It was Thursday and hence, he would walk in in another two minutes. She would reach her desk within a minute, having powdered her nose and cradled her bodice into position (where it already was, but never seemed thus at 8:55 a.m. on Thursday). She had arranged the letters neatly on the top right corner of her table, with the hard wooden grip of the rubber stamp leaning slightly against them. Once it had rolled awkwardly and landed on her lap marking her skirt with concentric blue circles containing Saint-Valéry-en-Caux.
“Aah! Mlle, were you planning to be parceled somewhere?”
She blushed and laughed and nearly cried before he offered her his handkerchief. She took it from him but didn’t know what to do with it and kept alternatingly staring at her stained skirt and the stainless kerchief. She mumbled a thanks and made several attempts to at least wipe the mark on her skirt but the distance between one hand holding her skirt and the other holding his kerchief never closed. He waited for a while before wishing her well and leaving the post-office.
As she was smiling at the smoothened grip of the stamp, he walked in. She watched him enter, but quickly looked at other customers, before stealing a glance at him and back to the old lady who also caught her eye. Goodness, I hope she doesn’t walk over here, she thought to herself while her heart beat to the rhythm of his steps as they grew louder, both beat and step.
“Bon jour, Mademoiselle!”
She gave him a surprised look before returning the greeting.
“Bon jour, Monsieur Perrot!”
“I hope I am not disturbing you?”
“Not as much as it would be had you come after the post-office shuts.”
He smiled using them as reins to hold back his praise for such a smart parry.
“Letter to your wife, Monsieur?”
Pause dear reader, and while the air and breath in the post-office is held, return to what you have now forgotten. It wasn’t too long ago when you had heard the same question asked albeit in a different tone. Recall that Thursday, a couple of months ago. It was when M. Perrot had met with an unreported accident on the highway leaving him with a tender right arm in a cast, and a more tender urge to write to his wife in Versailles, telling her lies about his well-being, lies which are always pardoned by the romantic people of Saint-Valéry-en-Caux. You do recall, don’t you? You probably thought he was a hen-pecked husband as he walked up to our lovely Mlle. Audrey Henri, sitting prettily behind her desk and stamping letters to their fated destination, and requested her to don the role of a scribe for a poor (though not financially) maimed man. She was startled at this unusual request and had asked the same thing:
“Letter to your wife, Monsieur?”
“Yes, if it is not a severe pain and distraction from your duties.”
“Certainly it isn’t, Monsieur. But…”
“But? I shall surely pay for stamp and your service. Rest assured.”
And he quickly poured several francs from his breast pocket on to the desk. She rapidly rose and prevented them from rolling to the ground and under some sack of letters to Paris. She pushed them back the honest man with a cast and said, “That I am certain you will Monsieur…”
“Perrot. Phillipe Perrot. I am a surveyor commissioned by the French government.”
“Aah! You are here to survey?”
He smiled. So did she and for a second there, I thought they forgot that a letter had to be written. After explaining his job to her, he tilted his head towards the sheets of paper fluttering impatiently on her desk.
“Oh yes! Sorry. Please let me know what you wish to write to your wife.”
“Dear Gloria, How are you? I have reached here safely and find the place beautiful. The people are beautiful but all this beauty reminds me of you. I wish you were here. My little drop of honey! I have bought you some wonderful handmade soaps and some lacy…”
He paused long enough for her to look up.
“Perhaps you should just write lacy personals?”
“As you wish M. Perrot”
And with great tenderness, he had continued to dictate to her his letter. She was thrilled to play Cupid of a rather mundane sorts, but every bit of woman in her was moved. You saw her eyes glaze that day, didn’t you? And ever since, every week he begged her to write amourous, love-drenched letters to his wife. Mlle Henri eagerly cooperated.
All this you know. What you didn’t know was that those letters were never sent Versailles. Not one of them. Even the one in which he described his weekend covering the coast and marking several rock formations there. He did end it with a “My apologies to my sugar-dipped plum. I got carried away. See what your absence does to me?” and paused long enough to wait for Mlle Henri to look into his anxious eyes.
“Never mind, M. Perrot. I am sure she will enjoy learning about your work day as much as I did.”
He smiled and continued about the stalactites in the cave near the gulf. None of those letter ever reached Versailles. She also kept a vigil for any letters for M. Perrot arriving from Versailles. Even the one that contained some magazine for sepulchral aficionados was repacked after a thorough investigation revealed no letter from Gloria.
Today, M. Perrot has an arm healed two weeks ago, but Mlle Henri still collects his letters and keeps them to herself. She reads each and every one of them while wearing nothing but her favourite cherry blossoms patterned négligée. She reads them aloud to herself – “Dear Audrey, … my honey lipped Audrey… I have bought you nice brooches to pin on your blushing bossom ….” Oooh la la! How I wish! And she’d plunge into a deep gloom about not having ever found a lover like him. She’d scold Mme. Perrot for not writing even once and concluding that that woman in Versailles surely didn’t deserve this lovely man, her lovely M. Perrot.
Several such weeks of echoless love passed before unimaginable guilt overwhelmed our pretty Mlle Henri. She decided that the only way she could make up for this immense crime of separating lovers was to play imposter and deliver an equally lovely letter to M. Perrot from Mme. Perrot. Since he never did receive letters from her, he, perhaps, might not recognise her handwriting anyway. She who played scribe to one could certainly play the same for the other. She wrote several drafts and even consulted some of the finest (although dead) writers of the French tongue, before settling for a seventeen page treatise on longing addressed to M. Perrot by Mme. Perrot.
When M. Perrot walked in at 9:00 a.m. on Thursday, pretty Mlle. Henri extended the slight bundle to him as he opened his mouth to start saying something.
A puzzled look turned to quivering joy when he heard that. He kissed the envelope several times before gripping the edge of the desk in confused excitement. He kissed the envelope again and then the air and then clasped it to his breast while Mlle. Henri laughed and cried into her (actually his) handkerchief.
“What a delight! What a delight! I am the happiest man today in Saint-Valéry-en-Caux, why! in the whole of France.”
She nodded, holding back tears with the pink of her nose and cheeks.
He abruptly stopped his tizzy and placed the bundle on her desk. She gulped in the fear that he may have noticed something amiss and quickly looked around hoping no one would hear his accusations when they did come. He simply shook his head.
“Why? What happened M. Perrot? Surely you are happy to get this letter from your wife?”
“Indeed, but such irony it is.”
“I broke my spectacles today at the basin.”
“And I shant expect one to be delivered before the weekend.”
“Perhaps all I could do is smell these pages till I can read what she wrote to me.”
He kept rubbing his nose against the envelope while she thought her efforts wasted.
“Not unless if you can help me.”
“How M. Perrot?”
“By reading it to me.”
“I? Certainly there must be several things private that a woman might want to share with her husband. How could I read them out aloud?”
“But it is to me that you will read?”
“But others will hear too.”
He placed the bundle on her desk.
“None will if you be kind enough to read this to me over a cup of tea. The address is on the envelope.”
So saying, he bowed and walked away before she could protest. She held her letter in her hands and wondered how she would ever manage to read what she had written a million times.
But as you expected, she did reach his place at 6:00 p.m. He was humming an old folk song while preparing tea.
“Aah! Mlle. Henri. I am delighted.”
“First, let’s have some tea.”
And they sat down to have some tea. He chatted about various things and she simply nodded where appropriate and shook her head when more so.
“And now, for the letter.”
She slowly extracted it from her bag and handed it to him.
“Surely you jest!”
She looked up at him one more time.
“Please.. please do open it.”
And she did. She cleared her throat and began –
“Dear Philippe, How…”
“She always called me sugar-buns.”
“Oh! Perhaps… perhaps she was in a different mood when she commenced writing”
“I prefer Phillipe. Please go on.”
Mlle. Henri slowly read the long treatise, her mind flooded with images of sweet love with the man in front of her. She kept reading while he sipped his tea. She blushed where the words grew amorous and lowered her voice when her need for him sailed as paragraphs of yearning.
“Do return soon, my love. Your choco-lips, Gloria”
“I beg your pardon!”
“Nothing. I was just about to thank you.”
“Oh! You are welcome.”
“I hope the tea was good.”
“Thank you for taking the pains to come here, Mlle. Henri”
“I couldn’t let you suffer the lack of spectacles or the love of your wife.”
“You are kind.”
She rose to leave.
“Certainly you know this place well enough.”
“I think I have nothing more to survey here.”
“Oh! Then would you be leaving?”
“I might if there is nothing left to survey for the government.”
“There surely would be something.”
“I shall list them out tonight.”
“I wish your list grows long.”
As she was descending the stairs, he said, “Isn’t it funny that my spectacles which didn’t break during my accident had to break today?”
“I won’t be writing letters anymore.”
She hurried up a couple of stairs and burst out.
“Why? What happened?”
“Because there is no need to write anymore when my love and labour has created a beautiful Mme. Perrot out of thin air.”
“I beg your…”
And then she realised. The weight of recollection left her unsteady on her feet and M. Perrot rushed to help her.
“But… but you could have said so.”
“I would never have received such a coronation of love had I been vulgar to disclose my heart’s tell.”
He slowly helped her back into the house where they had another cup of tea.
This post is dedicated to Parvati-ji who always felt that I couldn’t write happy love stories. I still don’t think I am good at it for the psychological play that posts-noir offer is usually hard to conjure in such happy tales. Nevertheless, here is to Parvati-ji.