them in each other’s arms. It would become a project to enliven their workaday week.
It raised interesting possibilities. Though Robert had come to work on his book, now he was here, close to her, he felt a long forgotten stirring of the blood.
Robert had a long held belief that a black jacket was always the right choice for dinner. He made sure that he was ready early and waited at the bar. It was France so Robert ordered a 1789 cocktail; White Wine, Whiskey, and Lillet .
Upstairs Fabienne looked anxiously in the huge mirror framed in lime oak mounted behind the door. Suddenly she knew. No more pretence. She wanted this man.
Fabienne chose a dress of brightest red. There was a pencil thin halter support which ran to the outer extremities of a structured bodice. Below the bodice the dress clung to her body until a full skirt hung from her hips. She carried a tiny red purse and to finish the ensemble she wore red bougainvillea leaves wound into the side of her hair.
She was pleased with the effect but made a last minute change. She removed her dress, bra and pants. She disposed of the underwear in a drawer at the side of the bed. and then carefully manouvered herself back into the dress. She then squeezed her feet into a pair of bright red shoes with high pencil-thin heels.
She smiled and nodded at her reflection. Just that extra “petite morceau” of décolletage and the removal of the slight disturbance to the line of her dress which had been caused by the underwear. Not only that but she now felt free, vulnerable, sexy. Just the way she wanted to feel.
When Fabienne arrived in the restaurant she joined Robert at the bar. She kissed him on the cheek, as if she was acting out a part in a romantic drama.
‘La petite gorgée pleeese’.
Good! Very Good! She observed that Robert could not take his eyes off her as she slowly, very slowly raised his glass to her lips.
She thought for several seconds rolling the sip gently round her mouth. “Ah! zee 1789, Oui, s’il vous plait.” The barman busied himself and manged to nod at Robert in the midst of a burst of frenzied activity. ‘Encore Monsieur?’
Robert nodded. He became aware that suddenly all eyes were focussed on them, or rather on her.
He was pleased they had made the effort to dress for dinner. Having finished their cocktails, they were held by the door until the head waiter had decided that everyone in the restaurant had noticed their arrival.
They were given one of only two tables on the terrace overlooking the river. This then required them to walk down the entire length of the restaurant. Robert deferred to Fabienne and the head waiter walked in front of her apparently to indicate the correct table but in practice the movement of his arms suggested that he was deliberately attracting attention to the gorgeous creature who was visiting his restaurant.
Fabienne swung her hips as she walked placing one foot immediately in front of the other as if she was on a catwalk. Her skirt swung from her hips showing off her legs and the red shoes.
As Robert walked behind her he was even more aware that everyone was watching her and he saw several heads nodding together as they discussed her identity or commented on her presentation. It was as they walked towards the table that Robert realised that he was still in love with this woman.
He shivered slightly. Technically they were now friends, not man and wife and certainly not lovers. He lost control of his thought processes. This was not at all what he had intended at least not so soon after meeting her. A wrong move might alienate Fabienne forever and that was certainy not what he wanted.
The pianist had been playing a selection of songs from Rod Stewart’s “American Songbook” when they arrived but as they approached the table he seamlessly changed to the sensuous tones of Beethoven’s Sonatas.
As they sat down at the table Robert felt very unsure of himself. Fabienne immediately saved the situation.
“Oh! Roberre, theese is so good! I have been waiting for the chance to wear theese high heels for so long but it is not possible if one’s escort is small.” She fluttered her eyes slightly to let him know that she was complimenting him. Robert smiled, Fabienne’s English was if anything better than he remembered it but there was still a tendancy to extend the pronunciation of it to eet, this to thees and occasionally to use French rather than English sentence structures. Of course he would always be’ Roberre ‘not ‘Robert’.
He had always found the way she spoke attractive, but she had changed. He had married he in her late teens and he remembered her body as soft, feminine. Now in a dress which exposed her shoulders and arms he could see that her body was no longer soft. She now looked like an athlete. He wondered what could have brought about that change?
He was silent, desperately searching for the correct reaction to the complement she had paid him.
Fabienne sensed he was struggling and became suddenly businesslike. “I was delighted that you thought enough of me to send me your book to read. I like it very much.” It was a good choice. It took Robert back into familiar territory. He found it possible to relax.
Robert smiled; a genuine warm smile. “You have already been very helpful.” He paused but then carried on more hesitantly. “Now we are face to face I must ask you, do you really like the book?” Fabienne raised both her hands in the air, palms facing Robert, in a gesture of enthusiasm.
”Wonderful story. Magnifique! It made me desire to come here and see it all for myself.” ‘Here in Carcassonne, we must see both La Cité and the Bastide. Then we must visite Foix.” A look of excitement crossed her face. ”Of course! Château Mazerou.”
Robert looked up from the wine list. ‘We will do all of that, but you do realise that Château Mazerou no longer exists? There is a small vineyard and perhaps traces of the ornamental gardens but the main Château?’ He hesitated, not wanting to disappoint her. ‘All that is left is a flat plateau half way up a steep hill. Clearly the plateau is man-made but there is no sign of the original structure.’
‘It matters not Roberre, I want to stand la in bare feet and feel the vibrations. You have told me that your story is pure fiction but to me it has become very real.’
Robert felt much better. Fabienne’s enthusiasm was obviously genuine and most infectious.
‘I am so pleased,” he said. ”But tell me, what did you like best?’
There was then an interruption whilst the wine waiter took Robert’s order. He remembered that Fabienne liked Gevertstraminer as an aperitif and Châteauneuf du Pape with her main course. ‘You will be eating meat as your main course?’ he asked Fabienne, before he placed the order. She nodded her assent. They were now both faced with the menu, which was another distraction. Robert never obtained an answer to his previous question. Instead they cautiously started to ask each other about the last fifteen years, mixing this in with discussions of menu options.
In a moment of silence Fabienne started a new topic. “Back to the book for a moment, I now feel that I know the main characters of Jean and Ximene very well.” She smiled encouragingly. “Tell me, did you base some of Ximene on me?”
Robert knew there was only one answer he could give. Nevertheless he could give it enthusiastically. He could tell the truth. “Of course I did, we did have some wonderful times….”He stopped abruptly, trying to gauge her reaction. Was this too much too fast? He need not have worried.
Fabienne smiled warmly. “Yes we did Robert, we did.”
The waiter then arrived and there followed a negotiation about what was still on the menu and what was not. This continued until the waiter effectively recommended what he believed they should eat. In the end both Robert and Fabienne complied. It was a good decision. The food served was superb. As they ate they compared notes on their recent lives and their current interests.
Suddenly Fabienne returned the conversation to the book ‘The story ees formidable, and I thought it was for you clever to start every chapter with a date. It makes sure that your readers know that it is set in 1355, but…’ She hesitated but smiled encouragement, ‘you know there are some deficiencies. You are, pardonne moi, a very grey person. Everyone in the book is honourable; no one gives way to their passion.’
Robert frowned. ‘John and Ximene have some very passionate encounters.’
‘Perhaps I am not using the correct word. I want to help you show some weaknesses, perhaps they could be overcome with anger or jealousy.
I also want to help you introduce some evil. There ought to be someone who is really evil, someone who inflicts pain and punishment on the heroes.’
Robert nodded acquiescence, he did not want to argue and deep down he knew that she was right. ‘Well, whilst we are together those are ideas we should pursue,’ he said and immediately felt that he had been far too dismissive. Fabienne did not appear to take any offence.
Mixed in with sighs of contentment as she completed her meal, Fabienne continued to deliver her assessment of Robert’s novel. “ A problem is that when Jean comes in contact with the woman, Ximene, she belongs to the Cathar faith. However, other than vague references to different ethical and sexual standards you do not spell out what these different standards are.”
‘Hmmm,’ Robert replied, ‘the problem is that the main source of information about the Cathars is the Vatican records of their Inquisition. They tend to denigrate the alternative religion. To my eye it is obviously wrong but where do I get better information?’
Fabienne smiled triumphantly. ‘Before I left Paris, I went to the Bibliotheque Nationale. I have copies of many documents which give a better view of the Cathar religion as it was in 1355 than is available from the Vatican records. In general history is written by the victors, but we might have the opportunity to override that. During this holiday we should read and interpret these documents…,” she hesitated and place heavy emphasis on the next word, “together.” She then paused to enjoy the food for a few minutes. Without any warning she asked another question.
“ Why did you write this story?”
Caught by surprise, Robert hardly thought about his reply. ‘I love this part of the world and learned about the Cathars from a lovely librarian at Limoux and more from a schoolteacher I met at Couisa. Ximene’s story suddenly emerged in my mind. It was as if all I had to do was document her story, even that I had a duty to do so.’ He bowed his head. ‘I think I am in love with Ximene!’
Fabienne looked at him gently, she stretched out her hand to touch his. ‘I knew that, even from the way you pronounce her name.’
There followed a period of silence and then conversation in which there was gentle reinforcement that they were enjoying the reunion. They ordered desserts, coffee’s and brandies, simply to extend the perfection of the moment. They were about to leave the table, both feeling comfortable with each other’s company. Suddenly Fabienne reached across and grasped both of Robert’s hands.
‘I was not telling you exactement the truth. I have read all the documents from the Bibliotheque. I know how Ximene lived her life. You, pardonnez-moi, Roberre, do not. If you think you have love for Ximene, then I must become Ximene.
I will teach you about my beliefs, which are very unusual. You will have to deal with a passion and liberality which may shock you. You know what authors say show d’ont tell I will do that A way of living and loving which has not been practiced for a thousand years. In this way you will experience personally what Jean experienced when all those years ago he met Ximene.”
Robert’s mind reeled as he left the restaurant. He realised he had just received a most erotic proposition from his wife. No! Not his wife! This beautiful stranger. His mind was in a turmoil.
Now back in his room he looked at the door. It was a symbolic separation under Fabienne’s, or was it Ximene’s, control. It seemed like an eternity. There was then a gentle tap on the door.
“Jean, it is Ximene, may I open the door, it is time we started.”
It was the first and only time in Robert’s life that he felt that opening a door was an act of intimacy.