The Virgin of Melun
There are faster ways to travel than by train, a flight to Antwerp would have taken a fraction of the time, but I enjoyed the more leisurely transition from one country to the next, from one culture to another. The general preference in a hectic world being for quicker transport, that day the service was greatly under-subscribed, so I was surprised that in a carriage which was no more than half full the woman who boarded in Brussels should choose to seat herself facing me.
As she settled, and the journey continued, I was unable to tell if the woman opposite was looking at me or not. From the moment she seated herself she kept her head turned a little to one side, and though the sky outside was a drab gray she wore dark sunglasses. All I could see was myself mirrored in the tar black lenses and her face reflected in the window of the railway carriage, like a pale specter superimposed on the flat countryside which flashed by. The tilt of the head, the elegant curve of the neck, suggested that she might have been regarding me behind the heavily tinted lenses, but she could just as easily have been dozing, dulled by the monotony of the Benelux landscape.
Deciding to take the woman´s silence as signifying boredom, I returned to scribbling in my notepad, occasionally studying my own reflection as I looked up to compose my thoughts.
Eventually the woman spoke, a slightly harsh and smoky voice intruding. "I sense a reluctant traveler?"
I looked up, saw that she still faced the carriage window but knew that she could only be speaking to me. "A reluctant traveler? Me? Why do you say that?"
She gestured lazily, the elegant tapered fingers like a reluctant caress, a hesitant ghost of a touch. "You are tense, your muscles are taut, your limbs in knots, suggesting to me that you do not enjoy travel. If we were on an aircraft I would say that you have a fear of flying. Being on a train, as we are, I would suppose that you are a reluctant traveler, seeing it as a necessary inconvenience. Perhaps you are a man more suited to traveling by donkey?"
"No, in fact I enjoy travel very much. Which is fortunate, since that is what I do for a living."
"You travel for a living? As a salesman?" she guessed, but then gave a quick shake of the head. "No, not you. Not a salesman. What you scribble in that notepad of yours is nothing as dry as an audit. You use words rather than figures, gaze at the words you write as if you love them and they are precious to you. So what, if not a salesman? What is it that takes you to Antwerp? The fashion, the diamonds or the art?"
"My work might take in any or all of those," I said, sensing from her manner that she might prefer clues rather than direct answers.
A facility with words and a fondness for European culture had found me employment with a publisher of alternative tourist guides, rougher publications than those of Michelin or Fodor, rougher even than the 'rougher' guides. It was a commission which took me to those parts of the continent that other guides might fail to reach, the more interesting areas of Europe's capitals. If an American has been to a gay bar in Barcelona or a fetish club in Berlin, a sex museum in Amsterdam or a party for swinging couples in Puerto Banus the chances are that they were guided there by me. I left this unsaid, though, for the dark glasses hinted at a woman who enjoyed enigmas, who perhaps liked to be regarded as one herself; the long coat she wore, wrapping her like a cocoon from the fur collar tucked snug beneath her chin down to her slender ankles, seemed intended to make something of a mystery of her body, denying it to men at the same time that she invited them to imagine it; a woolen beret was so closely fitting that not so much as a strand of hair escaped it."And your personal interests? Leisure after work? They would lead you where? To what?"
"Art, I guess. I will certainly make some time for that while I'm in Antwerp. The Rubens Museum, I thought."
"Tsk!" she said, with a click of the tongue and a shake of her head. "Hardly worth the price of admission. There are ten, maybe a dozen works of Rubens there, and none of them all that accomplished. The usual vanity of a self-portrait, an utterly insipid Adam and Eve with not a hint of sin or shame about them. No, if you want a work of art that will entrance you what I would suggest is..."
The train was slowing, switching from track to track as we approached Antwerpen-Centraal. From the purse beside her on the seat the woman took a tiny notepad and a Mont Blanc pen, scribbled on a page and then tore it from the pad. As she handed the folded slip of paper to me, as the train slowed to a halt and she stood, she unfastened the belt at her waist and parted her coat. In the instant that she wrapped it more snugly around her I saw the silk dress beneath, a blue-gray color almost like pewter, a slender strap holding it at the left shoulder, the other shoulder bare, that side of the dress hanging free to bare a pale luminescent breast.
"Try that place," she told me, pulling the belt tight around her body again, and briefly she raised her sunglasses, smiled down at me. Her blond eyebrows were plucked so finely that they were little more than faint chalk marks, the smooth skin of her forehead stretched so taut by the beret she wore that it was as though she was a skull grinning down at me. "Try there," she repeated, turning and leaving as I struggled to tuck the paper into my pocket and grapple with my bags.
She had gone by the time I gathered my things together.
I booked into a hotel off the Grote Markt, just behind the town hall, central enough at the same time that it was quiet. There I showered and changed, dined in the restaurant and had a couple of drinks in the bar. Refreshed by a good night's sleep, I was up early the next morning, worked at my laptop to revise the drafts of my previous week's researches and finalize them, then attached them to an e-mail to send to my publishers, giving them the latest extract of my 'rough' guide.
That was Paris completed, so now for Antwerp. Slipping a fresh notebook into my jacket pocket, I went out to see what might have changed since my last visit, be it for better or for worse.
Walking at a stroll, as a guide must if he is scouting the city for a tourist, I moved in lazy, ever-increasing circles out from the square, skirting the Brabo Fountain, the Cathedral, losing myself in the medieval streets which remembered a golden age of the city, the time of Rubens.
"Tsk! Not Rubens!" I recalled being cautioned, as I found myself in the Sailors' Quarter where some of the prostitutes were already displaying themselves though it was only just midday. The trick, I knew, was not to make eye-contact with these women, for the slightest glance in their direction would have them at their windows, drumming fingers or nails against the glass, tapping it with their rings to demand a man's attention and then thrusting forward suggestively, trying to tempt him. One did catch my eye though, despite my resolve, the palest blaze of flesh causing me to look up. She was not as scantily dressed as the rest, not wearing the flimsy lingerie which was so customary that it lost its allure, but instead a simple silk dress, as if she was invited to a cocktail party after her shift. What had caught my eye most of all, though, and now held it, was the way one breast was bared.
I stared and she smiled, for one moment I thought it was the woman from the train, with the same plucked eyebrows and skeletally smooth forehead, short blond hair as pale as her skin and cut close as a cap, so that she might just as well have been shaven-headed; but then she sneered, parted her lips in a snarl which I could almost hear despite the window which separated us. Stepping forward, resting one hand flat against the window, with the other she began to hike up her dress to bare her thighs, expose her groin.
I could imagine her laughter ringing after me, reverberating about her tiny cell as I hurried off.
Once away from the Sailors Quarter, I hopped a tram for the south of the city, t'Zuid, got off at Leopold de Waelplaats. It was as if everything was predestined, as if I was a character in a novel whose plot I had no control over. The slip of paper handed to me by the woman on the train gave the address in English, that of the Royal Museum of Fine Arts, followed by directions I should follow on entering; cross the foyer, turn left into the first room, then on through to the next.
The museum was quiet, as if its imposing neoclassical approach deterred all but the most ardent aesthetes from entering, and I worked my way quickly from room to room, for once paying little attention to the paintings around me, thinking only of the woman's scribbled directions, wondering at their purpose and where they would lead me.
The room I arrived at housed a collection of fifteenth-century paintings, not dissimilar to the Van Eycks I had passed in the previous room, Flemish in character, vivid in color and sharply delineated. The painting which caught my immediate attention could have been of the woman from the train, the last image I had of her which was still imprinted on my mind; the face as blanched and bare as a skull with eyebrows scarcely discernible, the smooth patina of the skin stretched taut across the forehead, the naked breast exposed in what now seemed a sinful prurient way. Of course the dress was of a different fashion, though still the same blue-gray color, and instead of a beret she sported more regal head wear, the general theme more suited to the period of the room than to the carriage of a twenty-first century train speeding from Brussels to Antwerp.
I looked around, as if guiltily needing to check that I was alone, then approached the painting cautiously, stealthily, not wanting my footsteps to betray my presence. It was identified as 'The Virgin of Melun', painted by Jean Fouquet, circa 1450.
Was it the infant in her lap -the infant Jesus- which was incongruous, or was it the breast that she bared? She was perhaps about to offer the child her milk? But no, she was not nursing the child, which would have been a reasonable enough assumption; the breast she bared was not that of a lactating mother but more a smooth adolescent breast. In what purported to be a religious painting this was surely inappropriate, the Flemish painters of the fifteenth century would never go so far in their pursuit of realism. But then the artist was French, I read, which might explain the disturbing blend of the sacred and the profane. So, take the infant away, and the breast would be bared for what reason? Offered to whom?
To the artist? The viewer? Me?
The milk would be sweet and rich, heavy on the stomach, the nipple would swell as lips fastened on it, the breast would fill the mouth until it threatened to choke the recipient, take the breath away. And if it seemed that the mouth was about to pull away, if the Virgin sensed any reluctance to drink deeply of her milk, then her hand would cradle the head, holding it fondly but firmly against her.
"The 'Virgin' knew you would return," said the concierge who opened the door, stepping to one side and gesturing for me to enter.
"Who?" I asked, but the woman's only answer was to take me by the hand and draw me forward, closing the door after me and then leading the way along the corridor and up a shallow flight of stairs
As I had passed her window outside, on returning to the Sailors' Quarter, the woman in the silk dress had simply smiled and turned her back to me, no beating a tattoo on the glass, no beckoning gesture or lewd invitation, just a simple acceptance of my presence. But her breast was bared again as I entered her room. Seated in an armchair of red leather, to one side of the large bed which was the room's only other furniture, she held it cupped lightly in her hand, fingers elegantly splayed.
"You're the woman from the train?" I said, feeling sure that she was.
"The Virgin traveling by train?" she smiled, with the cold grin that a patient teacher might afford a slow child. "Would a mule not be more appropriate transport?"
"The 'Virgin'... why did the woman who admitted me call you that?"
"Because that is what I am," she answered, her thumb pressing lightly against her breast, the lacquered nail making a slight indentation in the pale flesh. "The Virgin," she stressed, quite serious, with no humor. "No man has penetrated me or ever will."
"Yet you work as a prostitute here in the Sailors Quarter?" I smiled.
"Have you come here to have your curiosity satisfied or looking for some more physical satisfaction?"
"Satisfaction from a virgin, someone who has not been penetrated or ever will be?"
"There are more ways of affording satisfaction than the obvious, penetration is not always necessary. Nor even the crudeness of a hand-job, or the silkiness of fellatio. The imagination can achieve just as much, and more, I can describe what you want to feel, what you will feel...."
What I felt was a debilitating contentment and an overwhelming torpor, it was all that I could do to fall from the bed and dress. Taking my wallet from my jacket pocket and opening it, I ran my thumb across the bank notes inside.
Without rancor as she watched me, with no hint of insult but perhaps a trace of amusement, the woman said quite flatly, "You think I do this for money?"
"You don't?" I said, regarding her curiously, seated again in her chair of red leather, calm and composed, quite regal in her bearing.
"No, I do not, I am not a whore and have no need of a man's money," she answered. "If it would make the occasion seem more like the transaction you were expecting, though, you may take me to dinner."
And with that, before I could reply or even consider, she dismissed me, telling me to wait for her in the bar opposite. Obediently, my agreement seeming to be taken for granted, I left the room. The stairs I descended to the street seemed steeper than before. Or deeper. I took them as a child might, singly, one step at a time, guessed that it was the weariness brought on by euphoria which had me so clumsy and hesitant. Crossing the street, entering the bar she had directed me to, I found that mixture of clientele typical of a red-light quarter; a couple of street-girls and flash men who might have been pimps, rougher types who might have been doormen or petty-crooks, obvious punters better attired, drinking away the shame of their recent sin or perhaps plucking up the courage to sin for the first time.
I felt quite detached from all these -after all, I had not paid for my pleasure- ordered a cold beer and went to sit at a vacant table. One or two of the regulars cast idle glances in my direction, perhaps trying to categorize me as I had done them, but I didn't mind, was quite at ease, for not only did I feel detached from the company but also in some way superior.
When the woman entered some thirty minutes later, though, I experienced a sudden moment of concern.
One of the street-girls had been staring at me for some minutes, no doubt wondering at my purpose there, had just risen from her seat and was approaching me to try her luck. She was no more than a foot or two away from my table when the woman arrived.
Silhouetted by the neon lights of the street, little more than a shadow against the blaze of color, I immediately recognized the assured pose of the Virgin. Without hesitation she entered the room and strode towards me, and my concern was with the fact that she seemed as different from the rest of the company as I had thought myself to be. The tailored black suit she wore would have been more appropriate to the diamond quarter than the Sailors' Quarter; the white blouse, so stark in the dim light of the bar, more likely to have been worn by an executive than a prostitute.
A quick glance at the street-girl sent the creature scurrying back across the room, after which the Virgin turned her smile on me, amused by the way I regarded her.
"What did you expect? I told you I was no whore," she said, sitting facing me, one leg crossed over the other, clasped hands resting on the table which separated us.
No, so obviously not a whore, but still quite at ease, not at all uncomfortable with her surroundings. And just as obviously known in that place, for the bar-tender came over to place a tall glass of Pernod and water on the table before her.
"Another beer for my companion, and two bowls of your excellent stew," she ordered.
"So-," she said, turning to me and raising the glass to her mouth, then paused as its rim touched her lips, one finely plucked eyebrow cocking like a pale punctuation mark.
Guessing she wanted my name, I finally introduced myself, finding it just a little bizarre that after what had passed between us we were only now about to become acquainted.
"Christopher," I said, extending a hand which she took lightly between her slender fingers. "My name is Christopher."
"Christopher? Patron saint of travelers. How appropriate," she remarked, not releasing my hand. "Tell me about yourself, Christopher."
And so I told her about himself, my youth and my life, my education and my work, my travels and my interests, and at regular intervals our drinks were replenished, as though she thought my voice needed lubricating, my memories freeing and my imagination firing.
Of herself she offered little information, except that her name was Agnes, that she was no whore and had no need of any man's money.
"The street-girls," she said, to affirm this latter fact, "those such as the slut who was about to accost you as I came in, they are the ones who can't afford a regular booth or even the cheapest hotel room. So they frequent the streets, or places such as this, on the lookout for the shy and the timid, those men who know what they want but are too afraid to ask. And very skilled they are at picking out their prey, too."
"She," I said, with an aggrieved nod to the woman at the bar who was still without customer or company, "she sensed that I was the shy and timid type?"
"Take heart, we know you're not," she grinned, reaching across the table to pat my hand.
It was a gesture more patient than tender, of the kind that might be intended to appease a sulking child, and for a moment I felt annoyed by it.
The food arrived, bowls of stew were set before us, steaming with a rich fermented fragrance. It was an especial delight of mine, whenever I visited Belgium, this carbonade flamande which was like a bourguinon but earthier, the beef braised in beer rather than wine, and I set to it with relish, with a hunger I might have described as post-coital, but for the fact that no coitus had taken place.
"Slowly, Christopher," said Agnes, reaching forward with a napkin to blot a speck of sauce from my chin. "Slowly. Eat too fast and you´ll give yourself a tummy-ache."
Indigestion, did she mean? Then why not say so? 'Tummy-ache' sounded too twee for the sophisticated air she presented, too prim for the worldly woman I had been drawn to.
Nonetheless, I accepted her admonition, ate with a little less gusto, a little more adult deliberation. And strangely, as much as I had been looking forward to the meal, I soon found myself beginning to struggle. The meat was weighing too heavily on my stomach, the sauce was too rich on my palate and the taste of the beer too...adult? Too...intoxicating, when what I needed was something nourishing, like milk?
Watching me, seeing me play with the food on my plate, Agnes told me that if I didn't eat it all up I would get no dessert. No waffles, no ice cream. Certainly no chocolate.
I could have laughed, but instead I sulked and set down my knife and fork.
"Very well," she said, standing and tossing money down on the table, then holding out her hand to me. "Come."
My hand in hers felt small, her grip firm. As custodial as a mother taking charge of her child, she led the way outside, then along the street at a crisp rate, and I struggled to match my pace to hers, taking two steps for each one of hers, then two steps and a tripping third. The cracks in the sidewalk seemed like chasms, the sidewalk itself as broad as a thoroughfare, and I felt as lost as a child in the canyon depths of the street, buildings now looming on either side as we approached her home.
When I stumbled she cautioned me to be careful. "You know that your saint, Christopher, he had a burden to carry? Hence his name, Christ-bearer. I thought that perhaps I was to become your burden, but for the moment it seems that I am your support."
And it was only with her support that I managed to make it into her bed, which rose before me like some insurmountable vaulting horse, her arm around my waist, her arm beneath my thighs, lifting me and settling me onto the mattress. My slight weight made only the slightest impression on the soft springs, I was lost in its vast expanse, floundering in a swamp of fine cotton sheets and plump pillows, then finally smothered as she pulled me close to her body.
The beating of the heart I heard was hers, the rhythmic pulse, the rushing of blood which grew ever louder. Vision became blurred, sound muffled, all sensation was muted by the amniotic soup which enveloped me.
"This life you lead was never yours, you know," I heard her say, as the umbilical bond drew me into her. "Never yours, Christopher, you were only borrowing it."