HEART TO HEART

Madame Giry was sure she had never longed for the end of any production more than that of the patrons' gala, and she suspected that almost everyone who worked within the Opera Populaire felt the same way.

Thankfully, the very long and very fraught dress rehearsal was over and done with, the managers had proclaimed themselves satisfied (or rather Monsieur Marigny had, Olivier Fontaine was rather more effusive in his praise, endearing himself to his company even more than his ebullient personality and genuine consideration for their feelings had already done) and now all they had to get through was the performance itself, which could not, in Antoinette's opinion, come soon enough. Nearly six weeks of planning, preparing and rehearsing for a single night was quite long enough, not to mention dealing with moods and arguments; for the last few days it seemed everyone was on edge. Despite the fact that she spent most of the time trying to keep the restless ballerinas in line and handle the problem of Hortense's condition, Madame could not have failed to notice the behaviour of her nearest and dearest: it seemed that at almost any given moment Christine was about to cry, either from nerves or sheer exhaustion; Erik was gradually becoming more and more frustrated, looking just as worn as his wife, and even Meg was irritable and snappish, something that was very unusual indeed. Unfortunately, with the current punishing rehearsal schedule, Antoinette had been unable to find a moment to speak to any of them about it.

The dress ended late, and she was only too happy to clear away all her plans and paperwork and go home to have what she hoped would be a decent night's sleep before returning to the usual display of anxiety and stage-fright that ensued before a major performance. They had only received their stage three days ago, the crew having finally completed its construction in the more intimate setting of the Grand Salon; the auditorium was too vast for the select audience that had been invited, but as the cast had spent the last few weeks rehearsing on the main stage as usual, it took more than a little adjustment to become used to working in the smaller space, especially for the ballerinas. Madame was grateful that they had been informed of the change of venue well in advance so that the choreography could be tailored to the new stage, but it had not stopped her girls making turns and pirouettes that were a little too enthusiastic and sent them crashing into their fellows. Erik grumbled constantly about the poor quality of the acoustics, and Reyer nodded sagely in agreement, but they all knew that the managers' decision was final and no matter how many times his musical director and chorus master complained Monsieur Marigny would not be swayed. The patrons' comfort was paramount, and he aimed to keep them happy in order to procure as much money for the Populaire as possible, on that he was adamant. The pair had been sent away with their tails between their legs, Reyer's moustache bristling and Erik's powerful fingers clenched into fists so tight that Antoinette could well believe he was desperately restraining himself from wrapping them around Marigny's neck.

To everyone's surprise and relief, Theodora Merriman's indisposition turned out to be a minor sore throat rather than influenza, and she had returned to the cast on the previous Wednesday. Christine was happy to bow out of the Papageno duet but with typical generosity Teddy would not hear of it, claiming with a wink that the dress looked better on her understudy; even Madame had to admit that Christine looked magnificent in the green and blue feathered creation, a tour de force from the costume department that prompted Monsieur Fontaine with typical enthusiasm to suggest The Magic Flute for the next production so that the dress would not go to waste. Despite Teddy's recovery, Erik would not permit her to perform her intended aria in case she strained and damaged her voice, and he had spent the last three days rehearsing her as Violetta from La Traviata instead, which left the rest of the singers to sit around twiddling their thumbs until he was ready to run through the entire programme. Marius and Alphonse took out a pack of cards, attracting the attention of some of the ballet rats, who took sides and stood watching the progress of the game until they were chased away by Antoinette; some of the other members of the chorus produced books and newspapers while Marie Durant brought out her crochet needles and gave an interested Christine a lesson; others just fell asleep. Erik was not pleased to have Sempre Libera interrupted by the rumbling snores of Guilllame the bass, who had nodded off in the stalls with his hat over his face.

Stretching, her back aching in a way that was beginning to make her think she was getting too old for all of this, Madame Giry checked the contents of her handbag and patted the pins that fixed her hat in place before reaching to turn off the lamp burning on her desk. Her fingers had got barely two inches towards the wick when there was a tap on the office door. She groaned inwardly but called out to her visitor to enter; after a moment the door opened and she was surprised to see Erik peering around the frame. He stood there looking slightly awkward and taking up a fair amount of space in the little room, a frown creasing the visible side of his forehead, apparently pondering the right words and reminding her of a schoolboy called to see the headmaster.

Antoinette sighed. It was unusual for him to be hesitant; she wasn't sure whether she preferred it when he just appeared in the room like magic, demanding something or other. "Erik, it's very late and I'm looking forward to a bath if I can manage to heat the water," she said. "Was there something you wanted?"

He looked tired, she thought, and worried. Perhaps it was nerves about tomorrow night again; she had believed them to be over now that he was no longer performing alone, but maybe that was not the case after all. "May I speak with you?" he asked.

She glanced at the clock. "Can it not wait until the morning?"

"I just needed to... no, no, you're right, it's late. I won't delay you," he said, and turned away, but there was something in his voice that made her call out to stop him, a vulnerable wobble that did not often appear. Surprised, he glanced at her over his shoulder, and she gestured to the chair before her desk, taking a seat herself. "Don't you want to get home?"

"Something is obviously bothering you," Antoinette told him. "I don't think it's this ludicrous gala, though. I presume you'd like to talk about it?"

For a moment she thought he would bolt through the door; he looked at the chair uncertainly, hovering like one of the ballet rats when they were due for a reprimand. Before she could speak again, however, he sat down with a sigh. His posture made it quite clear that something was wrong; hunched forwards, he rested his elbows on his knees, long fingers playing with the brim of his hat. "She's alive," he said without preamble, and Madame Giry blinked. She was about to ask to whom he was referring when he added, "Angelique. She's alive, and she contacted Christine."

"Angelique?" It took a few seconds for the significance of the name to register with her and she was shocked when it did. "Your mother?"

"I'd hoped all these years that she was dead. She deserved to be, for what she did." He looked down at the floor. "I never wanted Christine to know about her, not everything."

"And now she does?"

"I had no choice but to tell her. The harpy confronted her in the street outside; she wants to meet her, speak with her properly. Dear God!" Erik slammed a fist against the desk. "I won't allow my angel to come under the influence of that... that creature! I cannot... I will not taint Christine with my past!" His voice cracked and his head sank to rest on one hand. "I should never have left the cellars; she could never find me there. The light has brought me nothing but trouble..!"

"Erik." Antoinette reached across the desk and rested a hand on his arm. He gave her a sidelong glance through his fingers. "You know you don't mean that."

"I was free of her, Annie," he whispered. "My memories might still be tying me to her but physically I was free. She had no idea where I was for nearly forty years and now... now I don't know what to do. She knows where we live, where we work... I hope I'm wrong but I have a horrible feeling she was at the wedding, in the church. How am I going to escape her this time?"

His agitation was obvious; the hand supporting his head was trembling and his breath hitched despite his apparent attempts to control it. Madame Giry got to her feet and rounded the desk, perching next to him and slipping an arm around his shoulders. "You do not have to," she said, dropping into the reassuring tone she always used when Meg was upset. "She is an old woman, alone in the world because of her actions; you are a grown man, a successful man with a wife and friends who love you. You have nothing to fear from her, not now."

A sound that was probably meant to be a laugh but emerged more like a hiccup, rattled in his chest. "Then how is it that the merest mention of her name has me feeling like a child again?"

"Because you have spent nearly forty years wondering why she didn't love you, continually asking a question to which no one could provide the answer," Antoinette told him. "You should have been able to rely upon her love, to take it for granted, but she denied you that basic right. She does not deserve the title of mother."

"She said as much herself, in the letter she gave to Christine. Unfortunately, I find it very hard to believe that she has changed her opinion of me, no matter what she professes now," Erik said bitterly. "It seems rather convenient that she finds it in her to praise me now, when I am no longer able to embarrass her. Success it seems has rendered the fact of my existence less disgusting than it was."

Madame frowned. "What else did she claim in this letter? Do you have it here?"

He shook his head. "I threw it on the fire, along with the fond reminder of my childhood she saw fit to have her lackeys deposit on my doorstep."

"The snake charmer..." She drew in a sharp breath and he looked up at her, eyes narrowed suspiciously. "So Christine was right..."

Erik stared at her in something akin to horror. "You knew about it?" he demanded, pulling away from her. His gaze burned dangerously and his voice was suddenly reminiscent of a serpent's hiss. "You knew and you did not see fit to tell me? How could you keep something so important a secret?"

"I had only Christine's assumptions to go on!" Antoinette snapped back. "What good would my telling you have done? She made Meg and I promise not to mention it – she did not want to worry you. Everything that girl does, whether the decision was wise or not, is because she does not want to cause you pain! She loves you too much to wish to see you hurt!"

He glared at her, but while those eyes could practically impale the unsuspecting with their stare it was clear that his heart was not in it and he sank against the hard wooden back of the chair. "I know," he said quietly. "I know."

"Have you spoken to her of your fears?" she enquired, squeezing his shoulder and returning to her side of the desk, wondering whether Jacques would mind making a trip across the Place de l'Opera for some coffee. She knew the way Erik's logic often worked when applied to his past; they could end up going round and round in circles until daybreak with no conclusion. No matter how she tried, sometimes it was impossible to convince him that his convictions upon the subject were wrong; he had held them for so many years that he couldn't change them now, he just wasn't capable.

"A little. There are some things I would rather she did not know; she is too pure, too innocent still, and she has heard enough of my humiliation," Erik admitted. "I worry that every new confession makes me less of a man in her eyes."

"I do not think that will ever happen. Christine thinks the world of you; why else would she have stayed by your side? She is not a child, Erik," Antoinette reminded him, "She is a woman who is quite capable of drawing her own conclusions and making her own decisions, and you know that. The Vicomte was offering her every girl's dream, but she chose you, for better or worse. Your mother's actions are not your fault, and you must stop thinking that you were in some way responsible for what happened. She made the choice to treat her innocent child like a pariah; no one forced her to do it."

He was quiet for a while, staring off into the middle distance. She thought again about the coffee and was starting to get to her feet when Erik sighed deeply and turned his head to look at her. There was genuine bewilderment in his eyes. "You're right," he said, "I know you're right, but..." He shook his head in frustration. "I just can't make myself believe it. Is there something wrong with me?" The question was plaintive, like one posed by a child.

"No, my dear, nothing at all," she soothed, reaching across the desk to take his hand. "You've spent so long thinking badly of yourself that it's going to take a while for you to adjust. It will come in time, I promise."

A slightly watery smile turned up the visible corner of his mouth. "You're sure about that?"

"Of course." Antoinette smiled too. "You should know better than to argue with me. Am I not always right?"

He snorted, and she was glad to hear the sound. His fingers curled around hers and to her surprise he squeezed her hand. "Thank you, Annie, for listening to me. You are the only one to whom I can really turn for advice."

Madame raised an eyebrow. "Even though most of said advice has been apparently unwanted and immediately disregarded?"

Erik's lips twitched. "Even then."

"Can you not talk to Christine about this?" she asked after a pause, remembering her former pupil's firm declaration a few weeks earlier, when Antoinette had attempted to meddle in the running of the Claudin household. Though she was loath to admit it to herself, she had known that she was in the wrong but had spent so many years being Erik's only contact with the outside world that it was hard to break the habit; it was difficult to see someone else taking over the role that had once been hers. "You are married now, after all, and she is your helpmeet. She told me in the nicest possible way to mind my own business when I offered my advice."

Despite himself, he laughed. "My little firebrand," he said fondly, his eyes misting over. "She has become so strong... Well, I cannot entirely blame her, knowing the manner in which your assistance is usually offered."

Antoinette's eyebrow arched higher, but she decided to disregard that, especially as it was obvious he was teasing her. "What does she think about all this?"

Erik sighed, and he looked down at his hat, which was now lying in his lap, all amusement fled in a moment. "She seems to be both worried and curious. But it is so hard to tell and I do not want to put any more pressure on her; her moods have been unpredictable of late and I can only assume that is because of the strain she has been under. I know I was angry when I discovered she had been keeping all of this from me but she actually believed I would hurt her..! I thought she trusted me, that she knew I would never, ever do her harm!" The final word almost twisted into a wail of distress as he sank his head into his hands once more. "I would sooner drive a dagger into my own heart."

"Christine has been extremely worried, and understandably so. You know how frightening you can be in a rage, Erik," Antoinette told him gently. "She has probably not been thinking logically for some time."

"Dear God, I knew that something was wrong but she insisted she was just tired..." He groaned. "I am a terrible husband."

"No, you are not. I am sure that now all of this is finally out in the open Christine will calm down; with the burden of secrecy removed she will no doubt be back to her old self soon enough. How did she respond when you explained your feelings towards your... towards Angelique?"

"At first she seemed reassured when I told her that she need have no more contact, but you know Christine, Annie; you know how fatal her curiosity can be."

"It is understandable that she would like to know more about where you came from, given that you have always been so reticent on the subject of your past. I know that it is not something you wish to speak of," she added as he opened his mouth to object, "but it cannot be a surprise to you that she is curious about her mother-in-law, especially now that she has seen Angelique. I imagine it was something of a shock to her to be face to face with someone she believed to be dead."

"Yes." She could hear his teeth grinding as he spoke, see his jaw clench. "I would rather like to wring my sainted mother's neck for accosting Christine in such a manner. I shudder when I think that she must have somehow without my knowledge been having us followed for the last few months, that she was actually at the church, polluting our wedding day..!"

"She can only do damage if you let her," Antoinette pointed out. "If you ignore her, disregard her and carry on as before her power to hurt you diminishes. She can only harm you if you allow her to. But why does she want to contact you now, after all this time? To assuage her own conscience?"

"Possibly. If she has one, of course. She probably wishes to seek my forgiveness in order to absolve her sins before she finally meets her maker," Erik sneered. Madame looked at him steadily, trying to force him to meet her gaze; he was evasive, looking everywhere but at her. At last he did turn his eyes to her and the confusion was back in their mismatched depths. "Christine thinks she may be dying; it was certainly the impression given by the letter. Though I would personally rejoice if it were true I think... no, I know, that no matter what has gone before Christine does not want me to turn away from the only family I have when in no time at all it could be too late. I am afraid that the loss of her own mother, and the fact that she consequently never knew her, is colouring her judgement. Her mother's death was a tragedy; no child should be deprived of a parent at birth, but it has perhaps given her a rather romantic view of motherhood, gleaned from her father's stories. No matter what I try to tell myself, though, I cannot forget her appeal and now I have no idea what to do. The last thing I wish to do is see that woman again, but... What do you think?"

Now it was Antoinette's turn to sigh, and to wish that she had sent Jacques out to fetch the coffee. She rubbed wearily at her forehead, suddenly feeling very old. "I think," she said carefully, "that you are probably both right in your own way. I also think that my opinion is unlikely to help over much. You have to make the decision, Erik; no one else can do it for you."

Erik nodded miserably. "I thought you would say that," he replied.

"There is nothing else I can say. We all have to make difficult choices in life; you are fortunate to have been spared many of them by your unusual circumstances."

He grimaced. "I had different, but equally difficult choices of my own. But I will admit, my life was much easier when all I had to worry about was haunting the Opera."

"Welcome to the real world," said Antoinette, and he looked as though he wasn't sure whether to laugh or cry.