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June 2007, vol 3 no 2

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Ken Jones

Belle Epoque

A lover’s morning delight. The hostess gone out for an hour. Yet her presence remains in the pictures, ornaments, books, clothes and décor. Each finds its own voice in the silence, echoing the intimacy and strangeness of it all. In bed I stir my tiny cup of Turkish coffee, thick and sweet.

But always, confound it! that copy of Géricault’s huge painting “The Raft of the Medusa”, screwed into the wall between the two windows looking over the park. A great deal of shipwrecked alarm and despondency. It was a gift to Anna from her husband the colonel, after he left to command some gloomy fortress on the eastern frontier. “A nice big scarecrow, my dear.”

Iron bedstead
 foaming sheets and pillows
a lovers’ raft

Playfully Anna has declined to cover the picture. However, Franz, the actor-manager, has entertained us all by casting each of us, the three lovers, as one of the gesticulating castaways. (Franz, Ladislaw and I do, of course, know one another in the town—discreet gentlemen, each visiting on his own day of the week).

Even more disturbing is the colonel’s white tunic, watching us from the back of the bedroom door. A warning clack every time the door opens and closes. His presence always somewhere about.

Sky darkens, birds fall silent,
the crunch
of gravel

Anna declines to move the uniform. “Don’t worry,” she laughs, “he would do no more than horsewhip an intellectual."

Elsewhere he is pictured outside our railway station, standing at the salute. Anna is next to him, with her mysterious smile. And a delightful jugendstil dress which Franz had brought back from the Flöge sisters’ salon in Vienna. In the centre stands our crop headed Father of the Nation, beneath a banner inscribed LAND, LABOUR & FAMILY. Meanwhile, in the matrimonial bed we celebrate LIBERTY, EQUALITY & FRATERNITY.

I am now more curious than scared of the presence of the colonel’s absence.

but beyond words
his wooden boot trees

Lying face down in one of Anna’s bedroom drawers is his photo.

An enigmatic man
solid inside
his art nouveau frame

Beneath the glass a dried alpine flower. And next to it a necklace with a small silver cross. Anna is already unefemme d’ un certain age. They have been married for some twenty years; no children. Our raft of lovers begins to seem no more than fleeting entertainment.

And now all over Europe the lights are going out. As a foreign national I depart on the last train.

August 1914
the porcelain shepherdess
her smile

Belle Epoque: The three decades in Europe before the outbreak of the First World War—a period of great optimism and cultural and social achievement.

Géricault’s painting is a romantic melodrama of the ordeals of the survivors of the French ship “Medusa”, which foundered in the Atlantic in 1816.