France, autumn of 1788
My boots are crusted with filth from the backstreets, my breeches stained with coal and my coat patched countless times - yet I cannot help smile as I drag my load along, looking for business.
The late autumn sun is gentle on my face and a fresh breeze whisking away any unpleasant smells that might linger in this area. The cold weather may be coming, but at least the flies and the stench are in decline.
I plant my feet solidly on the ground, thanking fate that I am strong enough to make a living - meagre though it is. I am better off than many I have seen of late. I pause to heft my sack onto my other shoulder, rolling my arm in its socket to give it a break. It’s not a long walk from my small dwelling, but long enough to start an ache in my muscles if I don’t swap arms occasionally. I reach the square and turn off, making for my destination and my day’s wage. I am lucky, the people in my area know me and we try to look after one another, even when times are tough. The spirit of which I don’t doubt will be tested in the months to come. Hurricanes beset us this year and crop failures abounded. The harvest was terrible and the winter will be testing for us all. The price of basic goods has been rising for a while and so many are struggling to afford them. I wish that I could help more, but I haven’t the resources.
I reach the heavy door and knock, Philippe opens it with a customary grin on his aquiline features, his black hair pulled back into a tight ribbon. The ribbon always cheers me, it is the one little bit of luxury that he allows himself. He and his wife work so hard running their tavern together but despite that, his hair is never without that little flair.
‘Morning Laurie, got my delivery?’ He asks cheerfully.
I deposit my sack on the floor and he checks it with a nod, 'Thank you, everything is in order here, as always.'
He pulls a handful of coins from his apron and I accept them gratefully, thanking him as I tip my cap and leave, making my way to the square to see what food I can get.
I am very grateful for all the business that comes my way, but Philippe in particular has been very good to me. Besides handling his deliveries, he often pays me for odd jobs and carpentry that he could probably manage himself. I do a better job of course, but in times like these it would be forgivable for him to save money and do it himself. My father taught me well, my mother too, god rest both their souls. They were the best of people, made the most of everything they had in life, worked hard, paid the unfair taxes, never complained and raised me so well that when I found myself orphaned at ten and nine, I was able to keep our small dwelling, our dog - and myself, alive.
Now six years later I have built a life I can live with, it’s not easy by any stretch of the imagination and I miss my parents and sister every day, but they’d want me to carry on, to make the best of things. After all, my dog keeps me company and I’m not starving yet – things can only get better.
I reach the square and the market, the smell of food assaults my nose and my mouth begins watering. My only thoughts are of what I can afford when I feel eyes on me. The feeling is unmistakable – the one you get on the back of your neck only when someone is staring - and not blankly either, but when they’re really, really staring with intent.
I turn and look around and then I see her. She’s standing on the edge of a group of women, they’re giggling among themselves but she is turned away from them, looking directly at me over one shoulder.
When I meet her gaze with mine she smiles slightly and drops her beautiful hazel eyes, only to flick them up again. I smile back at her, taking in her shining auburn hair and the dimples in her full cheeks. She is dressed as one of my class in a rough brown dress with a grubby travelling cloak over the top and battered boots, but somehow I don’t believe it.
Her cheeks are full, her face free of hollows and her hair and eyes shine with vitality. I see no signs of hardship in her full figure and the ample cleavage visible where her cloak parts at the top.
I scan the other women in her group; they all give me the same impression. Their clothing is worn but their demeanor far from it. She turns back to her companions and I watch her for only a moment longer.
The breeze carries a chill now and I stick my hands in my coat pockets, running over my coins with my thumb. The feel of them is reassuring as I walk through the small number of stalls, greeting those I know and trying to decide what to buy. The selection is very limited, the stalls no more than small tables and crates erected by local business holders in an attempt to sell the small amount of stock they have. I still think of this as the market, but in reality its a poor mockery of what it used to be.
As I linger by some stunted root vegetables I feel a tap on my shoulder.
I turn and stare, utterly stunned. It’s her. She’s smiling again, and up close I can smell her perfume. That confirms my initial suspicion; no-one I know could afford perfume.
‘Good morning,’ she greets me.
I stare back at her. She has taken me for a young man I decide. This isn’t the first time, it has happened many times before. With my brawny frame, my father’s old clothes and roughly cut hair I would probably assume the same if I were someone else.
‘Good morning,’ I reply, somewhat cautiously. I cannot help but wonder what she could possibly want from me.
She glances back at her group of friends; they’re still occupied among themselves. Her eyes study my face and she extends a hand. ‘I’m Emmeline, but you can call me Em, if you like.’
I nod, speechless; her voice is beautiful, lilting and sweet.
‘I'm Laurentine, but most people know me as Laurie.’ I finally offer in return.
My voice seems so brash compared to hers and my tone sounds unnecessarily harsh but I can’t help it. I look for the flicker of discomfort in her eyes before she makes an excuse and leaves. Perhaps she will say 'Oh’ like Joanna did or ask me why I don’t dress appropriately, like Louisa.
She does neither, just another dazzling smile, ‘Laurie it is then.’ She says sweetly, ‘do you live here, in this region Laurie?’
I nod, ‘I do, yes.’
She looks happy. ‘Wonderful, I have a friend residing in the area’- her eyes flick toward the pale and striking lady who is now leading the group as they circle the square –‘and so I shall be in Versailles for a long time, I hope. Not so far from here.’
She seems so excited yet simultaneously suppressing it, it reminds me of the way my beloved mother used to be when she knew a scandalous piece of gossip that she felt she shouldn’t share.
I allow myself to smile, I don’t make her uncomfortable, or if I do she is hiding it well. Likely as not I have mistaken her friendliness for flirtatious behaviour, a mistake I have made -but seemingly not learnt from – many times in the past.
I assess the situation logically; she has moved here from another region recently - a more abundant one by the look of her - and is need of more friends and companionship perhaps. I have to wonder, looking at the company she is here with, how that could be the case.
I have often been accused of bluntness and today will be no exception.
‘So Em, you would like to see me again, after today?’ I ask. I see a flicker of surprise cross her face at my lack of subtlety and then she laughs. Her laughter is what I would have predicted; musical and wonderful to hear.
‘Indeed, I intend to explore the region around my new home, meet people, see their lives and discover new things about myself in the process. How can I do that without new friends?’
Such thoughts confirm to me that she is not at all like anyone I have ever met. It must be a wonderful thing to have the luxury and the freedom to think of anything but survival. I admire her, I think. She has come here when she could be sitting in a fine house somewhere, smelling flowers and eating fine food, or whatever it is people like her normally do.
‘Why me though?’ I ask her, of all the people in this village she chose me.
She looks into my green eyes with her hazel ones and I spot flecks of gold in them.
‘I flatter myself that I am a good judge of character; I like the look of you.’ She speaks frankly now, without a hint of artifice. ‘You look honest and a little different to anyone I know. It renders you fascinating to me.’
‘I fascinate you?’ I ask outright, perplexed by her interest.
She nods, holding eye contact.
‘That makes two of us.’ I answer.
I would love to continue our conversation – but the pale lady, the leader of their little group calls to her and she backs away from me with a parting curtsy. I return my customary bow, earning one last giggle from her as she walks away. I watch her go, already wondering when I will next see her again. The group leaves the square, their hoods are drawn up against the chill and I can no longer make her out among them.
She is gone, leaving me with nothing but the lingering smell of her perfume and my curiosity thoroughly piqued.