This story has been translated into Spanish.
I had these dreams, of a place and a person, recurrent, ill-defined, beckoning. I’ve always delighted in drawing, and so it was natural for me to transcribe these images that haunted my slumber onto paper. I would wake, and while the scene dissolved I would hurriedly illuminate the room, grasp for my charcoal and a pad that I’d left lying beside my bed and begin sketching.
The early drawings were very vague indeed, barely figurative, but the sentiment is there. I wondered often where these impressions came from, they didn’t seem related to any memory I had of the past. As if they had been born immaculately in my unconscious, whispering to me.
She turned a page and gazed at the following picture. There was a strong sense of being drawn in, the edges blank, the detail increasing towards the centre. I had arranged the sheaf with the earliest at the top. As she browsed through the collection, she passed through dream after dream.
It only came to me later that this place might actually exist, and the person too. Once, during an exceptionally vivid moment I heard an utterance, a word in a language that I did not know. I decided to leave my home at the southern point of Africa and travel to Ireland, from where my ancestors hail. The visions became more intense and I practiced my art more frequently. I roamed across the land, listening intently, looking for a sign.
As she continued leafing, she saw more clearly, felt a tugging suspicion which went unspoken. He continued speaking softly, slowly, evenly, gently, patiently. Once, eavesdropping unwittingly, I overheard a sound in a conversation which I recognised faintly, the memory of a single utterance. A woman talking, in a foreign tongue, she told me she was French.
I travelled to Paris, where I lodged in a tiny apartment on a narrow road, where the washing lines were strung from wall to wall, and the occasional pedestrian would wander past, a quiet haven in a great heaving city. I learnt French, searching ever for a fragment of understanding. I began to talk to people about my work, my journey, my quest. They would look, curious, as you do, providing an odd comment.
She began to hasten her pace, stopping occasionally to compare with an earlier version. The strokes had taken on a pattern, drawn almost mechanically, yet each with a unique flourish. They had met on a crowded sidewalk terrace, he’d been seated when she’d asked to share the table as no other was free. He’d struck up a conversation, and when she heard his accent she had asked where he was from. And when she asked why he had come to her small town, in the heart of Provence, he replied, to her surprise, that he was looking for somebody, but he did not know who.
He had the assured air of one who has told the story many times, to which she responded with great interest. He had been drawing when she arrived, the streetscene, simple in essence but yet quite compelling. He had offered to show her his work in his rented room upstairs and she assented.
Once, a lady in a train told me the forms reminded her of her childhood home of long ago, in the South, between the sea and the mountains, where vineyards and olive groves and fields of lavender grow. This statement brought me to the walled city of Avignon, where I drew daily and nightly. I knew I wasn’t in the right place, but the emotions were stronger.
What had at first been a barely-humanoid figure, now showed character, personality, individuality, and the tugging suspicion has risen to a repressed wail. She was reaching the end of the stack. He had organised an exhibition in the school of fine arts in Avignon, an informal affair where a few strangers wandered in and admired the presentation. A woman had asked for the name of the artist, upon which he had presented himself as the author in person. She had complimented him on his marvellous renderings of the town of Apt, a place she held dear in her heart. She asked who the girl was, to which he replied that he did not know, and that he had never been to Apt.
And so, to Apt he went, nestled in the folds of the Luberon mountains. He had arranged a room, opened his suitcase, thought better of unpacking, and then headed downstairs to the café. He drew from memory, without opening his eyes, the scene real in front of him and within. At which moment she had come over and asked to sit down. The self-control, the sheer nerve, to sit there idly, his mind reeling with recognition, strike up a casual conversation, then invite her upstairs, hoping brutally that she would say yes, then slow his breathing and tell his story.
She held the final sheet in her hands, staring wide-eyed at a mirror, her arms trembling slightly. She laid it down, face-up, and walked to the open windows where she lit a cigarette. How remarkable. The smoke curled upwards through the late afternoon shafts. She asked him what the word, the utterance, was. Her name. Which she had said to him when they first spoke downstairs. A very particular and ancient name. A very unusual name indeed.