She had been my mad, dangerous lover and I needed her back. I couldn’t think of anything else. In the year that I had been without her my longing had grown and I was now in extremis, incapable of functioning without her. Love-sickness is a serious affliction; I knew I could not survive without her, however pathetic that might sound. The illness was physical; it had spread from my brain and was flooding my cells with is poison. Mathilde, Mathilde, the poison flowing through my bloodstream seemed to cry.
I wrote to her. I pleaded for her to visit me, intimating that it might be for the last time as I had a serious disease. Whilst not strictly true, this was not altogether false: some people might have confused my symptoms with the early stages of some ghastly disease; indeed I had already decided to claim I was suffering from syphilis, but not until after she had arrived. You must understand that I was desperate. How else could I have got her to travel all the way from Cahors, where she had set up her dental practice, to Paris just to see me? I was unable to travel (I hoped that syphilis was one of those diseases that makes it inadvisable to move from one’s home: the sudden weakness, the possibility of cross-infection; in truth I knew nothing at all about the disease, just that it was serious and, as I have said before, I was desperate). The fact was that I was penniless. My law studies were not going well; my father had threatened to disinherit me if I failed my final exams, and I was drinking more than was good for me, although only with hindsight can I see this. As far as I was concerned, I needed to drink several bottles of wine a day in order to keep myself alive, such were the appalling physical manifestations of my love for Mathilde: the shaking limbs, the inability to concentrate, the sleeplessness, the lack of appetite, and above all the images of her that went round and round in my mind, day after day after day, as if the inside of my head were a zoetrope, constantly moving, an agonising loop of torment.
She came, although I have to say that her letter confirming her imminent arrival was not as sympathetic nor as loving as I had hoped. She had closed her dental practice for a fortnight (and even I, in my weakened state, could see that this was not a sensible thing to do as she had only qualified the previous year and had used a legacy from her grandmother to set up her one-woman practice, a very rare phenomenon in provincial France in the ‘50s) and would take the overnight train, arriving at Gare Montparnasse at six in the morning. I was late meeting her after a practically sleepless night which had finally resolved itself as the first glimmer of the summer dawn appeared behind the Hotel de Ville, just visible from my first floor bedroom window. When we eventually found each other, I felt shy as I embraced her, wondering if she was angry that I had missed her arrival, although I was sure that she would not chastise me as she would be wary of upsetting me in my condition, and her kiss seemed genuinely warm and loving. I said how glad I was to see her but when I told her I had syphilis she became matter-of-fact.
“I need to get a test done as soon as possible, Jacques,” she said as we walked more briskly than I was accustomed through the city towards my lodgings. I found her suitcase unnaturally heavy.
“Of course,” I replied, wondering how many books she had brought with her. It felt more like bricks. I hoped she would not ask to see the results of my test. “But you can do that tomorrow. Let’s spend some time together first.”
“I suppose if I’ve got it already there’ll be no harm,” she said, turning to me with the glimmer of a smile. So she did still love me! My body ached with longing for her. My sickness was about to be cured; I would soon be able to function in the world again: my mad, wild dentist Mathilde would see to me, would alleviate my pain. I shifted her suitcase to the other hand, joyful with expectation.
“You will have to stay for treatment,” I said.
“If I’ve got it,” she said. “What are the symptoms?” Hallelujah, she did not know!
“Um, well there are sores and, er, a general feeling of malaise. I’ve had that for some time,” I said.
“No, the malaise. Like a bad case of flu, or an attack in the liver,” I explained.
“And the sores?” she said sharply. “Where are they?”
“On the hands,” I said, showing her my palm which had already blistered with the friction from her hard leather suitcase-handle.
“Hmm,” she said, poking at the blisters with keen interest. “Nothing down below?”
We made love all that day, and all the next. She told me that she had forgotten what desire was until she was back in my arms; our bodies entwined like the branches of the glycine that grows on my grandmother’s house in the Languedoc. She nuzzled and clawed and bit and fought like the wild, unpredictable Mathilde of old. I knew I would never tame her, that I needed to devote my life to her, that we could never be happy apart. Then she told me that she hated dentistry and that most of all she hated the people of Cahors. She wished she was back in Paris, with me, that we were both still students together, and could stay young and carefree for ever.
“But I have my finals this year,” I said, “And then I will have to find a job. Come and live with me in Paris! We can rent a little apartment in the Marais and...
“But you have syphilis! You will be too ill to work in a few years’ time. I know that at some stage of the disease your nose drops off, and no-one will take you seriously as a lawyer then. And there is no call for dentists in Paris – the city is already at saturation point in terms of dental surgeons. I need to be in Cahors. I have sunk all my legacy into this practice and I must make it work, for my grandmother’s sake.”
“But if you have the disease too,” I reasoned, “You will have to stay in Paris for treatment, and we can be ill together. Please, Mathilde, stay with me. I will die without you...” My tone became wheedling; I despised myself.
“But you will die anyway, and then what will I do?” Mathilde purred into my ear, biting the lobe so hard that tears sprang to my eyes. “If the test is positive, I will stay with you and we can die, soon, together, maybe in a suicide pact. If the test is negative I will have to leave and I think it will be best if we never see each other again...”
“Why? No! I could not bear that! Stay with me anyway, I beg you! At least grant me this wish. I’m a dying man, Mathilde, have pity on me!” I hoisted myself up onto one elbow and looked deep into her eyes, hoping that my gaze of longing would have the effect of making her see sense, making her realise that she needed me as much as I her. Her eyes flashed, wild, dangerous.
“Mon Dieu, pardonnez-moi!” she moaned, leaping off the bed and launching herself through the open first-floor window. I moved more quickly than I thought was possible. I jumped out of bed, flew to the window and looked down. She lay there, groaning, her foot at an unnatural angle. Too shocked to keep up the pretence, I shouted down to her.
“Don’t worry! Everything’s all right - I haven’t got syphilis! There’s nothing physically wrong with me, in fact. And you’ll be fine – you’ve just broken your ankle.” And I ran outside and hailed a cab to take us to Saint Pitié hospital.