“Did you shut the chalet door?”
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“Last time it was left open and snow blew in to wet the carpet, remember? And the neighbour’s cat got in and frightened the poor gold fish.”
“Sorry about that, dear,”said Albert.
While saying that, Mathilde snuggled up a little closer to her dear husband, her arms through his, feeling the cosiness of their thick overcoats.
They have walked this way almost daily on their constitutional to their bench at the edge of the pine forest. There the mountains waited for them, always in their splendour any time, day or night. Not that they were out often at night because of the chill, except on midsummer nights in June.
The couple were soon among the smaller weekday crowds on the main street of Chamonix, the usual happy mixture of touring families and skiers in holiday mood. English and German floated in the air, some loud babbling of Italian too.
A Japanese girl was giving her cutest smile to the digital camera, her head tilting at an intriguing angle. Her two fingers, holding up in a V shape, pointed exactly up to the peak of Mont Blanc, high and aloof behind her, as if wanting no part in all of this.
“Bonjour, m’sieur-dame,” said a passing friend, a bag of groceries in his arm.
“C’est sa fete, aujourd’hui,” said Mathilde proudly, tightening her arm.
“Ah oui?, Bonne anniversaire, mon vieux,” the man said.
“Merci, Claude,” said Albert.
“Nous voila,” proclaimed Mathilde, “Be careful, Albert, it looks slippery.”
Arms still linked, the couple slowly climbed the many steps of the stairs up to the restaurant’s balcony. Mathilde had reserved their usual table by the sunny window and the view, just in case it was crowded. Just as well, because it was.
But in fact they could have sat on the big terrace and take in the air today as the midday sun was very warm and its light reflected back from snow all around.
Auguste the waiter gave them a big smile as he took their bulky coats away, Albert struggled a little with his gloves. Their table waited in the sun, brilliantly white with glinting silverware. A single gorgeous dark-red tulip stood in a vase, as requested by Mathilde.
“Thank you, dear, for all this,” said Albert quietly, holding both of Mathilde’s hands on the tablecloth.
“Thank you for my life,” said Mathilde quietly, her eyes averted.
He looked at his life companion. She has aged so well, much better than him. Her hair is now as white as mountain snow but still beautifully wavy and thick. Her all-seeing eyes and all-knowing smile had not changed in all their years together.
“I can see Mont Blanc reflected on your head today, my dear,” said Mathilde with a laugh.
“Well, I gave it a special polish today,” said Albert.
“Mont Blanc is always in my head, so it might as well be on it. Your furniture polish is very good and it smells nice too. Smell.”
Mathilde did. “Mon Dieu, you really did use it!”
“It is my special day today. I can do what I like.”
“Oh la la! What would that be, I wonder?,” giggled Mathilde.
“With some red wine … you never know what this little old man can get up to later.”
“ Somehow, I have an idea,” smiled Mathilde. “But you know I like what you do.”
“Yes, dear, I should know, au nom de Dieu!”
Right on cue, the waiter came back and poured a little dark red wine, the colour of the tulip, into Albert’s big glass. He sipped it.
“Wow, this is good,” said Albert, looking a little nervous.
“Don’t worry dear, it’s expensive but it’s your special day.”
Albert glanced up to Mont Blanc. The brilliantly white tooth was even higher today, streaming a trail of blown snow from its peak. The massive range was like a sheer wall of snow, which covered all the lower forested slopes thickly as well.
“C’est magnifique, comme toujours,” sighed Albert.
His life with Mathilde fitted that description. Every morning as he woke up, he looked at his wife, contentedly asleep, and thanked God. He never thought he deserved her really.
“ Do you remember our last visit to Venice, dear,” asked Mathilde.
“Yes, dear, very well.”
“Let’s go again, this winter. There will be fewer tourists and I so love the winter there.”
“You like some funny things, dear,” said Albert.
He suddenly wanted to hold her as tightly as possible in his arms.
From the top floor of their favourite pensione in Venice overlooking a canal, they had opened the windows wide and the cold dank mist seeped in immediately. They had moved the lounge near the window and now sat together under a thick eider-down bed cover.
They held each other tight and heard the different watery sounds echoing from the canal below. The city was shrouded under a freezing fog and was hushed. They spent the night like that, bodies and minds fusing into one. As the morning sun shone in, they stirred but refused to separate.
“But we need to go to Paris first,” said Mathilde. The Centre Pompidou was to hold a retrospective exhibition of Albert’s work next month.
“Oh that. What shall we do there this time?,” asked Albert.
“ Become famous at your exhibition, of course. Then I want to find that little hotel on the Left Bank where we stayed in the attic once. Do you remember?”
“How can I forget?”
“We have some unfinished business there. Oh la la, you’re blushing, Albie,”
“Am I? Wonder why,” said Albert with a laugh.
It wasn’t long ago when they followed Mathilde’s idea to turn back the clock 40 years and become a pair of bohemians again, not that they were such once.
After a set-menu dinner in a bistro crowded with students, who did not notice their existence, and two big carafes of house red, they swayed together on the left bank of the Seine, Albert lugging their weekend pack on his back. They then spotted the room in the attic on top of the hotel through leaves of trees and an ornate lamp post.
They remembered vaguely that they stayed there before some 20 years ago or more.
Slowly they went in a creaking lift and climbed the last flights of stairs with a struggle. When they had regained their breath while sprawled on the double bed that sagged badly in the middle, Mathilde produced a soiled copy of the Karma Sutra she had just bought from a river bank stall, her cheeky smile very wide.
At her insistence, they opened the window to the warm summer night and let the freedom of the Bohemian city breeze in.
Albert had never been both so embarrassed and so free. As always, Mathilde has amazed him by being adventurous and bold.
Her joie de vivre was being celebrated all that weekend, and Albert did his best to keep up but not nearly matching her.
Albert was sent out struggling only once to buy wine and food. They ate their picnic hungrily on the hard wooden floor.
Somehow a croissant or two were stale. Once Albert would on principle force himself to eat them but not any more. So they risked exposure by leaning out of the little window to feed the croissants to the pigeons on the roof.
“Oh la la, Mathide. I still can’t believe that you made us do that in Paris. I have not been the same since and I wished we had left that book there instead of bringing it home.”
“You don’t mean that. It is the pride of my library,” said Mathilde.
“And a much-used book!,” sighed Albert.
The birthday lunch was delicious, complete with his favourite tarte au pomme dessert and coffee.
The winter evening was already somber when they walked with arms linked to the bench which looked out to the darkening vista in front of them. They sat close to each other for warmth and marvelled at the snow turning deep orange as the sun set behind them.
“Thank you, dear, for my wonderful day,” said Albert quietly, his cheek touching hers. “And for my life.”
Mathilde smiled her knowing smile and touched Albert’s tears with her fingers. Then she wiped her fingers on her coat, just above her heart.