Early evening. You have stolen a meal into your room, your road meal of bread, cheese and tomatoes, with the addition of wine and biscuits. It has been a day of calm, and you have roamed about Rouen for the second time, so that you can already connect different areas on the older right bank, each street denoted by a friendly landmark. A shop front full of North African halva, vermicelli triangles and sticky rolls of pastry and tricoloured slabs of sugary dough; a bar where you sat for breakfast coffee and wrote a postcard; the courtyard of the Palais de Justice, surrounded by staircases; the grimy buttresses of Église Saint-Maclou; la Poste; le FNAC; the strange open drains down the middle of one street that were once used by dyers to wash freshly dyed clothes but are now ornamental. Yesterday you sought English faces, and jumped at English voices. Today you have been contentedly resigned to being on your own in the city, mourning the lack of your Leica, and trying but failing not to stop before the window display of a camera shop.
Your gaze rests again on the tower of the basilica. Going to the window, you can see the gardens that swirl out from the south-facing portal and east around the buttressed back of the church. Directly in front of the entrance, old men are playing boules; tourists arm in arm pause to watch them, and city centre workers, passing through the gardens on their way home, have also stopped to sit in the sun for a few minutes. The church is still open, and you decide to look in for the first time.
Chairs are set out in front of the choir, as if for a service. People are standing about in twos and threes, and an official-looking young man has the air of making last minute, just-so preparations. Your ears burn to hear English emanating from a nearby group. You intercept a bearded and bespectacled man and ask in almost rusty English what’s going on. He tells you that the Jubilee Choir and Youth Sinfonia from the same county as you are about to give the first concert of their French tour. Stunned for a moment by these crossing trajectories, yours and theirs, you recover composure enough, before the man moves away, to announce in a slightly too loud voice where you’re from. He says, well, then that you should stay and see the performance, and yes, some of them are from your home town. A slave to coincidence, you have no choice in your own mind. The youthful singers and players begin to wander in and out, evening-dressed. You would like to speak with them, these angels of chance, but none stay isolated long enough for you to pounce on them. You content yourself with scouring the programme, a light blue booklet full of names which seem tantalisingly familiar. The conjunctions of fore- and surnames seem to you to have the air of where you grew up, of the school you attended, and to which some of them must still go. They bear the names of friends and enemies, of infatuations and bullies, of meetings on market days, of Friday nights in the larger village halls, ritualistically snubbing what these names were dancing to, waiting your turn to flail about to the records you and your friends were obliged to bring along yourselves if you wanted to hear them. Now they are having their revenge, these cardboard foes, because here they are to haunt you, reminding you that you have not yet vindicated the old antagonism by proving yourself or disproving them. But at last you are beginning to question whether you need to. And you are drawn to the combination of youthful energy and silver spoon grace, and long for a taste, yet shortly after the concert ends the singers and players will apparently be gone to a hotel outside of town, on the road for Paris and Notre Dame.
From where you are sitting, you have a clear view up the central aisle. The man next to you taps out the rhythms on his car radio, humming too, his head inclined towards his lover’s, which rests on his shoulder. ‘Lord, let me know mine end’ is followed by ‘My soul, there is a country’. Trapped in an island of music and coincidence, you cannot help but focus on one face, feel a gravity pull towards it. The girl four in from the left, second row from the back, with chestnut curls. Difficult to tell from this distance whether the expanses of cheek and forehead are white and untrodden sandy beaches to the waves of her hair. Difficult to tell whether, if you were close to, her beauty would be an exquisitely proportioned blank, or substantially flecked with detail, another face entirely, that you would go so far as to beg to be permitted to gaze upon and come to know. Imagining you have that permission, you rejoice in the heights and depths of the choir’s scales, exalting and exultant. The sound fills the basilica to the arches of its roof with all the hot thoughts you are thinking about existence, appearance, touch, and music. You trace intimations of the future around the illuminated spiral fortress of the altar beyond her, still as a picture after the closing breath of an Amen. The age-old forms of angel, eagle, giant candle, iron gates, watchful saints, all resonate with the music which has just ceased; only the mournful and penetrating stares of Jesus and Mary remain as they were before, unimpressed by the taint of your ecstasy.