Empathy – Part One

An experiment, of sorts. A short story in five parts, starting today and ending on Friday. I’m making this one up as I go (well, I make them ALL up – mostly – but you know what I mean). I’ve spell-checked it but that’s about as far as I’ve gone with the editing, so please excuse its first-draftness, and keep your fingers crossed that I can answer the question that I suspect all writers find terrifying and wonderful – What Happens Next? I have an X on my mental map marking the likely final destination of the story, but knowing myself as I do, I’m apt to spill coffee on the map or lose it or become distracted and turn it into a paper plane. We shall see. Anyway, here we go …

The night Pierre Leveque gave me his secrets, I thought he wanted nothing more than forgiveness in return, but there was another, hidden reason behind his final confession that I didn’t understand then. I know better now. The telling makes it real, you see, and not like the terrible dream it seems to be.

That’s why I’m telling you.

One morning in early December I received a telephone call from Pierre’s solicitor. She told me of his illness – terminal is such a clinical word – and of his final wish to see me that night. Hearing that he was dying hurt me, and realising that it had been thirty years – thirty! – since we last spoke didn’t make it hurt any less. I had spent those years toiling away in the same accounts department of the same electronics company until my retirement five years ago, the summer I lost my childhood sweetheart to leukaemia. Dear, sweet Yvonne. My only comfort now is that I honoured her wish to be cremated. I dread to anticipate my actions had I behaved otherwise.

There had been letters, of course, three decades worth, always filed with the rubbish the moment I saw Pierre’s elegantly spiky script upon the envelope. I never had any wish to open them, but now, knowing suddenly that the hand behind those unread words would soon be stilled, I found myself agreeing to Pierre’s request. His solicitor, an engaging English mademoiselle who sounded too young to have been born when her client’s trial was meat for the vultures, assured me that Monsieur Leveque would be pleased.

I declined Pierre’s offer of transport, choosing instead to travel to his prison via the cold labyrinth of the metro. Gliding beneath the snowbound streets of Paris, I knew we would have to talk of the business with Alain – the cause of the chasm between us. My horror of Pierre’s crime was undiminished, an open wound we shared, but as the warder held aside the white plastic curtain that concealed Pierre’s deathbed even though the rest of the infirmary was empty, I saw that the time for quarrels was past, and the time of understanding – and thus true horror – was only just beginning.

I remember the space around his bed looked strangely barren without the medical equipment one normally associates with such scenarios. No hanging bags of IV nourishment or beeping screens waiting to flatline. Pierre had ordered that under no circumstances should his life (or his life sentence) be extended beyond its natural conclusion, and even when incarcerated men of Pierre’s wealth almost always get what they want. And the Prison Governor got the yacht he’d always dreamed of, I hear.

Sitting beside his bed, I was unable to tear my gaze away from the wasted scarecrow beneath the sheets, so shocked and saddened was I at how his illness and the lost time between us had carved lines into his face. His blue eyes had faded, grown jaundiced and bloodshot, yet they widened in recognition the instant they met mine.

‘Jacques. Thank you for coming.’

Something broke inside me when I heard how weak and rasping his voice had become, but I managed to smile and answer, ‘I’m only here because I couldn’t get tickets for the theatre.’

He chuckled, a rattling and empty sound. ‘You should’ve mentioned my name.’

I nodded, peeling off my gloves. ‘So … how are you feeling?’

Pierre arched an eyebrow at me. ‘This cheap mattress is my fucking deathbed. How do you think I’m feeling?’

I winced, partly because the cold night had set my arthritis flexing its claws. It was a very cold night.

Pierre sighed. ‘Sorry.’ He closed his eyes for a moment. ‘I heard about Yvonne. I’m sorry about that, too. I wasn’t sure if I should send flowers -‘

I sliced off his apology. ‘I’m glad you didn’t. They wouldn’t have been welcome.’

‘No …’ he said thoughtfully. ‘No, of course they wouldn’t.’

An uneasy silence fell between us – the silence of strangers, I realised. Then Pierre said, ‘Jacques, you know why I … why I needed to see you?’

I nodded.

‘I don’t have much time.’ he went on. ‘The doctor here is alarmingly young but I believe he knows his job. He tells me I have another few days, but we both know he’s being a trifle optimistic.’ He coughed weakly, and I reached for the mineral water beside his bed, but Pierre shook his head. ‘Jacques, I want to explain. There are things I couldn’t say at the trial, or in my letters to you. And I want to tell you more about Alain.’

Yes. Alain Leveque – Pierre’s identical twin. Just hearing Pierre speak his name again made my disgust uncoil, but I simply nodded once more. The metal legs of the chair beside Pierre’s deathbed squeaked against the tiles as I pulled it towards me and sat.

‘Go on.’ I heard myself say.

To Be Continued

Part Two

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