Jubilate: Extract

In the opening pages of the novel, Gillian Patterson wakes in a Lourdes hotel room beside her lover of just two days.

It’s his breath that wakes me.  Hot, heavy breath on the nape of my neck.  Breath that for a moment I mistake for his kiss.  The breath of a man sated with passion:  the breath of a man sated with me.  I turn my face towards his, drinking in the sweetness of his breath.   Even the faint fumes of alcohol exude no hint of decay.  They are as fresh as the wine at Cana.

I slip my hands behind my back to prevent their straying.  Like the mother of a newborn child, I long to run my fingers all over his skin, exulting in his sheer existence.  Like a girl with her first love, I long to arouse him with a single touch, marvelling at his maleness.  But most of all I long to preserve the moment,  extending it beyond the clock, fixing him forever in a world where only I know that he is alive, one where he is alive only for me.

The basilica bells ring out to thwart me.  The jangling melody of the Ave Maria that reminds me of the purpose of my visit is followed by seven stark chimes that warn me I have lingered in bed too long.  My mutinous mind replays the chimes as six and I sink back on the pillow, but a casual glance at my watch robs me of hope.  It is seven o’clock and all over town bleary-eyed young men and women will be making their way to the Acceuil.  Young men and women, harried by hormones, will be setting about their duties, while I, twenty years their senior, seek any excuse to shirk mine.  I am ashamed.

Would anyone miss me if I went away, took a gap year at the age of thirty-nine, a career break from a life of leisure?  I except Richard;  I always except Richard.  I see him now, waking up at the Acceuil, confused by the emptiness in the second bed, searching for the mother who was once his wife.  I see a pair of young men holding him under the shower and pray that he does nothing to offend them (I have discovered the modesty of schoolboys twenty years too late).  I see them leading him to the basin and handing him a toothbrush.  ‘But why do I have to clean my teeth,’ he asks, ‘when I’ve not eaten anything since bedtime?’  Will they come up with a credible answer or will they take his point, a point that gains force as I lower my head towards Vincent’s?  I pull away.  What if Richard has been awake all night, plagued by the phantoms in his blood-damaged brain?  What if the nurses ignored the notes and halved the double dose of pills that he is prescribed in an emergency.  And this was an emergency.   Oh God, are there no depths to which I will not sink?

Vincent scratches his chest.   I revel in my privileged perspective.  There is none of the awkwardness that I feel with Richard, whose every involuntary movement is directed towards his groin.  I have an absolute right to watch him.  He is my love, my lover, the object no, subject of my affections.   I study him like a mail order bride preparing to face the authorities (I must put all thoughts of marriage firmly from my mind).   He still has a full head of hair, the boyish curls belied by the greying sideburns.  The flaming red may be turning ashen but its pedigree remains clear. ‘Bog Irish,’ he declared defiantly, in case four generations of Surrey shopkeepers had filled me with proprietary pride.   He has sea-green eyes, with a slight cast in the left one which would seem to be a hindrance in his profession, and a scattering of freckles along each cheek which put me in mind of autumn.  His nose is straight with surprisingly wide nostrils.  But his crowning glory is his set of perfect teeth.  When he smiles, as he does in private, I am dazzled.

God forgive me but I love him!  I came here looking for a miracle and I’ve found one.  So what if it wasn’t the one I expected?  Should I spurn it like an ungracious wife whose husband gives her a dress better suited to the salesgirl?  Was I that woman?  People change.

I lie back on the pillow and my head fills with questions:  questions which resound so violently that I am amazed they don’t wake Vincent.  Must I throw up the chance of happiness?  Must I turn my back on love?  But I don’t need to hear him speak to know his answer.   ‘Your religion makes it quite clear.  Christ charged us to love one another.  St Paul taught us that the greatest of all virtues is love.’  But for once his smile fails to blind me.  If the Eskimos have so many words for snow, why do we have only one for love?  Or do we?  I am brought short by a rush of synonyms.  Tenderness.  Devotion.   Compassion.  Service.  Sacrifice.  And the one that makes a mockery of them all:  Lust.

A hand pulls me out of my reverie.  A hand in the small of my back pulls me a few inches across the mattress and into the unknown.  I am startled, affronted, delighted, grateful.  I open my lips to his kiss and am flooded with peace.

‘How long have you been awake?’ I ask, with the unease of the observer observed.

‘Hours,’ he says languidly.

‘Liar,’ I say, relieved by his shamelessness.  ‘I’ve been watching you sleeping.’

‘I rest my case.  You and I are one and the same.  If you’re awake, then so am I. Why are you crying?’ he asks with alarm.

‘I’m not,’ I say, surprised by the tear that he wipes off his shoulder and presses to my tongue.   ‘I should say that it’s because I’m happy, but it’s far more complicated than that.  It’s because I’m here.  It’s because one way or another somebody’s going to be hurt.  It’s because to keep being happy, I’m going to have to choose.’

‘Choice is what makes us human,’ he says, suddenly alert.  ‘Unless you think God’s some celestial Bill Gates, programming everything in advance.’

A blast of cold air makes me shiver.  I gaze at the window but it’s closed.  He is not just the naked man spread out beside me, stroking my forehead until it feels as if it is made of silk, the man who knows instinctively, mysteriously, the perfect way to pleasure a body he first held a mere two days before.   He is a man with a past that chafes him like a shoulder strap;  a man with set ways and prejudices;  a man who, for all our differences, I see as my second self.   If only we had been childhood sweethearts, sharing our hopes and dreams like lunchboxes.  If only it had been his office, rather than Richard’s, that I had walked into as a girl of nineteen.

‘We must get up!’  I take us both aback by my abruptness.  ‘It’s half past seven.’

‘Half-six.  Here!  Look at my watch.’

‘Only because you were too lazy to adjust it!  Next you’ll be glued to the Sky sports channel in the hotel bar.’

‘I’m trying to be kind to your body clock.’   Then he presses his lips to my breast as if in confirmation.  My protest dies in my throat.  As he inches his tongue down my ribs, I luxuriate in my weakness.  I wonder at my perversity, when the prospect of future entanglement only adds to the illicit pleasure of the here and now.

I have never felt so fully in the present.  As he laps my stomach in ever-smaller circles, I throw back my head and find myself staring at the ceiling.  The cracked cream paint glows as golden as the Rosary Chapel mosaics.  I struggle to keep my arms and legs from thrashing about, afraid that my passion will compromise me, showing him that it is no longer a matter of ‘if’ but of ‘how.’  He insinuates his tongue inside me.  My body and mind are mere adjuncts to my desire.  I am fire and water, the perfect balance of opposing elements.

His tongue grows more insistent and then, in an instant, the sensation shifts.  I feel not an emptiness but a silence, like the lull between two movements of a symphony.  Suddenly, he is all percussion and I sense the crescendo in my flesh.  I am at once overpowered and strengthened, pulled apart and made into a perfect whole.

I smile as a picture takes shape in my mind.

‘What are you thinking?’  He licks the tip of my nose.

‘St Bernadette,’ I reply too quickly.

‘What?’ I sense a slackening that threatens us both.

‘I was wondering if she knew what she was giving up when she entered the convent.’

‘Not every woman’s lucky enough to enjoy the Vincent O’Shaughnessy treatment.’

‘It’s not just you and me,’ I say, emboldened by his swagger.  ‘This is God.’