Seen and Not Heard

By: Anne Stuart


Felice Champêtre moved slowly through her stuffy apartment on the rue Broca, her faded silk skirt rustling softly as it bumped against whatnot tables, an overstuffed armchair, a precarious pile of fashion magazines. She was brooding on the inequality of fate. Her ankles had swollen dreadfully in this damp, rainy weather, and the arthritis in her hands made it almost impossible to make a decent cup of tea. It was miserable to get old, miserable and unfair.

She’d been a great beauty, sixty years ago. Paris had been between wars then, money had been plentiful, and life was very gay. Now she was old and alone in a tacky apartment that held all the things she couldn’t bear to part with, the contents of a huge house squeezed into her present small flat. No one came to see her, and when they did, all she did was complain about how wretched life was. And then, of course, they didn’t come back.

She edged her way into the tiny kitchen, peering out of the grimy window into the rain as it washed over the city she once loved and now hated with a grim, unrelenting passion. The kettle was too heavy for her—she’d have to make do with the iron-tasting tap water.

She sighed, leaning against the old sink, as the cold loneliness settled around her. There were times when she thought she’d welcome death, a release from all this misery. She was getting so tired of the struggle.

Of course, there were moments of pleasure still. That young man in the park yesterday had been very sweet, very gallant. It was odd to see him there—that park was usually the province of old people like herself. She didn’t even know why she went there. She didn’t like old people any more than all those young, arrogant Parisians did.

But the young man hadn’t been arrogant. He’d been courteous, gentle, even mildly flirtatious. People no longer knew how to flirt. It had been wonderful for a few brief moments to forget she was an eighty-year-old woman, to become young and desirable again.

He said he might come to tea. She knew he wouldn’t—he was only being polite. But she could hope.

Still, today might be the day. She could feel it in her ancient, arthritic bones. She would put the kettle on anyway, just in case he happened to climb the three flights of stairs to her apartment.

The kettle trembled in her hands, and she set it in the sink and turned the tap. The rusty water gushed out noisily, covering any sound in the apartment. Felice couldn’t hear the tiny scratchings at the front door lock, couldn’t hear the flimsy door opening and closing, couldn’t hear the stealthy, silent footsteps through the living area.

But her apartment was a dangerous maze of jumbled furniture. She heard the crash as one precariously balanced table of china toppled over, and she turned to blink nearsightedly through the shadowy room.

“Who’s there?” Her voice was sharp, honed from years of nagging her late husband. Her fierce expression softened. “Oh, it’s you!” she said. “I was hoping you might come today. I was just about to put the kettle on for tea.”

“There’s no need,” he said gently, moving into the kitchen, his feet making no sound at all.

“How did you get in? I always lock the door,” Felice chattered, suddenly, unaccountably nervous. She turned back to the sink. The kettle was now full—it would be much too heavy to lift.

“Don’t be frightened of me, Felice,” he said behind her, his voice soft and soothing, like a lover’s. She hadn’t heard a lover’s voice in thirty years, and for a moment she shut her eyes as a wave of bittersweet memories swept over her.

She opened them again, for a brief, startled moment, when she felt the hard thrust of the knife up, up into her heart. And then she closed them once more, dying with a soft, graceful shudder.

He’d done well. There was never much blood if he did it right. He’d botched it once, and had to take a shower before he left. But this time it was very neat, very fast. An artistic job.

The water was still running into the sink, overflowing the old kettle, the sound mixing with the steady drone of the heavy rain. He reached past her crumpled body to turn the tap off, then stopped. He would leave it.

He pulled the knife free and hoisted the old woman’s body into his arms, carrying her back through the cluttered living room over to the narrow bed. He set her down, arranging her carefully, her hands together in a prayerful attitude covering the neat wound. She lay there like a repentant effigy from a fifteenth-century tomb, her faded, too observant eyes shut forever. He took off her shoes and stockings, placing them neatly beside the bed, and stared down at her for a long, thoughtful moment.