The courtyard of the Basilica of Notre-Dame de Fourvière offered an awe-inspiring, panoramic view over the city of Lyon, but Annabel felt only sadness, remembering the last time she’d admired the view from here.
Tourists milled around, cameras clicked, chattering voices rose and fell, whilst a few devout Lyonnaise folk made their way into the Basilica to divest themselves of guilt, no doubt, and replenish their stock with God.
That’s the way James would have seen it, she thought, turning away from the sight of the gentle Saone winding down to join the mighty Rhone at the Confluence. The russet rooftops of Lyon gleamed in the morning sunlight, though for Annabel they lacked definition; a city haze perhaps, or more likely a mist of tears.
She became aware that a man was seated on a bench, studying her carefully. His white hair was pulled back into a ponytail at the base of his neck, and his dark sweater and slacks seemed to accentuate his tanned face and the startling ice-blue of his eyes. To avoid his scrutiny, having no wish to strike up a conversation, she strolled away to the terrace that offered a view further west.
These days, she seemed to spend hours fending off the unwanted attentions of middle aged French men, who, seeing a faded but still reasonably attractive woman taking in the sights of their country on her own, assumed that she would welcome their advances. All she really wanted was to revisit the places where she and James had spent so much of their lives, remembering a time when a future alone had been an unthinkable prospect for each of them.
“It will pass,” a voice said, at her shoulder, and she spun round to see her observer had followed her.
“I’m sorry?” she said coldly, but he was not to be deterred.
“The grief, it will pass.”
“I don’t think I understand,” she lied.
“This is not what he would have wanted, your husband. For you to spend your future trying to re-live the past. Bereavement need not be a closing of a door; simply a change of direction.”
“I’d prefer to be left alone, thank you,” she said, feeling a pang of guilt as she saw disappointment in his eyes.
“Of course, Madame” he said, bowing his head. “I apologise for the intrusion.”
He walked away, leaving Annabel to enter the nineteenth century Basilica alone.
The interior was much as she remembered it, beautifully and ornately decorated, with just a hint of contrived artificiality not evident in other older French edifices.
Flickering candles bordered the nave, and for a euro here, two euros there, you could purchase votive candles of varying sizes and designs. She paused and shook her head disbelievingly before the bank of electrical votive candles on the right hand side of the pews.
How scornful James would have been. Coin operated dispensation, he would have said.
Soon the atmosphere became cloying, and the muted choral voices droning from long speakers placed either side of the confessional booths began to irritate her. She hurried to the exit and was relieved to be out in the pleasant September sunshine, though there was today something of a chill in the air.
In need of a coffee to bolster her spirits, she made her way to the restaurant at the side of the basilica, and headed towards the table in the corner where she and James had once dined.
The pony-tailed man was already seated at that table and she pulled up short, disappointed.
“Please,” he said, indicating the chair opposite, “I shall move if you wish to indulge your reminiscences again.”
How can he know? she thought, irritated.
And then weariness overwhelmed her, and she shook her head, sitting down.
He was pleasant enough company as they sipped their coffee, and demonstrated an almost intuitive sensitivity towards her. Never having been one to talk to strangers, Annabel stood up with surprised regret when the time came for her to return to her hotel. For at least half an hour, she realised, thoughts of James had not once crossed her mind.
“I’ll accompany you to the Metro,” he said, taking her arm and brushing his body lightly against hers.
They strolled towards the funicular railway that would take her down to the cobbled streets of Vieux Lyon and back to her hotel.
At the railway carriage door, he raised her hand to his lips.
“Take care, Madame” he said, his eyes searching her face. “You must seize the rest of your life. It is what he would have wanted.”
She bit her lip and entered the carriage, giving just one backward glance as the train started its steep descent down the track.
He watched the train leave, then entered the Basilica once more, wandering idly around the nave.
Very soon the woman would discover that her credit cards were missing.
Many women in her current circumstances would be crushed by this discovery, but his sense was that she would not. She would be angry. She would come out fighting, and he would need to find another pitch elsewhere in the city. Soon.
Just time enough, perhaps, for one more.
A woman, wearing a headscarf tied at the nape of her neck, approached the bank of candles flickering in the dim interior of the basilica, rummaging in her bag for a euro. He studied her for a moment, before strolling up to stand beside her as she placed the flickering candle on the stand.
“Your prayers will be answered, Madame,” he said softly, “your treatment will be successful.”
She gasped, and turned towards him, her eyes filling with tears.
He sighed. He always tried to give something before he stole.
Yet he still felt that familiar stab of shame, turning like a knife within his chest.
This second sight is a devil of a gift, he thought, taking the woman’s arm as she trustingly allowed him to lead her out into the sunshine.