Tuesday, August 10, 2021

Bérénice, part 6

 At the sight of the light in the doctor’s office, throwing into stark contrast his name painted across the window—Dr. Frédérique Blanchar, Médecin & Chirurgien—she drew in a deep breath, she slowed.

The front door was only one step above street level, but when she pushed Jean-Claude over the step and into the foyer, she could see that the clinic itself was up a half-flight of stairs. Before she had even brought his wheelchair to a stop, he was already pulling himself to the edge of his seat. “Stand in front of me,” he instructed.

She did, and quickly untucked the blankets from around him, throwing them over the back of his wheelchair. He said, “Hold me under my arms.” She had seen Else help him this way once before. “I’m going to stand up. Stand above me; I’ll take one step at a time.” She nodded, taking a deep breath, and he pushed himself to standing, his legs shaking.

Once they had steadied, she found that he was able to hold most of his own weight, except that his posture was bent and awkward. His first step upwards was tentative, fumbling, but after that he was able to move from step to step with surprising speed—except that once, near the top, he lost his balance with a jerk and began to fall backwards. She arrested his backward motion easily and held him while he caught his breath. His eyes were wide. Looking down at his tightly clasped arms, she thought again about how helpless he would be to catch himself in a fall.

After another moment, he muttered, “Help me keep going. Into the clinic.” She did so, moving backwards with his shuffling steps across the landing. When she felt the door at her back, she leaned back until he could lean his weight against her chest, disentangled one arm, and reached it behind her to fumble for the door handle. She got it, and quickly threaded her arm under his again to better take his weight, calling out a soft greeting to whoever was inside the clinic as she did so.

Inside, thank god, there was an empty spindle chair directly by the door. She pivoted, bent, and tried to release Jean-Claude slowly; he all but collapsed into the chair. Someone exclaimed “Jean-Claude!” from behind her; she had a confused impression of someone reaching to help her. When she was sure Jean-Claude was steady in his chair, she stood up, breathing hard, and finally turned to take in the full scene.

Electric light shone down harshly on the clinic. The walls were pale green, the floor black-and-white checked linoleum, the walls lined with white drawers and glass-fronted cabinets. Everything looked too bright and somehow stale, worn, at the same time. She felt suddenly her fatigue, and put out a hand to steady herself against the wall behind her. A stocky, brown-haired man with spectacles—Paul’s father, she could see the resemblance—had risen from his chair and hastened towards them, hesitating now between seeing to Jean-Claude or to her. It must have been him who called Jean-Claude’s name.

And the doctor had been bent over Else, who lay, looking pale and sunken, on an examination table, beneath a thin blanket. The table was white enamel; Bérénice thought that its whiteness was horrible. The doctor straightened now; she could see that he was wearing his paisley dressing-gown beneath his white coat. He was about fifty, square-set, with short, gleaming dark hair and a heavy dark face. He looked at Jean-Claude with sympathy and, she thought, a touch of warmth, despite his obvious fatigue.

Both he and Paul’s father seemed briefly puzzled by her, but fixed their attention instead on Jean-Claude. Paul’s father seemed about to pat or clasp Jean-Claude on the shoulder, but ultimately hesitated to touch him where he slumped in his chair, turning away with an uncertain expression. She leaned against the wall and tried to catch her breath.

“How bad is it?” Jean-Claude said.

“The fall was not bad,” Dr. Blanchar said, his voice measured. “She’ll be sore in the morning, some bad bruises—but no breaks, and she didn’t hit her head.” Jean-Claude exhaled. “She woke up during the taxi ride here, and after the examination, I let her fall asleep again. So she’s just resting, now.”

“Good,” Jean-Claude whispered, his voice barely audible.

“The real problem…” Here she saw Jean-Claude spasm with anxiety, his feet knocking against the floor. She reached out a hand to his shoulder. “The real problem is that she has a mass in her abdomen—and one here.” The doctor touched the base of Else’s neck, above her left collarbone. “The one in her abdomen—it’s grown from her stomach, it’s squeezing everything. It’s why she’s lost so much weight.” His voice was low and rapid, yet clear.

He paused. Jean-Claude had let out a wordless moan of sorrow, convulsing in on himself in his narrow chair. When he lurched dangerously to one side, Bérénice caught and steadied him. His flesh seemed to burn her through the fabric of his shirt, he was so full of suffering.

Paul’s father had averted his face, but Dr. Blanchar was still watching Jean-Claude steadily.

Jean-Claude seemed to recover himself, though his breaths were sharp, almost sobbing. With great hesitation, his words slurred and interrupted by twitches, he said, “Would you be able to operate?”

“Yes,” the doctor replied, “but not tonight, it wouldn’t be safe after the shock. She needs to rest, recover some strength. You need to keep her at home for at least a week—no errands, only walking around the apartment, small frequent meals, whatever she can eat. I can give her something for the pain, to help her rest more easily.”

“Yes,” Jean-Claude said, “yes, whatever you think will work, we can do it.” And Paul’s father leaned to him from the other side with a reassuring murmur; Bérénice presumed he was offering his family’s help.

And from there, the night, which had woven itself together with such sharp threads of alarm, seemed to unravel itself rapidly. Paul’s father disappeared to find another taxi to take Else home. Dr. Blanchar dispensed medicine in a dropper-bottle and discussed fees with Jean-Claude in a low voice. Paul’s father reappeared to collect Else and carry her away carefully, followed by Jean-Claude’s fierce gaze; she murmured in her sleep when she was lifted from the table. Bérénice had finally found her way to a chair and rested there, her mind blank of words yet awhirl with sensations and impressions.

She almost laughed when Dr. Blanchar finally inquired, “And who are you, mademoiselle?”

She was readying herself to leave; she didn’t pause as she buttoned up her coat. “I’m one of Jean-Claude’s models,” she said, smiling reflexively.

“Oh, I see,” he said. He gave a speculative look first to her, then to Jean-Claude, who, looking ready to fall asleep, barely moved his lips in a cool smile.

“Well then,” Dr. Blanchar said crisply, eyebrows raised. He handed the medicine to Bérénice in a brown paper sachet to stow in her coat pocket, and together they helped Jean-Claude back down to his wheelchair. Bérénice was grateful for the assistance; this time, Jean-Claude could barely support his weight, his legs sprawling out erratically with each step. Still, six steps could be handled quickly enough with her and Dr. Blanchar’s support, and soon enough they were back out on the pavement.

The mist still held, but it had lightened by a few degrees, the sky greying; dawn was coming. Though few were still out on the streets, there was an indefinable sense of the city awakening. They proceeded homeward in exhausted silence.

Bérénice drew in a long breath when she thought about the final set of steps awaiting them back into Jean-Claude’s studio. As they drew closer, she had the sense that he was steeling himself, too: in his wheelchair, he was carefully extending each of his legs one at a time, stretching as she had seen him do when resting from drawing. His gestures were tentative and his legs trembled often, his feet curling involuntarily into tight arches, but still it seemed to help. When he stood up from his wheelchair for the final time, he leaned heavily into her, but was able to bear more of his weight, and was able to make his way up the stairs with few missteps.

“Don’t go back for my chair,” he told her breathlessly, his head hunched below hers, when they were in the doorway of the studio. “Just keep going. It will be faster.” And she helped him shuffle through the little kitchen—it was her first time being in any space but the studio itself—and into the bedroom beyond, until he could fall backwards into his bed with a grateful sigh.

Each arm of the little L-shaped room was almost fully occupied by a single bed; Else was asleep in the other, of course. Bérénice checked to see that Else was sleeping comfortably, her breath even, and reassured Jean-Claude of it.

She went back to retrieve his wheelchair from the street; she closed all the doors behind her; she went back to Jean-Claude’s bed and, exhausted, climbed in with him. He did not protest. She pulled the blankets up over both of them, wrapped her arms around him. Both still fully clothed, they slept.


  1. Oh no poor J-C! Super devvy but are they going to ever get to enjoy their time together?
    Also no worries about taking time off, it's ok! Updating every other week or once a month is also ok.
    Still hoping we see more of Vincent too, haha. Is his character based on Vasili Eroshenko?

  2. Thank you for the new chapter!

  3. So very devvy! I'm really glad there are so many stairs in Paris of that time :) Also, can I cuddle in bed with the two of them?

    Lovis (who suddenly can't seem to comment when logged in...)

  4. I love this so much, damn you for making me an addict. I'm dying to see what comes next. Flawless as always. Thanks for sharing, I'll miss u during the hiatus!