A Falling Body

by Art Kavanagh

List of chapters | Fiction
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Chapter 2 — Vulnerabilities

Several weeks were to pass before I managed to be more than civil towards Legrand. In the meantime, we settled into a pattern of wary coexistence. I read, swam, ran, walked and drove. I ate well, drank plenty of coffee and a little wine. In general, I behaved much as I would have done if I’d still been at work. My reading was inclined towards the technical and I noted a few possible leads that the business might explore. Having given up trying to keep track of when Sur Écoute was being shown on Jimmy, I ordered the DVDs of season 3 of The Wire and began to watch them in the original language, without subtitles. The second DVD had subtitles turned on by default and I didn’t change the setting.

Thank you.

I didn’t consciously formulate a reply: he knew how I felt.

I masturbated more than usual, naturally. Not because I missed having sex — for now, that was a deprivation I felt more in anticipation than in actuality — but mainly to provoke a reaction from Legrand, who remained unprovoked. In the past, I’d never paid much attention to what I fantasize about while masturbating. Generally, I think, it was just a series of disjointed images, my purpose being to finish as quickly as possible — to get off and get on. Now, I’d imagine an elaborate scenario and even delay my orgasm so as to savour the prolonged state of arousal. I was struck by how many of these newly coherent fantasies placed me between two men. In my favourite, one man went down on me while the other penetrated me from behind. (I was sure that this would be extremely awkward, perhaps even impossible, but fantasy is no more governed by the laws of physics than by any other law.) I thought I sensed that this particular fantasy had a profound effect on Legrand also, but he was obviously not going to let me know if this was true and whether the effect was pleasurable or not.

I thought it wise not to meet my oldest friends while Legrand was on board. Though his research into my life had been meticulous, it was still possible that someone who’d known me for years might give away an important secret. Of course, I knew that my caution was no more than superstition: just thinking about a particular friend might reveal to Legrand exactly the information I didn’t want to give away. Nevertheless, the recognition that certain thoughts are superstitious is never enough to prevent you from thinking them. Besides, there was the question of protecting my friends from a covert invasion of their privacy. Accordingly, I sought the company of slight acquaintances.

Two such were a couple who lived near Pessac and with whom I hadn’t been in contact for nearly three years. I emailed the husband, Georges, whom I knew slightly better (he’d once considered investing in Jacob’s and my business but the decision had been postponed until we had a clearer business plan and, I suppose, we were still waiting for that to turn up). Now, I told him I was no longer involved with Jacob or the company and was looking for suggestions as to what I might replace them with. I got myself an invitation to dine with Georges and Édith at their home the following Thursday evening. Legrand would be coming along too, but there was no way to tell Georges that.

The dinner went well. Legrand found Georges self-important and Édith charmante and treated me to a highly amusing and surprisingly observant commentary on the dynamics of their relationship. This made me appear more receptive to Georges’s stabs at humour than I was otherwise capable of being. When I left, relations between Legrand and me had noticeably thawed.

I decided, with his agreement, to get off the tram at Saint Nicolas and walk back to the apartment from there. The streets were quiet and not particularly badly lit, though there was no moon. I felt relaxed and a bit relieved that I was again getting on with my internal shadow. Without the tension of having to monitor my every conscious thought, I was in a state of detached reverie, so that when a heavy-set male figure stepped in front of me, blocking my way, it took me a second or two to register what was happening. The man was holding a knife with a wide, flat blade which reflected more of the dim street lighting than seemed natural. Once I was sure it was real, I found it impossible to take my eyes off it. My first instinct, even before I’d registered what it was, had been to back away from the blade. Unfortunately, I’d backed myself into a recessed shop doorway and now there was no way to run without getting alarmingly close to the blade. My attacker had chosen the spot well.

After my childhood nightmares of being trapped up a chimney or in a narrow, twisting cave had gone away, my sleep was untroubled until my first year in university. Then, I began to have an irregularly recurring nightmare in which I was confronted by a knife-wielding rapist. I’ve always suspected that this nightmare was suggested by the student campaigns and official university warnings about violence against women, exhorting us to reclaim the streets and the night. In the nightmare, although there was a way for me to evade the attacker, I would always freeze, unable to move. At that point, I’d always wake up, full of fury and dismay at my powerlessness and failure to act. It was almost a relief to find that, when the situation actually presented itself, I didn’t freeze. On the contrary, my body felt primed by adrenaline and my brain was racing. It registered that the knife-man had spoken, then replayed his words. He’d said he wanted me à poil — naked. Sensing that he expected to have to repeat his demand and that my best chance lay in not conforming to his expectations, I put down my small shoulder-bag, slightly behind my right foot, and immediately unbuttoned my jacket. I was wearing a jacket and skirt in blue linen, of which I was particularly fond. The thought of letting them drop on the filthy footpath would have been quite unacceptable if my attention hadn’t been focused on the knife. My beautiful jacket landed in a heap amid the garbage. I was already unbuttoning my blouse, which was cream silk. I attempted to protect it by letting it fall directly on top of the jacket.

My bra fastened at the back. I reached behind me, only to see that the knife-man was shaking his head. The knife waggled back and forth in the opposite direction to his head, an effect that might have been comic if he’d been holding something other than a vicious weapon. He growled an order that I should take off my skirt first.

Until I was about 12, my mother had made me wear an undershirt, warning me of the dangers of chills, flu and worse that would beset me if I ever went out without it. I’d abandoned this pointless garment a few months before I got my first bra. It was several years later, when I was in university, that I took the next step in the removal from my wardrobe of superfluous categories of clothing: I gave up nightwear for good, except in those surprisingly rare cases where it is unavoidable, such as a stay in hospital. I’m a little embarrassed to admit that it was fully another ten years before it finally hit me that, except in very specific and limited circumstances, knickers serve no useful purpose. Most of the time, they do nothing more than provide a reason to waste washing powder and water. I’d acted at once on this belated realization. As a result, when my skirt came off, the knife-man was going to get a momentary surprise, and I needed to be able to take full advantage of it. I’d be better able to do that if I were out of my bra first. Ignoring his instruction, I undid the clasp, but then held the bra in place with my arms pressed to my sides. The man grunted but didn’t say anything intelligible. Keeping my arms close to my sides made it a little awkward for me to unfasten the skirt but I was in no particular hurry and I hoped that my squirming would distract the man and perhaps even make him take me less seriously. He actually smiled, so I’m guessing that worked. The left cup slipped a bit but he didn’t object. It was only as my skirt began to drop to the ground that I shrugged off the bra and let it slide down my arms. I stepped out of the skirt, kicking it to one side. As I’d hoped, the man gawped.

As the bra fell free of my arms, I grabbed a strap with my right hand. I swung the bra, hoping to hook the knife and pull it out of the man’s hand. I’d known that that was a long shot and it didn’t come off. However, it made the man step back, opening up the distance between the knife and me. If I was going to run, now was the moment. (I hadn’t taken off my shoes.) Instead, on an impulse, I dived, aiming for his shins. I say “on an impulse” but that’s not how it felt. It was as if I’d weighed the odds and mentally played out all possibilities, instinctively and at lightning speed. My dive felt like a calculated move, though the calculation hadn’t happened at a conscious level.

My shoulder caught my assailant just below his knees. I wanted to get as low as I could, if possible out of the range of the knife, but not so low that I wasn’t able to knock him over. I tensed, waiting for the knife to tear into the flesh and muscle of my neck or shoulder. Instead, I heard it clatter on the ground: my first stroke of luck. The man fell to the ground and I was on top of him before he could recover.

I hadn’t been in a physical fight since I was in school and I’d come out on top in that one only because the other girl had long hair which I’d pulled unmercifully. This was going to be different. I’d occasionally thought about doing a self-defence class but had been afraid of stimulating a recurrence of the nightmare.

The brute and I were more evenly matched than I’d expected — and hoped. I was in much better condition and had many times his stamina; on the other hand, strength and weight were very much on his side. My sweating skin offered less to get a grip on than his bulky jacket and I had greater freedom to move, but that didn’t give me as much of an advantage as I’d have liked. The jacket protected him from the sharp little pebbles and, more than likely, broken glass that littered the ground and which would have shred my back to ribbons. Almost by tacit agreement, we settled into a pattern where he lay on his back and parried my attacks, while I sat astride him and tried to hold his arms and legs down. This position suited both his need to conserve energy and mine to protect my exposed skin. Unfortunately, it seemed that this state of antagonistic equilibrium could continue almost indefinitely. Because I was doing nearly all the work, I was probably going to get tired more quickly, though I’d started with much higher reserves of energy. Ultimately, I gloomily realized, there was every possibility that the tortoise would win this race. Maybe it had been a mistake not to run.

I hope you called the police, I said to Legrand.

As soon as you saw the knife. They won’t be long.

Why have you been so quiet?

I didn’t want to distract you. Forget I’m here.

I’d made several attempts to knee the brute in the groin but he’d easily blocked them with his own knee or thigh. At Legrand’s suggestion, I made an effort to shift my position so that I could head-butt him instead. The idea was that he ought to find it harder to obstruct my head than my whole leg. Eventually, I’d worked my way around, until our torsos were again parallel, but now pointing in opposite directions. It didn’t help. If I were going to bring my forehead down with enough force, I’d have to relax my grip on his legs, and this might allow him to throw me off or at least evade my attack. I made a couple of attempts to punch him in the balls with my right hand but that too meant releasing my grip on his leg, which immediately came up to block me.

I’m at once proud of and embarrassed by what I did next. Proud of my resourcefulness and (once I’d finally got there) quick thinking, embarrassed — well, when I reflect coolly on the circumstances, I can’t quite say why I should be embarrassed but that doesn’t change the fact that I am. Since the moment I’d seen the knife, I’d been struggling to contain an impulse to piss. It suddenly struck me that this had been a futile waste of effort. I immediately pushed myself upright, releasing his legs. He slapped his feet flat on the ground and started to buck fiercely, but his upper arms remained pinned down by my knees, which now held all my weight. I relaxed my pelvic muscles and felt my bladder began to empty. Almost at once, the gasps, splutters and gurgles coming from below told me that I was hitting my target. After just a few seconds, amazingly, the brute stopped struggling. Had he given up?

I pissed for what seemed like a very long time. I sternly told myself that I couldn’t count on my attacker’s apparent surrender. I ought to be looking for the knife, in case he changed his mind. But I couldn’t stop. In part this was because I didn’t want to splash myself while rolling off him. The gasps and splutters had ceased: he must have closed his mouth and I’d felt him turn his head to his left, presumably so his nostrils wouldn’t be blocked by the flow and at least he could breathe. I looked in that direction to make sure that the knife wasn’t in his field of view.

At long last, my bladder was empty. In the meantime, I’d spotted the knife, about a metre away from the brute’s right foot. I pushed myself off him and grabbed it. The fight was over and, to my amazed relief, I seemed to have the upper hand. The brute raised himself on his right elbow, spat copiously and growled something heartfelt, in which I caught the word dégueulasse. I couldn’t help laughing. He looked at me in disgust and ordered me, somewhat peremptorily for a man in his position, to dress myself before the police got there. Again, I laughed.

“You’ve changed your tune.” But he had a point. Though he didn’t know that Legrand would already have called the police, it didn’t take a lot of brain power to work out that a naked woman holding a big, vicious knife over a man soaking wet on the ground might attract the notice of the kind of citizen who would think it his or her duty to call the law. This presented me with an awkward choice. I didn’t want to have to deal with the police on top of everything else. At the same time, I recognized that I had a responsibility to neutralize my assailant as a threat — to other women, quite apart from myself.

“Empty your pockets,” I ordered, making a jabbing motion towards him with the knife. An idea was forming. On the reasonable assumption that he had a phone with a camera, I could force him at knifepoint to take a photo of himself, still on the ground, with my naked legs and crotch just behind him. The bra would be used, in some way I had not yet worked out, as a prop. Whatever discreditable narrative such a picture might suggest, I could be confident that the threat of sending it to every contact in his address book would be enough to make him behave himself.

Forget about that, Legrand’s voice insisted, even before the idea had fully taken shape in my conscious mind.

I protested, but Legrand cut me off.

He’s the only one here who’s committed a crime, so far. Don’t let him reclaim something by forcing you to use extortion to try to control his behaviour. You need to put a distance between you and him and, from now on, have as little to do with him as possible. My people will be told to make sure that he’s no longer a threat to any woman. They can do that effectively, without injuring him or causing him any suffering. That, I guarantee. But I don’t want to be aware of any of the details and that means neither can you be. Will you trust me? Please.

It was too tempting an offer to refuse. I found my discarded skirt and shook as much of the filth out of it as I could, then put it on. I did the same with the jacket. The blouse might be salvageable, though I wasn’t sure I wanted to save anything connected with that incident. I folded it carefully and put it in the pocket of my jacket. My bag was too small and too full to accommodate it without crushing. The bag had been knocked over in the struggle but it had, for once, been fully zipped and nothing had fallen out. Just to be sure, I checked that I still had my cards and keys. I left the bra where it had fallen. With all the DNA I’d deposited on the attacker’s skin, hair and clothes, there didn’t seem to be much point in worrying about the bra being used to identify me.

I turned my back on the would-be rapist and resumed my walk home. The knife was a problem. It was too big and sharp to fit in my jacket pocket, the bag would have been too small even if it hadn’t been tightly packed, and I certainly didn’t want to carry it openly in the street. Once I was far enough away to feel safe (which is to say no more threatened than usual), I could drop it in a litter bin. That was unacceptable for several reasons, including the risk to refuse workers and the need to wipe my fingerprints from the knife before disposing of it. Finally, I stuck it in the waistband of my skirt at the back. If it ended up shredding the material, that would at least resolve my dilemma about whether I should try to reclaim the outfit or simply dump it.

When I got back to the apartment, I put the knife in the bathroom handbasin and took off my clothes. The skirt hadn’t been noticeably damaged by the knife. I put it and the jacket in the washing machine and started a full programme at 60º. If they survived that, I’d take them to be cleaned and then we’d see. For the first time since the night I arrived in the apartment, I was glad of the fact that it had a bath as well as a shower. As soon as I started to run a bath, however, I thought the better of it and had a shower instead. I didn’t want to fall asleep and wake up, hours later, in icy water.

Normally, I don’t wash my hair in the evening: another of my mother’s dire warnings was about the consequences of going to bed with wet hair. In the present circumstances, I needed to get rid of all the filth, so my hair was thoroughly clean and very wet when I got out of the shower.

I asked Legrand if there was a hair-dryer in the apartment, while examining my image in the full-length bathroom mirror, looking for bruises, abrasions and indications of injury. Legrand said that he thought there should be a hair-dryer but, of course, had no idea where it was kept. I went into the kitchen and poured a glass of Bordeaux, then spent twenty minutes towelling my hair to get it as dry as I could. I fancied that the vigorous motion was erasing the night’s horrible events. But no, not erasing. More polishing and smoothing. I wanted to be able to confront what had happened without reliving its full awfulness. I didn’t want to forget my resourcefulness or the relief I’d felt when I realized that my nightmare hadn’t been prophetic. But, in remembering that, I was also reminded what might easily have happened to me, if I’d been just a bit less lucky.

I slept late the next day. My hair, which hadn’t been completely dry when I went to bed, was now a painful tangle, so I washed it again. The knife was still in the handbasin, of course. I covered it with almost scalding water and found a nail-brush. Letting out some of the hot water and topping it up with cold to the point where I could put my hands in it, I scrubbed the knife thoroughly with hand soap, then rinsed all the soap away under running hot water. Finally, I dried the knife as best I could with a towel. I considered putting it in the oven at a low heat to get rid of any remaining moisture, but decided that this was unnecessary. The stainless steel blade was unlikely to rust and, if I was wrong about that, well, what did it matter anyway?

Now that the knife was no longer evidence of any crime, I didn’t feel a strong need to get rid of it. I touched the side of the blade, not caring if I left a fingerprint, so long as those of my attacker had been removed. Having lived in France for nearly 8 years, I still didn’t know much about their system of criminal law. I guessed that mere possession of such a weapon, as distinct from carrying it, was not a crime. I interrogated Legrand, who’d been quiet since I’d woken up but whom I could tell was paying careful attention to my thoughts and actions. He didn’t know any more than I did about the law on possession of knives but he agreed that my guess sounded plausible. He’d ask one of his attendants to find out.

Once I’d consciously engaged with him, Legrand stopped lurking in the background and became almost chatty. I guessed that he’d been watching me to see how I’d taken the previous day’s incident before deciding what his own approach should be. He confirmed my conjecture, though it hadn’t been directed at him.

He suggested that I ought to get away from Bordeaux for a few days, to get some perspective on what had happened to me. In principle, I couldn’t see why I shouldn’t get some perspective right there in Bordeaux. I had no strong connections with the city and I’d been living there for just over a month. There shouldn’t be any need to get away from it: I was already away. The awareness of how close I’d been to being raped made me shudder and, every so often, stop in my tracks, but I did not believe it was doing me any serious psychic damage. I was vulnerable. So be it. Everybody is vulnerable. But I’d just proven that vulnerability does not inexorably lead to unavoidable victimhood. Part of me, the part that wasn’t shuddering, felt great, triumphant. I’d be fine in Bordeaux.

Legrand strongly disagreed, and used his access to the state of my consciousness to argue that he knew what I was feeling better than I did myself. Though still inclined to trust my own impression of my feelings over his supposedly more objective assessment, I allowed myself to be persuaded that going away for a few days would not amount to an admission of weakness. Legrand wanted to go east towards the Med. It appeared that his business had another house near Montpellier, but I found that I really wanted to be in the mountains and suggested somewhere in the Pyrenées instead. To his credit, Legrand agreed immediately, though his vertigo (which I’d forgotten for the moment) can’t have made a stay in the mountains all that appealing to him.

I’d have to drive, of course, and I didn’t feel quite up to setting off immediately, so I suggested that I spend the day around Bordeaux, get an early night and leave after breakfast the next morning. Legrand was happy with that. I took a long, slow walk down the left bank of the Garonne, past the skateboarders, cyclists and parents strolling with their young children. I couldn’t resist going to take a look at the submarine base, a vast, damp, decaying concrete hulk, built during the Second World War for German U-Boats. It’s now, unbelievably, used as a concert venue. I’d been to one performance there and had been distracted from the playing because I couldn’t help worrying about the effect of the damp on the grand piano, incongruous on its floating stage amid the dripping concrete. It hardly needs to be said that the acoustics were dreadful.

Suddenly exhausted, I got a tram part of the way back and for lunch ate a salade gasconne in a bar near the Halle des Chartrons. Revived by coffee, I walked the rest of the way back to the apartment. I considered departing from my usual habit and taking a siesta but instead decided to read a bit and catch up on the English news sites online.

When evening came, I was too tired either to cook or to go out again, so I ate some cheese (Roquefort spread on toasted stale bread and a semi-mature Gouda that I’d found in, believe it or not, Lidl) and finished the open bottle of wine before going to bed.