The House on Selkirk Avenue: Extract


The memory is as vivid, as indelible, as any print in her travel portfolios. She has several of them but no images of the long train ride through the Alps, or the unexpectedly short sojourn in the French capital. A week earlier, her camera had been stolen at a crowded party in Urbino; hence, no visual record. Not a single snapshot. And yet, all these years later, Kate’s mind still hoards the texture and smell of the night train’s upholstery; the way the light seemed to get swept out of the afternoon sky soon after the train had left Milan’s railway station.

She was on her way to Paris, to stay with her mother’s American school friends. It was mid-September. At some point in the evening, she had bought herself a ham sandwich and was still eating it when a young soldier entered the compartment and settled across from her. He said Bonsoir and Kate, too, said Bonsoir, and then the whistle blew; the night train was on its way again. There was a dim light in the compartment but eventually it went off. The soldier crossed his legs. In the dark he seemed to be looking straight at Kate but not a word was spoken. Perhaps she imagined it?

She turned and stared out the window, wondering what she would do with her life once her continental stint was over. It was what she was supposed to have figured out, gallivanting with her knapsack through Europe for much of the summer. She had a degree in English and Music, but was no closer to knowing what to do with herself in October than she had been in July. She’d been travelling with another Montreal girl, but Eva had flown back home two days earlier.

So Kate was on her way to the 16th arrondissement, to polish up her French and maybe go back to Canada to work as a diplomatic interpreter. She spoke three languages, but this was her father’s idea. Did she want to work as an interpreter? She didn’t know. Did she even want to go back home? She didn’t know. There was a medical student who had asked her to marry him, but she wasn’t ready to think about it. She’d promised to give Brad Thuringer an answer when she came back from Europe, but still didn’t know what the answer would be.

It was beginning to rain. The soldier was very still, but awake as well. The darkness made Kate feel sweetly secure and safe – the way she used to feel in her childhood, after her mother had come to tuck her in and kiss her good night. The soldier lit a cigarette and sat smoking in silence. The burning tip of his cigarette glowed like a restless insect. It glowed red in the thickening dark, with the rain whispering at the windows. The train chugged along, on and on through the murky mountains, the dripping countryside.

After a while, Kate slept. When she woke, it was five in the morning. They were going past a hamlet and, through the open window, there came a sudden breeze, invading the compartment with its seasonal message: the scent of fallen leaves, of stacked hay, of imminent dawn. A shiver ran through Kate’s bones. The soldier stirred and lit another cigarette, as if to let her know that he too was awake. As they approached the station, a platform light fell on his khaki-clad body and, for the briefest moment, Kate had a mental vision of a very old man sitting by the fire, his hands on his knees. She must have smiled a little at the thought. They smiled at each other: two young strangers who had spent the night together without exchanging a word. That seemed wonderful for some reason.

He asked Kate’s name then. Speaking French, he asked whether anyone had ever told her that she looked like Audrey Hepburn. Kate answered yes, though she had grey eyes whereas Hepburn’s seemed to be brown. She blushed because she liked the look of the soldier’s hands. They made her think of a famous sculpture by Rodin. How calmly, how serenely, his long fingers rested there, on his wool-clad knees! The night was almost over. There was a sudden ache in Kate’s chest.

“My name is Thierry,” the soldier said softly. It was a name Kate had never heard and liked. But what’s in a name? Surely no name can, in itself, explain what she ended up doing before the sun was up. Kate Abbitson! An ordinary, rather sheltered, Canadian girl, still trying to get over the love of her life, fucking a laconic stranger in a French train compartment while rain lashed at the windows, and the train rocked and rocked in the vanishing night. Guillaume, Guillaume, Guillaume …

She never saw the soldier again. He disembarked at the next station, kissing her goodbye but not stopping to ask for contact details. Perhaps he was married or just engaged? Perhaps, in the light of dawn, he too was ashamed?

Kate’s middle-aged self is certainly pained by the memory, the banal facts of female biology. Not for the first time, she wishes she could tell her twenty-six-year-old son the truth about his biological father but, years ago, she promised to put the past behind her once and for all. No one could accuse her of not trying hard enough. Having exchanged marriage vows, she carefully wrapped up her whispering memories and stowed them away in a dim, private place.

And there they remained all these years, barely audible.

Until yesterday.