Imago

And it seemed like I was searching everywhere for those words again.

Life is lived as a journey, but remembered as a collection of stories - and each story is least understood by the one who is in it. I travelled across Europe for over three years in the thirties, I saw the gorgeous sprawl of civilisation, I met many people who told me their secrets, but I also saw things that I couldn't explain. Over the years I think one or two of those puzzles I may have come to understand... And the ones that remain - who knows, perhaps I will understand them too, if there is enough time. Perhaps in the quiet evenings, as I write them down, they may unravel their secrets.

In the middle of 1931, not long after I retired, my wife of forty-four years, Genevieve, passed away. I believe I had lived a happy life - I was a librarian, and curator of butterflies. No doubt it was a life most would consider uneventful, perhaps even dull. But I was suddenly beset by intense grief, with little to distract me. I visited friends whenever I could, and this would help ease my loneliness a little. I used to take long walks, aimlessly, sometimes for hours, and it would help me to sleep. I read the works of the philosophers, hoping to learn something that could help me, but, like so many aphorisms and platitudes and all the things that people say in a time of sorrow, very little of it gave any relief from the pain I felt. I remember one unhappy night spending hours translating chapters of a Roman work of philosophy from the Latin, pondering what it was saying, and eventually throwing the book against the wall before going to bed.

I longed to talk to her for just a few minutes. So often I would think of the things she had said - I remember in 1915, not long after my fiftieth birthday, we went to the theatre in London - we had always loved the operettas of Gilbert and Sullivan, and Genevieve had bought tickets to see a production of The Yeomen of the Guard. The world had gone to war, and shattered the peace of Edwardian England. It seemed that every day was bringing new, horrific ways of fighting, and we were all seeking some distraction from what we read in the papers. As we were leaving the theatre she said,

"Well that wasn't as happy as the other operas."

"And the over-acting," I said. "Dear me!"

"I know, especially the jester. But did you see him at the end, when his heart was breaking? I've never seen such... desperate suffering on a face. Do you think that might have been real?"

"Maybe he's in love with the girl who played Elsie."

"All that jealousy and longing," she said. "I don't remember any of that when I was young."

"Let's find somewhere for a cup of tea. I'm freezing."

As we crossed the road I thought again of the grief on the jester's face, and I saw the faces of thousands of young men dying in violence, in the mud, all over Europe, denied the years to make the lives they had dreamt of. The feeling of how easily we can lose the most precious things in life suddenly welled up inside me, and I quickly took her hand...

"I'd be lost without you."

She turned to me and smiled.

"You worry too much sometimes. I won't leave you."

"Do I worry so much?"

"Only sometimes."

How had she sensed that there was a real need for reassurance, however small, beneath the bonhomie? How many times over the years had she made my fears vanish with just a few words? And it seemed as if I was searching everywhere for those words again.

Even an old man can learn from experience. I came to understand, much later, that grief cannot be escaped. The words that set me on the path to this truth were given to me, from somewhere unexpected, in the form of a postcard mistakenly sent to my address. The picture showed a couple, standing, holding hands, looking at the Eiffel Tower. The message read;

Allo! Bonjour!

Sitting in the hotel, about to hit the streets for dinner. Done heaps: Louvre, Champs-Elysees, Arc de Triumphe, Eiffel tower. The food is excellent: cheeses to die for, wine, pastries, chocolates... Wandered thru the Sorbonne, paraded up & down the Blvd Saint-Germain & had lunch in the Jardin des Tuileries. My French is now a little more competent. I know I have already told you many times, but you really should travel, you would love seeing other countries.

love, Madeleine

The error that sent it to me was easily resolved, and I sent the postcard on. But as I posted it, I heard myself whispering a word of thanks. Perhaps it was fate, or perhaps I might have been inspired by any number of similar ways. But I like to think that somehow, somewhere, Genevieve was still looking after me. I decided I would abandon my books, my butterflies, my painfully empty house, and travel the continent, as much as my pension would allow, knowing that I could not do so indefinitely, but in the hope that at least the distraction might help to ease my sorrow.

Little did I know of the wonders, the dangers and the mysteries that lay before me...

January, 2014

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