The invitation to dinner was unexpected. It came in the form of an email.
It was very nice to meet you at the Consulate party on Tuesday night. Carmen and I are having a little dinner party on Friday and would be happy if you could join us.
We realize that our villa is a little bit out of the way, and getting back to the city might be a problem. Please feel free to use one of our guest rooms.
Drinks at seven p.m. Dinner at nine. Map attached. Please RSVP.
Gilles and Carmen Masé
Isabel opened the map. “A little bit out of the way” was something of an understatement. It was in the middle of nowhere, almost forty kilometres north of Saigon, past the old rubber plantation area around Bien Hoa.
It wasn’t just the distance that made Isabel hesitate. She didn’t know these people. They were part of a cliquish French ex-patriot community that rarely socialized beyond their own kind. The French still mourned for the days when they’d been colonial masters here and regularly got together to complain about how everything had turned to shit since they got kicked out.
Still, the invitation intrigued her. Gilles Masé was the owner of a huge lacquer ware export company, and Isabel had been bidding for a contract to provide translation services to his company for the last three weeks. It would be stupid not to accept the invitation. So she did.
* * *
The traffic out of the city was light. The taxi driver was chatty and he assured her that he knew were he was going, but as soon as they turned off the highway, and onto a poorly lit dirt-track that ran alongside a never-ending row of towering rubber trees, Isabel began to have her doubts. There was nothing out here but run-down shacks that served as housing for the rubber tappers.
“Are you sure you know where the place is?” asked Isabel.
“No problem. The map is good. Just five kilometres up this road and then turn left.”
Another five kilometres of this pot-holed, bumpy road, and Isabel was sure she’d be sick. She wound down the window and let in the warm, humid night air. She could only imagine how hard it would be to get down this track in the rainy season. Why on earth did they choose to live all the way out here?
After close calls with a three-legged dog, a trio of drunken boys, staggering arm in arm, and a clutch of chickens, they reached the end of the main road and turned left. Isabel could hardly believe her eyes. The gates to the house were over ten feet high, and beyond it, rows of flaming torches picked out a long, straight path to a sprawling white plantation villa.
The gate was open, and Isabel could see a number of cars, parked in a row along the drive. Their drivers were playing cards on the hoods of their vehicles or dozing in the front seats.
Isabel paid the taxi driver. “Can you come back for me at eleven o’clock? I don’t think I’ll be able to find a taxi out here.”
The taxi driver looked unenthusiastic. “I don’t know. It’s a long way to come again.”
“I’ll pay you double. Please. Otherwise, how will I get home?”
“I’ll try to come. Depends on how busy I am. It’s Friday, you know.”
Isabel shrugged and smiled. “Well, please try,” she said, and stepped out of the car.
The grounds and the house were so grand, Isabel suddenly worried that she was woefully underdressed in her plain white linen shift. She’d pulled her hair back in a braid and donned a pair of strappy bronze sandals. Her intention had been to dress sensibly and conservatively. After all, who hires a flamboyant translator? But now, as she walked up the path, she felt she should have made more of an effort. It was a dinner party, after all.
As she walked up the terracotta steps to the broad entrance, Gilles Masé stood waiting, in a plain white shirt and linen trousers. Isabel breathed a sigh of relief.
“Isabel! So nice of you to come.” He bent and kissed her on both cheeks in the French manner. “Did you have trouble finding us?”
The building was u-shaped, and he guided her through the entrance that that led, not to any interior room, but out into a huge courtyard, flanked by the walls of the house, filled with potted plants of every variety and ending at the foot of an wide, aquamarine swimming pool. Isabel was virtually speechless. She’d never seen anything like this in all her years in Saigon. Now she understood why they chose to live here, so far from the city.
“Mr. Masé, what a marvellous house you have.”
He smiled at her, looking genuinely pleased by the compliment, even though he must have heard it a thousand times. “Gilles, please. And thank you, it was my grandfather’s house. Je l’ai reprise .”
Isabel was tempted to ask how he managed to persuade the communist government to give it back to him, but she thought perhaps the question was impolitic.
A group of six people stood around, chatting, glasses in their hands. Gilles made the introductions, but the only person Isabel recognized was his wife, Carmen, who looked cool and elegant and beautiful with her black hair in a tight chignon and a blood-red strapless dress. She was a consummate Parisian woman: svelte, willowy, and always turned out to perfection. Isabel suspected she was Gilles’ second wife; she was much younger than he was, and had all the signs of being someone’s trophy.
Her bracelets jangled as she transferred her drink from one hand to the other and air-kissed Isabel’s cheeks. “So nice to see you, my dear.” She bent and whispered in my ear, “It’s good to have some new blood in our midst. All these boring old colons – I’ve had enough of them.”
The remark surprised Isabel, but it also made her feel less like an interloper in this tightly-knit group of people who had known each other for years, perhaps generations.
The other guests were all older than Isabel: Mr. and Mrs. Charles Fournier were almost in their sixties and looked like they had been married so long they had begun to look like each other. Sophie and Marcel d’Aubigne were about the same age as Gilles, perhaps early fifties.
The only other single member of the party was Michel Godard. Although she’d never met him, Isabel had seen him around town. He ran a French bar down in the centre of town. He was in his forties and rather short and stout and had a pinkish complexion. He grinned at Isabel and offered his hand. “I’ve met you before, I’m sure.”
“Not formally. But I’ve seen you. You run La Forchette, don’t you?”
Michel grinned and then pursed his lips. “I do! But I cannot believe that I would have allowed a woman as beautiful as you to come into my establishment without wanting to know her name.” He took Isabel’s hand and clutched it, covering it with the other. His palms were sweaty and hot.
Isabel did her best not to recoil. “You were playing dominos at the bar,” she said dryly.
He seemed unwilling to let her go, even as Carmen came over bearing a cocktail glass with something suspiciously pink in it. Isabel took the opportunity and freed herself, reaching for the glass.
“Thank you so much,” she chirped, a little more gratefully than was strictly necessary.
Carmen smiled enigmatically. “Would you like to help me in the kitchen?”
“Of course. I’d love to.”
Carmen took her hand and led her up the stairs into the house and through to an big, old fashioned kitchen where three elderly Vietnamese ladies were hard at work preparing what looked like a banquet. It was obvious Carmen was in no need of help.
“I must apologize for Michel. His wife left him a year ago and went back to France. He’s been unbearably predatory every since.”
Isabel laughed. “Well, thank you for the rescue. He’s very friendly but a little…as you say.”
“It’s your white dress,” said Carmen, stepping closer and running a red-tipped finger along the line of Isabel’s shoulder. “He has a thing for virgins.”
It was a strangely intimate gesture, and Isabel wasn’t certain how to read it. She shrugged and laughed it off. “Well, I’m absolutely safe then.”
Carmen giggled and withdrew her hand. “I need to check the dining room, will you come with me?”
Isabel followed her through a pair of mammoth wooden doors, past a darkened salon and out onto a wide wooden veranda. A table was set in the middle. It glowed in dim light; its white tablecloth and gleaming silverware reflected the flames from a pair of lit candelabras.
“Your house is just gorgeous, Carmen.”
Carmen walked around the table, checking settings, moving a glass, refolding a napkin. “Yes,” she murmured distractedly, “but it is very lonely out here.”
“I’d imagine it is.”
The woman stopped and smiled, her face framed on either side by the flickering candles. “My husband, he likes you.”
God, the French were weird, thought Isabel. It was a simple statement but Isabel had no idea how to read this woman. She decided that face value was best. “I’m very glad to hear it. I was hoping to get his translation work.”
Carmen smiled again and shrugged her elegant, angular shoulders. Her tanned skin shone in the candlelight. “Oh, I’m sure you’ll have it,” she said, lightly.
* * *
Seated around the table, the conversation was animated and in French. Although Isabel was fluent, it was not her first language and she listened to the banter feeling somewhat like a voyeur. She was being afforded a glimpse into this closed and cliquish world of people who dreamt of the past and regretted the present.
Gilles Masé sat at the head of the table, playing the magnanimous host. He lounged back, one arm carelessly flung over the back of his chair. In his other hand he held a half-empty glass of Beaujolais. He was a bigger man than she remembered, and his hair was shot through with silver strands. He had a strong neck, a very square jaw and rather intense brown eyes. He was handsome in an arrogant, paternal sort of way. From time to time, his eyes rested on Isabel, as if assessing her. It made her uncomfortable, and she took refuge in the chatty Michel who was sitting opposite.
Carmen was on Gilles’ left and showing the effects of having drunk a little too much. She brushed her glass with her hand and knocked it over, spilling deep red liquid onto the pristine tablecloth. It spread out like blood.
“Oh, how clumsy!” she giggled, trying to staunch the spread with her napkin.
“You did it on purpose, Carmen.”
It was Gilles voice, hard and cold, totally unlike the bonhomie of his earlier conversations. The change was so abrupt and so out of place; Isabel felt a small chill run down her spine. The whole table had fallen silent.
“I…I didn’t!” Carmen pleaded, unable to keep the laughter out of her voice.
“Don’t argue with me, Carmen. Stand up,” Gilles said, getting up himself. The legs of his chair scraped against the wooden flooring.
Carmen stopped twittering. “No…no, Gilles. I’ll get the maids to change the cloth. Just wait a moment… I can make it all…”
“Stand. Up.” The voice was clipped and cruel. It was a voice that would not tolerate dissention.
Isabel sat paralysed. In all her life, she’d never heard a man talk to his wife that way in front of other people. Suddenly, she felt terribly protective of Carmen. “Gilles,” she said quietly, but firmly, “It’s just a little spilled wine. I’ll help clean it up.” She started to rise, but the almost murderous look in Gilles eyes stopped her.
Across the table, Michel reached out and took her hand, pinning it to the cloth. “Don’t interfere, Isabel. They do this all the time.”
Down, at the end of the table, Carmen rose slowly to her feet, and began to move the place setting away from in front of her. She did it in a kind of slow motion, and like an automaton, until the table in front of her was entirely clear of everything but the dark, red stain.
Isabel’s jaw dropped open as she watched this beautiful, sophisticated woman bend over the table until her upper body was resting on it.
“This kind of undisciplined behaviour is unacceptable,” said Gilles quietly.
“Yes, Maître,” Carmen said.
Isabel watched the woman’s face lying on its side against the wine stain. Her lips were almost exactly the same colour. They moved, but her eyes were glazed over and dead.
“You have no right to embarrass me in front of my guests. Apologize this instant.”
“Yes, Maître. I apologize for my behaviour.” Carmen’s voice was toneless and as dead as her eyes. Then, slowly she closed them.
If it hadn’t been for the fact that she was stuck in the middle of nowhere, with her hand pinned to the table in Michel’s sweaty grip, Isabel would have walked out. The whole scene was surreal. These people were all, surely, mad, and this was like watching a car crash in slow motion. Isabel didn’t want to be here. She didn’t want to be a witness to this – whatever it was.
Finally, she got up the nerve to speak again. “Gilles, please stop this. There is no need for an apology. It was just a glass of wine, for God’s sake!”
But Gilles wasn’t listening. He reached down and pulled the hem of Carmen’s red dress over her hips. Beneath, the woman wore nothing. Her bare buttocks gleamed in the candlelight.
“Be quiet, Isabel,” hissed Michel. “Don’t spoil the fun. This is the only reason I bother coming out to the god-forsaken place!”
“You’re all insane,” Isabel hissed back. “This is barbarous!”
Mrs. Fournier, who had said nothing up until now, looked over at Isabel and giggled. “It’s nothing more than she deserves, my dear.”
The sound of flesh hitting flesh made Isabel jump and lock her eyes on the source of the noise. The first slap moved Carmen’s body further onto the table and set the glasses and dishes tinkling. The woman herself was completely silent.
Gilles drew his hand back, to hit smack her again, and Isabel heard someone inhale sharply. The second slap made Carmen yelp. Isabel saw the pain of the blow flash through her face before leaving it, somehow, utterly impassive.
She felt Michel let go of her hand. He drew it beneath the table and she heard the distinct sound of a fly being unzipped.
The whole thing was beyond description. As the spanking continued, Carmen’s cries became louder and louder. But the woman didn’t struggle or try to get away. In fact, despite the noise she was making, she was clearly enjoying this. She’d pulled her hands beneath her chest, and was squeezing her own breasts as the castigation went on.
Gilles, on the other hand, was completely unreadable. He dealt out the punishment with studied impassivity. Over and over, he hit the lovely upturned buttocks with the broad palm of his hand, leaving visible prints on his wife’s flesh.
A little worm of excitement curled and twisted in Isabel’s stomach. She knew she should get up and leave; what she was witnessing defied all appropriate behaviour. She fought the strange feeling, willing herself to turn her eyes away from the terrible, fascinating spectacle in front of her. Then, just as she thought she’d overcome her unaccountable reluctance to move, the spanking stopped.
It was impossible to ignore the groans and sighs and quick breathing that filled the silence around the table. At the head of it, Gilles smoothed a possessive hand over Carmen’s red bottom.
“Eh bien, ma petite. C’est tout .”
Mr. d’Aubigne made a disappointed sound. “You can’t leave her like that, Gilles. It’s unkind. You have to finish her off.”
Isabel’s back went rigid. She scanned the faces round the table in disbelief. “Finish her off? Are you all out of your mind?” she demanded.
Gilles chuckled, his hand still rubbing his wife’s rump. “I suppose it doesn’t sound very appealing in translation,” he said in English. And, without taking his eyes off Isabel’s face, he slid his hand between his wife’s buttocks and began to caress her. Even at a distance of ten feet, Isabel could hear his fingers slipping through the wet flesh of his wife’s cunt. Carmen moaned and arched her back, beginning to pant. And, even from her vantage point, Isabel knew when he’d pushed his fingers inside her, because the posture of Carmen’s body changed and she began to push backwards, riding his fingers.
Despite her best intentions, Isabel’s own body responded to what she was witnessing. Between her legs, her panties were damp, and as she moved, uncomfortably, in her chair, her inner thighs were slick with her own juices. Carmen’s moans and grunts only added to the bizarre eroticism of it all. And, around the table, people cleared their throats, and fidgeted in their seats. Mr. and Mrs. d’Aubigne began to kiss deeply, passionately.
Isabel tried to look anywhere but at Gilles Masé, but every time her gaze drifted back to him, he was staring at her, even as his wife impaled herself on his fingers. Isabel felt her face turn red and she forced herself to stare down at the empty plate in front of her, until Carmen moaned and began to shudder so hard the whole table shook.
“Ah! Je jouis. Je jouis!(4) ” whimpered Carmen. Her body relaxed, and her eyes closed.
Then it was over. It seemed as if everyone let out a sigh. Carmen pushed herself up off the table, smoothed a couple of stray wisps of hair from her face and primly pulled down her dress.
Isabel considered the problem of getting up from the table. How was she going to hide what felt like an massive damp spot on the seat of her dress? Why couldn’t she have worn black?
“We have strawberries and creme fraiche for desert. Does everyone want some?” asked Carmen.
Isabel smiled inanely and nodded her head.