J is for Jacques
The honeymoon moved seamlessly into cohabitation. Geraldine had amassed some money and we rented a small cottage in a small Alpine spa town called Les Baines de Deux. In the mornings a pure mountain sun slanted through the roughly hewn window set in deep stone and lit up a shaft of unsullied light on the pale wooden floor boards. We would open the balcony doors to a riot of wild flowers and the sound of a rushing stream and we would drink the acrid coffee of the mountains and embrace.
The air was thinner up here and the whole world seemed to be purified. I never felt the pull of narcotics. My only addiction was Geraldine with her long legs that browned during the long summer days and the wistful look in her eyes as she toyed with her knotted hair in her mouth.
I felt little sense of time that summer. I drank in shady places by the rushing river with its sluice and dancing water weeds. I was oblivious to the drawing in of the nights and the chill that crept over the cobbled streets later at night. During the days we would take long hikes in the Alpine meadows choked full of flowers and laugh as the rain storms moved in quickly from the mountains and drenched us to the skin. But now and then Geraldine would say things that would vanish my sunny disposition momentarily. She’d talk about dreading Christmas with her family or Hugo, the boy her family wanted to her to marry.
One day I found her sat on the wooden floor fanning herself with a letter. I asked her about it because we never received correspondence.
“My family,” she said.
She pulled me to her and put arms around me that felt frail like a chicken’s. “Campbell. In two weeks we run out of money and my brother is coming to get me. I revealed where I am living on the condition that they didn’t send me back to rehab.”
I was silent for a matter of minutes as many jumbled thoughts rubbed their awkward angles against each other. “I knew nothing of this.”
The girl shrugged. “You knew this was not forever Campbell.”
I stared out the window at the slab of blue and the hint of mountain ridge behind the mill and thought of the paradise that would soon be lost.
“Anyway,” said the girl, jumping to her feet. “We have two weeks. Let’s go out and get drunk.”
The shadows were lengthening when we got to the town square. There were always artists here with their easels. We usually walked past them but this time I stopped to admire their work. I stopped by the paintings of a white haired man who must have been in his seventies who was painting the high mountain ridges in loving brush strokes. There was an ethereal quality to the man’s paintings of the soaring glaciers and skyline meadows. It made me think of Monet at 8,000 feet. The old man squinted at me and nodded.
Geraldine was mesmerized too. They had a brief conversation in French before the man turned to me. “Ah Anglais. You have not the painting tradition but seem interested,” he said.
“We have had a lot of accomplished painters. But the French painters have more imagination,” I said.
“Well put. Have you ever tried your hand?” The old artist pulled down some paper on a second easel and handed me two paint brushes. “Have a go. Paint that mountain ridge.”
“Oh I couldn’t possibly.”
“Yes go on. What do you have to lose?”
I picked up the brushes and dipped them in his palette, splattering a verdant dark green on the canvass. My representation of the contours and ridges felt childlike but as I kept applying paint to the canvass a strange feeling came over me. I felt the curves and descents of those dizzy ridges. My hand moved down the inclines and up the sides of a glacier. It felt like an act of love. The old man who introduced himself as Jacques, looked on impassively. When I had finished I surveyed the final results. The painting looked brutal and had a child-like quality. Yet at the same time the mountain scene had some kind of primal power to it.
“Oh God Campbell. Get a job at a bank,” said Geraldine.
Jacques said nothing for a few moments. When he did speak it was slow and deliberate.
“I don’t know. The boy has something. I have never seen a first effort like this. So… purposeful and savage,” he said. “This is real potential.”
Geraldine shrugged and walked off towards the bars. I moved to follow her. As I walked off Jacques tugged on my sleeve.
“Come by tomorrow. I can teach you how to work on that raw talent. In a few weeks I will be going to Greece but I’d like to work with you.”
“OK. I’ll come by,” I said, smiling at the old man as I followed in Geraldine’s slipstream.