Blood Wedding by Pierre Lemaitre
Sophie is haunted by the things she can't remember - and visions from the past she will never forget.
Read an extract of Blood Wedding by Pierre Lemaitre. Once Read. Never Forgotten.
Posted on April 7, 2017 in Extract
This morning, like so many others, she woke with tears streaking her face and a hard lump in her throat though she had no particular reason to be upset. Tears are an everyday occurrence in her life: she has wept every night since she went mad. Were it not for the fact that her cheeks are damp every morning, she might think that her nights were spent in deep and peaceful sleep. But waking to find her face bathed in tears and a tightness in her throat is a simple fact of life. Since when? Since Vincent’s accident? Since his death? Since the first death, so long ago?
She props herself on one elbow, wipes her eyes with a corner of the sheet, fumbles for her cigarettes but cannot find them, then suddenly she realises where she is. Everything comes flooding back, everything that happened yesterday afternoon, last night . . . Immediately she understands that she must go, she must leave this house. Get up and get out, but still she lies there, rooted to the bed, incapable of the slightest movement. Drained.
When at last she manages to drag herself from the bed and stumble to the living room, Mme Gervais is sitting on the sofa, calmly bent over her laptop.
“All good? Sleep well?”
“All good. Yes, thank you.”
“You look a little peaky.”
“I’m always like this in the morning.”
Mme Gervais saves her file and closes the computer.
“Léo is still asleep,” she says, walking over to the coat stand. “I didn’t dare look in, I was afraid I might wake him. Since there’s no school today, I thought it best to let him sleep, give you a bit of peace . . .”
No school today. Sophie vaguely remembers something about an inset day. Mme Gervais is standing by the door, she has already slipped on her coat.
“I’ll leave you to it. . .”
She knows she does not have the courage to announce her decision. In fact, even if she had the courage, she would not have the time. Mme Gervais has already closed the door behind her.
Tonight . . .
Sophie hears footsteps on the stairs. Christine Gervais never takes the lift.
There is silence. For the first time since she has worked here, she lights a cigarette in the living room. She paces up and down. She feels like the survivor of a terrible disaster, everything seems futile. She has to leave. She feels less panicked now that she is alone, now that she is up, now that she has a cigarette. But she knows that, for Léo’s sake, she has to get ready to leave. To give herself time to collect her thoughts, she wanders into the kitchen and switches on the kettle.
Léo. Six years old.
As soon as she saw him that first time, she thought he was beautiful. It was four months earlier, in this same living room on rue Molière. He raced into the room, stopped dead in front of her and stared up, his head tilted slightly. In him is a sign of intense concentration. His mother simply said:
“Leó, this is Sophie ‒ remember I told you about her.’
He studied her for a long moment. Then he said “O.K.”, stepped forward, and hugged her.
Léo is a gentle child, a little awkward at times but intelligent and full of life. Sophie’s job entails taking him to school in the morning, collecting him at lunchtime and again in the evening, and looking after him until whichever random hour Mme Gervais or her husband finally return home. She can clock off work anytime between 5.00 p.m. and 2.00 in the morning. Her availability was a decisive factor in securing this job: she has no personal life, that much was obvious from the first interview. Mme Gervais did her best not to take advantage of Sophie’s constant availability, but the day-to-day routine trumps all ethical principles and, in less than two months, Sophie has become an indispensible part of family life. Because she is always there, always willing.
Léo’s father, a tall, lean, brusque man in his forties, is departmental head at the ministre des Affaires Étrangères. As for Mme Gervais, an elegant, willowy woman with a captivating smile, she tries to balance her onerous responsibilities as statistician to a firm of auditors with those of mother to Léo and wife to a future secretary of state. Each of them earns a very comfortable living. Sophie was wise enough not to exploit this evident fact when it came to negotiating her salary. In fact it did not occur to her, since what she was offered was sufficient for her needs. Mme Gervais increased her salary at the end of the second month.
As for Léo, he is devoted to her. Only she can effortlessly get him to do something that would require hours of coaxing from his mother. He is not, as she feared, a spoiled child prone to tantrums, but a quiet little boy who listens. He has his moods, obviously, but Sophie ranks high in his hierarchy. At the very top, in fact.
Every evening at about 6.00 p.m., Mme Gervais telephones to get the day’s news and in an embarrassed tone lets Sophie know what time she will be home. She always talks to her son for a few minutes before speaking to Sophie, with whom she does her best to be friendly. These attempts have met with scant success: Sophie confines her conversation to small talk and a resumé of what has happened during the day.
Léo is put to bed every night at 8.00 p.m. precisely. This is important. Sophie has no children of her own, but she has standards. After reading him a bedtime story, she spends the rest of the evening sitting in front of an enormous flat-screen television capable of receiving every available cable channel, a self-serving gift in the second month of her time there when, no matter what time she came home, Mme Gervais noticed that Sophie would be sitting in front of the television. More than once Mme Gervais has wondered how a woman in her thirties, who is clearly cultured, can be content in such a lowly job and spend her evenings staring at a small screen. During the first interview, Sophie explained that she studied communication. When Mme Gervais pressed her further, she said that she had completed a two-year technology diploma, that she had worked for a British-owned company ‒ though she did not say what her role was ‒ and that she had previously been married. Mme Gervais had been satisfied with this information. Sophie had come recommended a childhood friend, now the director of a recruitment consultancy who for some mysterious reason had been much taken by Sophie at her only interview. Besides, she needed someone immediately: Léo’s nanny had left without warning, having given no notice. Sophie’s calm, serious expression inspired confidence.
During the first weeks, Mme Gervais had probed her a little more about her life, but delicately gave up, sensing from Sophie’s answers that some “terrible secret tragedy” had blighted her life, a vestige of the romanticism common to many people, even among the upper classes.
As often happens, by the time the kettle began to boil, Sophie is lost in thought. With her, it is a state that can last for some time. It is as though she is absent. Her mind becomes fixated on a single idea, a single image, her thoughts slowly coil around it like an insect, she loses all sense of time. Then, by some force of gravity, she comes back to earth and to the present moment, and she picks up her life where she left off. This is how it is.
This time, curiously, it is the image of Doctor Brevet that comes into her mind. She has not thought about him in a long time. He was not at all as she had imagined him. On the telephone she had pictured a tall, overbearing figure, but in fact he is a short little man; he looks like a legal assistant overawed at being allowed to deal with less important clients. On one side of the consulting room is a bookshelf filled with knick-knacks. The moment she stepped into the psychologist’s office, she told him she did not want to lie on a couch, preferring to sit instead. Doctor Brevet made a gesture to indicate that this presented no problem. “I don’t have a couch here,” he said. Sophie explained herself as best she could. “A notepad,” the doctor finally declared. Sophie was to record everything she did. Perhaps she was making “a storm in a teacup” of these memory lapses of hers. One needed to try to see things objectively, said Doctor Brevet. That way, “you will be able to measure the extent of what you have forgotten, what you have missed.” And so Sophie began to note down everything. She had done so for about three weeks . . . Until their next session. And during that time she had forgotten many things. She had missed several meetings and, two hours before her visit with Doctor Brevet, she realised she had mislaid the notebook. She could not find it. Would this be the day she stumbled finally on Vincent’s birthday present? The one she had been unable to find when she had wanted to surprise him.
Everything is muddled, her whole life is a muddle . . .
She pours hot water into a bowl and finishes her cigarette. Friday. No school. Usually, she is required to look after Léo only during the day on Wednesdays, and sometimes at weekends. She takes him here and there, according to their whims and to the opportunities that present themselves. Until now they have had a lot of fun together, and a lot of arguments. To begin with everything was fine.
That is, until she began to have unsettling, and later disturbing feelings. She did not want to attach too much importance to them, tried to shoo them away like irritating flies, but they haunted her still. It began to affect her attitude to the child. Nothing alarming, not at first. Just something subterranean, silent. Something secret that involved them both.
Until the truth suddenly dawned on her, a day ago, on place Dandremont.
That late summer in Paris was warm and sunny. Léo wanted an ice cream. She sat on a bench, she was not feeling well. At first, she put her unease down to the fact they were in the square, a place she hates more than any other since she spends her time avoiding having conversations with mothers. She has succeeded in warding off the incessant efforts of the regulars. They have learned not to strike up a conversation with her. But she still has to deal with the mothers who drop in occasionally, the newcomers, the passers-by, not to mention the pensioners. She hates this square.
She is leafing absentmindedly through a magazine when Léo comes and stands in front of her. He is eating his ice cream, looking at her fixedly for no particular reason. She looks back at him. And in that precise moment she knows that she cannot bury this thought that has suddenly dawned on her: inexplicably, she has begun to loathe the child. He continues to stare at her intently and she feels a rising panic at the thought that everything about him is hateful: his angelic face, his lips, his idiotic grin, his ridiculous clothes.
“We’re leaving,” she says, though given her tone she might just as well have said, “I’m leaving.” The whirring contraption inside her head has started up again. With its lapses, its gaps, its holes, its babble . . . While she is hurrying back to the house (Léo whines when she walks too quickly), she is assailed by a jumble of images: Vincent’s car wrapped around a tree strobed by flashing blue lights in the darkness, her watch at the bottom of a jewellery box, the body of Mme Duguet tumbling down the stairs, the burglar alarm howling in the middle of the night . . . The images flicker, forward and backward, new and old. The dizzying machine is once again in perpetual motion.
Sophie never measures the years since she first went mad. It goes back too far. Perhaps because of the anguish involved, she feels the years count double. It began as a gradual descent, but as the months passed she began to feel she was on a toboggan, hurtling downhill. Sophie was married then. It was a time before . . . all this. Vincent was a very patient man. Every time Sophie thinks of him, he appears in a series of slow dissolves: the face of the young man, smiling, serene, dissolving into the haggard, sallow face of those last months, the glazed eyes. In the early days of their marriage (she can still conjure their apartment in perfect detail and cannot help but wonder how a single mind can have so many memories and at the same time so many lacunae), Sophie was just a little scatter-brained. This was how he described it: “Sophie is scatter-brained.” But she consoled herself because she had always been that way. Then her absent-mindedness became strangeness. In a few short months, everything fell apart. She began to forget meetings, things, people; she began to lose things, keys, documents, only to find them weeks later in the most unlikely places. In spite of his natural calm, Vincent gradually became anxious. It was understandable. As time went on . . . she forgot to take the pill, mislaid birthday presents, Christmas decorations. It was enough to try the most patient of souls. At this point Sophie began to note everything down with the meticulous care of a junkie going cold turkey. She lost the notepads. She lost her car, her friends; she was arrested for theft, little by little her problems infected every area of her life and, like an alcoholic, she began to hide her lapses of memory, to lie, to cover up ‒ so that neither Vincent nor anyone else was aware of anything. A therapist suggested a spell in hospital. She refused, until death arrived, uninvited, to join her madness.
As she walks, Sophie opens her bag, rummages inside, lights a cigarette with trembling fingers, inhales deeply. She closes her eyes. Despite the pulsing drone that fills her head and the physical malaise, she notices that Léo is no longer beside her. She turns and sees him in the distance, standing in the middle of the pavement, his arms folded, scowling, stubbornly refusing to move. The sight of this sulky child standing there suddenly fills her with rage. She retraces her steps, stops in front of him and lashes out, giving him a resounding smack.
It is the sound of the slap that brings her to herself. She is mortified, she turns to see whether anyone is watching. There is no-one, the street is quiet, a lone motorcycle passes by. She stares at the boy as he rubs his cheek. He stares back at her, he is not crying. It is as though he realises that this is not really about him.
“We’re going home,” she says in a decisive tone.
And that is that.
They did not say a word to each other all evening. They each had their reasons. She vaguely wondered whether the slap might not get her into trouble with Mme Gervais, though she realised she did not really care ‒ now that she had decided to go, it was as though she had already left.
As though fate had willed it so, Christine Gervais arrived home especially late that night. Sophie was asleep on the sofa in front of the television where a basketball match was playing to cheers and applause. She was woken by the silence when Mme Gervais switched off the television.
“It’s very late,” she said apologetically.
Sophie looked up at the figure in a coat standing in front of her. She gave a muffled “No.”
“Do you want to sleep over?”
When she comes home late, Mme Gervais always offers to let her stay the night, she says no and Mme Gervais pays for a taxi.
In an instant, Sophie replays the footage of her day, the evening they had spent in pained silence, the evasive looks, Léo gravely and patiently listening to the bedtime story, his mind obviously elsewhere. When he reluctantly allowed her to kiss him goodnight, she was surprised to find herself saying:
“It’s alright, poppet, it’s alright. I’m sorry . . .”
Léo gave a little nod. It was as if in that moment the adult world had burst into his little universe and he, too, was exhausted. He fell asleep straightaway.
Last night, Sophie was so exhausted that she accepted the offer to stay over.
She cradles the bowl of tea, now cold, in both hands, hardly noticing the tears that fall heavily on the wooden floor. She has a fleeting image of a cat nailed to a wooden door. A black and white cat. Other images bubble up. Corpses. Her past is littered with the dead.
It is time. A glance at the clock on the kitchen wall: 9.20. Without realising, she has lit another cigarette. She stubs it out nervously.
The sound of her own voice makes her start. She can hear the fear in it, but she does not know where it comes from.
She rushes into the boy’s room. On the bed, the rumpled blankets look like a rollercoaster. She sighs with relief, even gives a vague smile. As her fear subsides, in spite of herself she feels a surge of grateful tenderness.
She moves to the bed.
“Oh dear me, where can my little man be . . .?”
She turns around.
“Is he in here?”
She gently taps the door of the pine wardrobe, still looking at the bed out of the corner of her eye.
“He’s not in the wardrobe. Maybe in the drawers . . .”
She pulls out a drawer and pushes it home, once, twice, three times.
“Not this one . . . not that one . . . nope, not here. Where could he be?”
She walks to the door and says in a loud voice:
“Well, if he’s not in his bedroom, maybe I should go . . .”
She clacks the door shut without leaving the room, staring at the shape under the blankets. Watching for a movement. Then she feels a knot in the pit of her stomach. The shape is all wrong. She stands frozen, tears start to well again, but they are different now, these are the tears of long ago, the ones that fell, shimmering on the bloodied body of a man slumped over a steering wheel, the tears she felt as she pressed her hands into an old woman’s back and pushed her down the stairs.
Unconsciously, she walks over to the bed and rips away the blankets.
Léo is there, but he is not asleep. He is naked, huddled, his wrists tied to his ankles, his head between his knees. In profile, his face is a disturbing colour. His pyjamas have been used to bind him. Around his throat, a shoelace is pulled so tightly that it has left a deep groove in the flesh.
She brings her hand to her mouth, but she cannot stop herself from vomiting. She lurches forward, managing at the last minute to avoid steadying herself on the child’s body, then she has no choice but to lean on the bed. And the small body rolls towards her, Léo’s head bumps against her knees. She clutches him so hard that nothing can prevent them falling on top of each other.
And now here she is, slumped on the floor, her back against the wall, hugging Léo’s cold, lifeless body to her . . . Her own screams are so wrenching they might have come from someone else. Despite the tears blurring her vision she can see the extent of the tragedy. She strokes his hair instinctively. His face, pale and mottled, is turned towards her, but his wide eyes stare out at nothing.
Blood Wedding is out now in paperback.