The Day Léopoldine Hugo Was Lost
You sit in a Bordeaux café, la belle Juliette sits by you. Your wife is far away in Paris. Juliette breaks brioche, adds it to your hot chocolate. You hum a bar of Handel’s silvery water music and bathe in its glorious notes. Under the table, Juliette’s hand slithers up your thigh and you glance around the café to apprehend if anyone sees; they do not. This is joy.
You idle through Le Monde, letting Juliette do her secret work, until your own name leaps from a headline. You begin to read with some impatience.
‘What nonsense do they write of me now, Juliette?’
‘It may be amusing, Victor. Read on, mon chéri.’
This is the last moment of not knowing. You clutch the newspaper and stand, knocking your cup to the floor.
Your heart smashes to smithereens and a whiteness of stars prickles your eyes. Yesterday, in Villequier, your life unravelled without your consent. You gasp and conjure the sorry scene Le Monde relates.
Léopoldine, your daughter, stands on a boat deck and waves a hanky to those left on the bank. This is her surrender, it turns out, to the Seine. The boat lists – her husband had used cannonballs for ballast. A breeze catches the sail and those balls roll, unseating the boat and all on her. Léopoldine plunges into the river’s weedy grasp. Oh, the taken-for-grantedness of a daughter’s life, the false certainty of her ongoing existence!
You imagine the fight of air through lungs, the stronger fight of water. You see your beloved daughter’s eyes, awed by terror. Léopoldine’s gown balloons about her on the long descent to the riverbed. You hear the slow swish of water in her ears. When pulled from the Seine, Léopoldine’s hands clutched river-sand. Your grandchild lay stilled in her womb.
Nuala O’Connor AKA Nuala Ní Chonchúir was born in Dublin, Ireland, she lives in East Galway. Her fifth short story collection Joyride to Jupiter was published by New Island in June 2017. Penguin USA, Penguin Canada and Sandstone (UK) published Nuala’s third novel, Miss Emily, about the poet Emily Dickinson and her Irish maid. Miss Emily was shortlisted for the Bord Gáis Energy Eason Book Club Novel of the Year 2015 and longlisted for the 2017 International DUBLIN Literary Award. Nuala’s fourth novel, Becoming Belle, will be published in 2018. www.nualaoconnor.com
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