That first day I saw him in his dark suit, immaculate in the impossible heat, I knew he would be the death of me, or I the death of him. A droplet of perspiration made its halting, itchy way down my spine, and cooled unnaturally.
Some people’s paths are never meant to cross.
I knew him immediately: not from the hazy portrait my sister had sent me, or the later happy photograph of the family in the summer garden at Nimes, but from his handwriting. I can’t really explain it now, but somehow the man who stood at the dock corresponded perfectly with the determined, flowing script I had seen in his letters.
His first letter had informed me that my sister had died of Spanish influenza. It had been short and painfully stilted, as if grief had paralyzed his hand. The second, which had arrived only two weeks later, told of the death of their only child, my niece Helene, taken by the same dreaded illness. The opening paragraphs were as wretchedly contained as the first note but half way down the page, something had broken in him. Perhaps his desperation had breached the reserve of early sorrow: he wrote of the war and its terrible wastes; of the cruelty of a fate that had allowed him to survive those infernal battles only to lose everything he loved most in the space of a month; and he wrote of his awful fear that it was, perhaps, he who had brought the sickness back with him from his sojourn in the army hospital where he had been treated for a shrapnel wound.
I replied to each letter. I wrote to him of my broken heart in knowing I would never again see my beloved sister, of my wretched sense of loss and regret at never meeting my little niece. Then I wrote to him with solicitude for his wellbeing; for isn’t that what a sister in law should do? I had assured him that the influenza was even here, in Saigon – many had died – and that he should not blame himself for the death of his wife and daughter in any way.
For it was true: all over the world we were in the grip of a great conflagration and no place on earth was spared. Two months later, the same evil took my husband from me. And I, with so much death before my eyes, accepted it with numb resignation and waited patiently for my own inevitable end. My demise, it transpired, would take longer to arrive.
In the meantime, I cared for my husband’s business, kept his house in order and corresponded with the only relation I had left in the world: the man who now stood in the meager shade of the custom’s office awning, waiting.
He was handsome, with his proud bearing and dark hair. The hands that casually held his hat were still and patient. No photograph could have done justice to this man my sister had loved so well. Remembering her possession of him should have cooled my admiration, but it didn’t. The year of solitude, of corpses lying in the streets where they fell in the stinking heat, the barbarity of nature had driven my every wit and civility from me.
Why had I lived when so many had died? Only the repetitive, quotidian tasks of managing the rubber harvest and the house had lent me the veneer of stability. Like a tree being eaten from the inside out, with no one to talk to, I had pushed the ghosts that haunted me down into my belly, and had risen each morning to attend to my chores. At first I thought it only the melancholy of bereavement, but then the images came, the noises, the smells and sounds. And I was certain some demon had possessed me, for it spoke in many voices and showed me sinful, obscene things. It gave me no respite. And so I implored my maid to, day-by-day, pull the laces of my corset tighter and tighter still, for only discomfort would stop its dreadful assault on my senses. And only the nightly opium allowed me to sleep untroubled by the whispering and the chittering of the evil things that had somehow burrowed their way into the walls of my house. But the dreams… I could not stop the dreams.
Little did this poor, bereaved man know he had travelled halfway around the world to meet a madwoman.