I swear that Mrs. Manea wasn’t even looking at me. She didn’t turn her majestic head, with its slightly wavy blue hair. The only reason she didn’t was that she never believed I would finally snap. For all too long I hadn’t been able to tell where the boundary between us began or ended. When I lifted the ashtray, when my quavering hand released it, I had no idea which of us was going to slump lifeless. It turned out to be her.
She really is dead. You saw her for yourself. She was the first dead body I’ve ever touched. A few times, while I was dressing her, I got the impression that her body was still warm. Her skin was still very fragrant from the shower gels and body lotions she had been using lately. I tried to make out the individual scents, but they had blurred together and so it was impossible.
The incident occurred in the living room, where we spent the greater part of our time. Night had fallen and a thick layer of silence smothered the room. My ears were ringing and I had no idea what to do next.
I saw the television set and rushed at it so precipitously that my finger kept missing the button to turn it on. After a number of attempts I heard the voice of the woman reading the news and calmed down. The continuous sound numbed me. I let myself become absorbed in the flickering images. For a few minutes I think my mind must have been blank and I forgot all about Mrs. Manea, who was lying motionless on the couch. I looked at the dangling hand, at the fingers I knew so well, and I felt the need to touch them. I sat down on the floor and took her hand in mine. It was not until then that I realised how close we were in fact.
Mrs. Manea had just taken a bath and as always she was wearing her orange robe, made of thick terry cloth. It seemed to me that one of her legs was too exposed and so I covered it up with the front of the robe. I remained in that position for as long as I was watching the television. When I let go of her hand, my palm was sweaty and I wiped it on my trousers. I tore my eyes away from the television screen, but I didn’t turn it off, because I wanted the house to be filled with human voices. Mrs. Manea was still resting. She wasn’t saying anything. We could have gone on living like that for one more lifetime.
In the first hour I quite simply refused to believe she was dead. She had bled only a little, from her forehead, and I had taken care to keep wiping it with the wet cloth I had found in the bathroom. Ian had been a much more spectacular sight than Mrs. Manea was in the present situation. I had begun to believe that she was merely stunned, that she was just pretending to be dead so as to trick me. I was expecting her to start screaming at any moment. I went into the kitchen and took a cigarette from Mrs. Manea’s packet and lit it. I was trembling violently, as if my body knew more about what had happened than my mind. I couldn’t keep my hands steady. They wouldn’t obey me. Either because I didn’t have the patience or because I was annoyed at my quivering fingers, I stubbed out the cigarette after a few puffs.
I went back to the living room. After looking at her from the doorway, I went to her and started shaking her again. I begged her to open her eyes, not to play tricks on me. I heard myself talking and I couldn’t believe I was imploring her that we should make a fresh start together.
You know, Vali, for a few seconds I wished from the bottom of my heart that she would get up, that she would shriek, hit me, anything. I just wanted her to be alive, and for me not to have to lug her on my back, tall as she was, with all her love stories weighing down her bones. I didn’t feel up to carrying that weight and I had to find some way of escape.
I started slapping her, lightly, almost playfully at first. But instead of showing signs of waking up or of annoyance, her head obediently moved now to the right, now to the left. My slaps became more rhythmic and her head seemed increasingly compliant: It looked as haughty as ever, but now it was as gentle as a lamb.
Sitting on the couch, bent over Mrs. Manea and trying to revive her, I started to panic. I was hitting her, but instead of her crying out, it was me who was weeping and sobbing. My tears were mingling with mucous from my nose and dribbling down my chin. I felt that I was losing everything, that I was empty inside, and that without the conclave of lunatics with whom I had been living for so long I would be left with no solid ground to stand on.
I called out for Geo at the top of my voice, begging him to come and help me, as he had done when Mrs. Manea summoned him from Lisbon to Paris. Geo had smiled briefly, or else he had vanished without giving any indication that he cared about my problems. I kept trying to bring him back to us, so that he could tell me what to do next. That would have seemed normal to me. But there was no question of his turning up. There were just the two of us now, and I would have to cope as best I could.
She continued to ignore me and the corner of her mouth seemed to have drooped. I moved closer to examine her and saw that I was not mistaken. She looked disappointed for some reason. It was I who was guilty, there was no doubt about that, but at least she could have spared me that insufferable grimace at the final hour. It wasn’t much to ask, after all. She refused to open her eyes. I didn’t know which of them I was annoyed at the most, at her or at Geo, who had left me in the lurch and gone off who knows where. It was him I was looking for, and I had the feeling that if he had been at my side to encourage me, in the end I would have come up with an idea to save the day.
In the absence of any kind of support, I grasped Mrs. Manea by the armpits and dragged her into the bedroom. I had a hard job heaving her onto the bed. She flopped down and her toenails, painted a pinkish white, gleamed indecently. At first, I covered her feet with a towel, but then I changed my mind. Some things you just can’t hide, no matter how hard you try. It was then that I realized for the first time that Mrs. Manea was truly dead and that I alone was guilty. My sight went dim. The last years we had spent together were now gone.
When was it that I saw the ashtray on the shelf? Why did it glue itself to my hand? Why did I raise it to throw at her? Was I just trying to frighten her? Or was there something else that eluded me, meaning it was all premeditated?
From the interrogating officer’s tone of voice I realized that it was being treated as having been premeditated, and that this made it all the more monstrous in the eyes of others.
I never meant to murder Mrs. Manea. That much is clear to me. All those years I never even thought I would be capable of leaving, to be honest. How could I have taken such a major decision?
I think we know all kinds of things about ourselves, but not the essential things. And there comes a time when we can’t recognize ourselves any more, when our minds are completely emptied of everything we had experienced up until then. In my case, it was fascination with a person, weakness, admiration combined with self-abnegation, a morbid attraction, call it what you will. It was friendship, in the last instance. That’s the most fitting word to describe Mrs. Manea and myself.
It occurred to me to dress Mrs. Manea in her beige trousers and turquoise T-shirt, in memory of the morning when I arrived with my suitcase and she opened the front door wide and said:
It wasn’t at all easy. I didn’t know where she kept those clothes, or even if she still had them. I looked for them in the wardrobe and finally found them on the top shelf, where she kept the things she didn’t wear any more. They were stuffed in a plastic bag. She had been getting ready to give them away. Or maybe she had been keeping them for their sentimental value. Even then, I was still hoping that Geo would turn up. He would take me in his arms, stroke my hair and whisper in my ear that he had been right and that I should have listened to him, but it wasn’t anything serious. I sat next to Mrs. Manea meekly waiting for him. Her rictus had become more accentuated. I tried smoothing her skin with my fingers, but without result. The rictus reappeared the very next moment. I don’t know how long I sat there in the darkened bedroom, on the edge of the bed with her naked beside me.
Once I had found the clothes, I could erase from the face of the earth the three years during which we had lived together and become friends. That was why I dressed her in them. Do you have any idea how naïve I was that evening, Vali?
I forgot about Geo and set to work. I wanted to get it done as fast as possible and then leave. It wasn’t very easy to move her. It was a struggle, but in the end I managed to tidy her up quite nicely. Instead of her previous grimace, now I seemed to detect a faint smile. The time had come for us to make our peace. There was nothing else I wanted to tell her. Geo had vanished, and she lay there motionless, with a droplet of blood clinging to her forehead. That spot of colour set her off nicely, and so it didn’t wipe it away. I left it there to sparkle.
It was Blanche who discovered Ian that morning. As usual, she had gone into his apartment to make them all breakfast and feed the cats. When she slid the key into the lock and tried to turn it, she noticed that Ian had left his door open overnight. It was the first time in four years. She pressed the handle, but the door wouldn’t budge. Blanche thought that one of the cats must have been playing with a shoe and got it jammed under the door, and so she persevered. She pushed with all her might until she managed to make a gap wide enough for her to slip inside. She was unsettled by the disarray in the hallway, which was still in darkness, and she felt a stabbing sensation in her chest. She turned on the light. The door to the sitting room was ajar and she glimpsed the upraised tails of the cats, which were circling a chair and making growling noises. Normally, they would have slinked over to Blanche and rubbed up against her legs, happy that at last they were going to be fed and let outside. They used to leap from the kitchen windowsill onto the balcony with a single bound.
But that autumn morning, they took no notice of Blanche. They had discovered something important, and they couldn’t tear themselves away from it. They kept prowling around it, frenziedly. Blanche had once lived in the countryside and she knew that if cats behaved like this when they weren’t in heat, then it meant that death lurked nearby.
The hallway had been turned upside down, as if during a struggle. Things were strewn everywhere. The coats had been torn down from the rack, and the shoeboxes had spilled their contents. Blanche’s first impulse was to stoop and pick everything up, to restore the same immaculate tidiness as reigned in Mrs. Manea’s flat when I first moved there, although in time the house had gone to pieces, our neglect seeping into every cranny.
Holding in one hand a jacket, which she had picked up from next to the rack, and a tennis shoe in the other, Blanche went towards the living room. There was a chair in the doorway, its back blocking everything else from view. The cats continued to move in a tight circle, mewling harrowingly. Blanche’s skin turned to gooseflesh, she dropped the shoe and the noise it made when it struck the floor gave her such a fright that she jumped backwards. She called out Ian’s name, first in a hushed voice, and then more firmly, but apart from the still whining cats there was no sound to be heard. She went out of the front door and entered the apartment where Mrs. Manea lived. She found her still in bed and started shaking her. Her hands were trembling. She could not say that anything definite was wrong or that she had seen anything terrible, but she was begging her to wake up.
“Mr. Ian’s not well!”
Somnolent, her hair tousled, wearing a sheer, knee-length nightdress, Mrs. Manea roused herself from the sweetest morning sleep and jumped out of bed. She didn’t wait for Blanche. Barefoot, she went straight into the flat opposite, leaving all the doors open behind her. Blanche could barely keep up. She started running, but Mrs. Manea had already crossed the hallway and entered the sitting room when she caught up with her. She got there just in time to catch Mrs. Manea and prevent her from falling in a heap, like a sack of potatoes.
They both saw Ian in the same moment: He was sitting motionless, his head lolling to the right, his face disfigured, covered in blood. He was wearing only a T-shirt and underpants. After the women entered, the cats continued to prowl around the room like wind-up toys, as if someone had been there before them and turned their keys, so that now the poor animals could not stop. All kinds of unfamiliar smells had driven them into a frenzy. Blanche was the first to come to her senses. Quickly, she grabbed Rouge, a very affectionate cat, which had jumped into Ian’s lap and begun to lick his nose, and then she shooed her two sisters out of the room.
Mrs. Manea went up to Ian and pressed her lips to his mouth, in the hope that he might still be breathing. However faint the warmth, it would have meant that he was still alive, that there was still a chance, even if he had been seriously wounded. In the meantime, Blanche had returned from the kitchen with a large knife and was trying to sever the electrical cords that bound Ian’s hands.
“Oh Lord, Blanche, he’s as cold as ice!” said Mrs. Manea, kissing Ian all over his swollen face.
She didn’t notice that the blood oozing from his two head wounds had already stained her hands and hair.
Her beloved Ian had died only a few feet away from her, but she had not heard his desperate cries. She had been asleep, and all the while he had been suffering terrifying blows. Perhaps she had even turned over in her sleep when they struck him on the head with a blunt object for the second time. For this she would never be able to forgive herself, not for the rest of her life. For a very short while he could still be hers, she could stroke his thighs, tensed in his terrible struggle to escape, she could straighten the T-shirt that fit him so well, moulding itself so handsomely over his biceps.
Blanche had immediately telephoned Pierre and he had arrived all out of breath. It had taken him less than a quarter of an hour. They both tried to persuade Mrs. Manea to leave Ian in peace; there was nothing more that they could do for him. The police had been called and they would arrive at any minute. They were obliged to drag Mrs. Manea away from Ian’s body by force. Pierre was sobbing, leaning against the table, from which everything had been scattered onto the floor.
“For God’s sake, what did they want? Let them have taken everything, but why did they have to hurt Ian?” he was lamenting.
They were both sobbing, Pierre and Mrs. Manea, each huddled in a corner, until they felt the need to cling to each other in an embrace. A little warmth–at least let that remain from their relationship with Ian, from that insane, confused love, which even now, with him sitting dead in front of them, they were powerless to resist. And already they yearned for him madly.
The white building on L’Île St Louis, which had broken Mrs. Manea’s heart and had meant so much to Pierre, disappeared along with Ian. Neither Princess Bibescu nor anybody else could stop it from going under. A gruesome murder in such a poetic place seemed unbearable.
Vali, if you are ever in Paris, please seek out Martha Bibescu’s “lantern” on L’Île St Louis, at number 45, Quai Bourbon. And tell me whether it is the same as Mrs. Manea described to me.
Death entered our house in Bucharest. Like thick dust, it settled over us, over Mrs. Manea’s things. Wherever I looked, I would see Ian sitting on the high-backed chair, with black blood covering more than half his face. But his body seemed to have salvaged a little life: His sensuality had not wholly dissolved; there were still minute quantities that had not drained out of his frozen veins. I lived with Ian like this for a long time. He did not decay. He did not discolour with the passing days. He did not shift the position of his head. Every morning I found his wounds unaltered.
The murder on L’Île St Louis caused a sensation. It was front-page news for weeks. Ian’s family, which is to say, Pierre, Mrs. Manea and Blanche, were on repeated occasions asked to give detailed statements to the police. The most intimate and embarrassing details of Ian’s life had come to light, and they suffered dreadfully at having to reveal themselves before suspicious strangers who couldn’t care less about how much they had loved that man.
To the police and other people they were nothing but perverted homosexuals who had got what was coming to them, and Mrs. Manea was a beautiful, but insane woman who had become caught up in a dangerous and absurd game.
All the evidence pointed to a murder committed by two individuals. The victim had died as a result of repeated blows to the head from a blunt instrument. As the papers were to report, Ian Nori’s apartment-studio was frequented by young men, and the photographer was known to indulge in numerous casual amorous liaisons. What had attracted Pierre and Mrs. Manea to him had also been the thing that killed him. All they could do now was tidy up the scene of the crime and leave the same as they had come.
For many days the police gathered evidence in the apartment where the murder had taken place, looking for clues that might lead them to the perpetrators. There was no longer any doubt as to the motive. It had been a robbery, given that a number of items had vanished from the house, including Ian’s camera.
Mrs. Manea was sitting with Blanche, waiting to receive word from Geo, to whom she had written: “Darling, I am going through the darkest period of my entire life. Don’t abandon me alone. Please come and help me!”
They hadn’t seen each other for almost two years, since the end of that troubling holiday in Saint-Tropez, when, leaving behind the steep lanes bordered with cyclamen flowers, they had also liberated themselves from each other. Or at least so they had imagined.
And so, too, had I imagined. But it was not to be. Geo turned up in Paris on the evening of the following day. He had flown from Lisbon and called Mrs. Manea from a public telephone at the exit of the Saint-Michel Metro station, asking her for directions. She dictated her address, which he jotted down on the back of a book of matches, and less than half an hour later he knocked at the door to Martha Bibescu’s flat on the L’Île St Louis. Before Mrs. Manea could open the door to him, he noticed the seal and the yellow tape left by the police, which cordoned off a large part of the shared living space.
I had not been expecting Geo to disappoint me and to go back to Mrs. Manea. I felt deceived and terribly alone when they went away to Lisbon together. He was still working there. In the meantime he had got married and his wife had recently given birth. His new life did not prevent him from boarding the first plane, telling his wife that he had some urgent business to deal with in Paris.
“I had loved Ian with a passion, but Geo was still the man closest to me in all the world,” Mrs. Manea told me.
She had realised how true this was when she saw him at her door in Paris. He had come straight from the airport, holding a bag with a gold-coloured buckle in his right hand, dressed immaculately, with the same smile playing at the corner of his mouth, wrinkling his thick, recently trimmed beard.
Ian had eluded me, but I thought I could hold on to Geo, because he also belonged to me in some small way. I couldn’t stand the sight of him in Mrs. Manea’s arms once more. How could he be with me when the two of them were strolling along the sloping streets with their arms around each other’s shoulders? It was wrong of me, I know, but I had fallen in love with Geo. Mrs. Manea had never deserved him. Their secret Portuguese love affair was a dreadful humiliation for me. She sensed my soft spot and made sure the story would have a painful ending for me.
With each passing day I found myself hating her more and more. I could no longer bear the way her dark eyes glittered in that peculiar way when she described Lisbon to me, lane by lane, orange by orange. Geo had always tried to tell me that things weren’t quite like that, but I didn’t want to listen. What was the point? He had left me. The words rang in my ears for days and days. He had chosen her.
I found myself all alone again, and Mrs. Manea was mocking me. That was all there was to it. Perhaps for the same reason, she stopped feeling the need to torment me. It seemed she had got past that phase. She even reverted to a kind of affection, which reminded me of the first months of our living together. But it was nothing more than a game, whose intricacies she had studied in great depth.
I tried with all my might to conceal from her how ill it made me to watch Geo in the various sunlit bedrooms around Bairo Alto that Mrs. Manea kept changing. She always used to complain, saying:
“You know, Ramona, there’s not one bit of privacy in Lisbon!”