Chapter 9 of BENEATH THE VEIL….
Camille paced about the flat as she spoke, while Seraph lay on the sofa as if she were undergoing a session with her psychiatrist.
‘You may have heard my codename whispered about just as much as Eve’s was. I am the milliner.
‘I was raised in an orphanage on the outskirts of Paris after my parents died in the Ravage. Like you, I had no brothers or sisters, and so I became a creature of solitude, preferring not to entangle myself emotionally. What happened in 2023 was terrifying, but for the children, even more so. Some lost their siblings, some their parents, most their grandparents. I had not a single person left in the world. It seemed as if we had all been born merely to suffer and to try and survive as best we could with what we were left with.’
Seraph saw Camille try to shake off some fraught remembrance, before she continued:
‘At the orphanage, I realised my forte for sewing and it’s something I went on to pursue. And so at age eighteen I left the suburbs behind after winning a scholarship to attend the Parisian School of Art and Design, graduating in 2034. After that, I spent years travelling the world, making garments to sell on the streets, randomly moving from one place to another. I begged, borrowed and sometimes even stole to keep food in my stomach and clothes on my back. I fell in with a street gang in Budapest and we moved from one place to another together, doing whatever we needed to in order to overcome the noose Officium had hung around the world. For at least five years, I had no fixed address whatsoever. It didn’t bother me sleeping on the streets, or in alleyways, or on someone’s cold floor. I’d never known comfort, and so, it was normal to me. I woke up every day knowing that the search for food came second to my need for excitement. I’d grown extremely tough and people back then knew me as something of a scrapper. Looking back, I realise I was desperately seeking my place in the world. I always knew that there was only one person I could rely on and soon friendships broke down, loyalties became divided and I broke free. An attempt to spring a group of factory workers from their bonds went wrong and I decided it was time to put some distance between myself and Europe, taking myself off to the Orient.’
Camille glanced at Seraph with animation as she turned her mind to the next chapter of her life.
‘In Japan, I found my second home. There, I appreciated the culture, the society and their way of living. It was even more cramped than in Paris but that didn’t matter to me. Living in a pod was luxury compared to my previous habitations! I developed a friendship with a sensei, after he bought up some of my silk dresses for his daughters. He was a tiny, unassuming man, devoted to his wife and family. His clan were brave enough to live in some abandoned farmland just outside Tokyo and one day he invited me to his humble abode for dinner. I was struck not only by his generous hospitality, but also by his family’s skills in Shotokan Karate. There were literally hundreds of trophies dotted around their shack, dating from as far back as the Seventies. At that time, he was the only person in the world to have reached his eleventh Dan, a grandmaster of unparalleled skill, agility, strength and speed – but something of a pariah. I asked one of his daughters to show me her skills, and she nearly broke my back as she grappled me to the ground with one fell swoop. I was so impressed, I begged him to teach me everything he knew. He refused at first, but I was persistent. For weeks, I laboriously cycled from the city to his home every day, turning up with more gifts for his daughters. Each time he turned me away, I refused to be dissuaded. Then one day, he relented, and my tutelage began in the boggy rice fields at the back of his home.
‘The fertile green surroundings and the prolonged and unforgiving rain became the backdrop and the dojo of my lessons – and my enemy. Barefoot and dressed sparingly, I took a lot of blows at the will of his hand. He nearly knocked the life out of me as my face was continually pushed into the cold, life-draining, damp mud. While the family ate their meals together inside, I was left out in the cold in my makeshift bamboo shelter to survive on decaying vegetables and dried fish. I nearly gave up so many times. But that would have been the easy way, and that had never been an option for me. I knew that as long as I had breath and strength left in me, I would never break.
‘I still remember so clearly the relentless circuit training in the unforgiving earth of those fields, and performing press-ups while he stood on my back taunting me with abuse, saying I was just another pathetic woman who would break against his will. Each taunt made me more determined, more resistant to failure, and I began to feel invincible. I rose above the idea of being weakened by my human form. After mastering the basics, I had grown so physically and mentally strong that when it came to combat, the process wasn’t a conscious experience for me. My very first attempt to smash through a wooden plank was successful, easy even. Until you actually participate in the disciplines of martial arts with a humble approach, an open mind and a full heart, you can never understand the mentality it enables you to develop. Once the mind has been broken, and rebuilt, you can become whatever you want to be. If you will something to be so, it must be. My body became a highly-tuned force of rigidity, and I was no longer a creature of reaction, more one of calm and serenity, allowing the world to wash over my being. The key is not to react, merely to retain strength. Unless it was really necessary to perform, only then would I execute myself, and if so, only absolute exhibition of one’s skills would suffice. Sensei Toshiro entered me into some national competitions, and I won every single one. He and I formed a bond that went beyond the one he shared with his family even. We were equal souls existing on a level plane, and even a whisper of breath from one of us revealed to the other what we were thinking or feeling; we were so in tune with one another.
‘However, knocking my opponents out soon became too easy, and I tired of my life in Japan. I began to yearn for the streets of Paris back home, and I returned there in 2041 after several years of living from hand to mouth, from country to country.
‘I maintain my discipline and still spar and meditate every day even now. It was something that I knew would never leave me. Many members of RAO have been taught by me, and I’ve now reached my eighth Dan, something I never asked for nor brag about, because it is simply a testament to all the wonders that martial arts have enabled me to enjoy – friendship, discipline and freedom from fear.
‘After returning home from Japan, I got by selling millinery on the streets of Montmartre, until one day an elegant Englishwoman turned up and bought everything on my table. She noticed my shabby clothes and unwashed appearance, declaring, “How can someone of your talent be so undervalued?”
‘At first I was reluctant to latch on to her friendliness, but she wouldn’t take no for an answer when she insisted on buying me dinner that night. She offered me a job at the bridal house then and there, and I asked, “What makes you think I want to work for you?” She gave me that stern look of hers, and simply said, “Because I know a woman of your calibre will be indispensable and instrumental to my cause.” I was instantly intrigued, and she began to explain how she’d heard from Sensei Toshiro that I’d left Japan and come back to Europe. He was part of the resistance and had not stopped exclaiming to her about how good a combatant I had become. Then she had some revelations that I wasn’t expecting. She informed me that my mother and father had been in the French Secret Service, a fact I knew nothing about until she disclosed it to me. She placed a file on the restaurant table and I looked it over with interest and horror. However, I began to get some sense of my identity and I realised my similar pursuit of thrills and adventure was something I’d undoubtedly got from them. They were not killed by the Ravage, but by Officium, and I knew as clearly as I see you now, that my lot was to join Eve’s efforts. I moved to York and settled for a quiet but purposeful life, helping her make this place more successful than either of us could have ever imagined. Many of our members met and married through the work they carried out for Eve, and the women became clients at the shop. However, don’t let that overshadow her success Seraph. She still had dozens and dozens of customers who came from the farthest corners of the globe to have their wedding dresses made by her. I suppose it was the romance of this building that drew them here, but also the relatively small fee she charged for them to have a gown made from scratch, and to their exact specifications. Her decision to remain open amidst a world of declining craftsmanship somehow paid dividends, and for once, refusing to follow a trend proved unbelievably canny. There were still a lot of people who had managed to find happy lives for themselves, but they were very few and far between after the Ravage.’
Camille took a deep breath and continued, ‘Now she’s gone, I have no idea how I will carry on without her. She was the bedrock of this place, and it simply won’t be the same without her. I loved her dearly, and I never expected to feel so sad about her loss. I never in my wildest dreams ever thought anyone could be as good a friend to me as she was. I never thought such kindness existed in the world until I met her. She was the ultimate person, ultimate woman, ultimate warrior even.
‘She never mentioned him by name, but I knew she’d known great love during her lifetime. It was written all over her face sometimes. A woman who has been loved truly has a certain look about her, one of heightened knowledge and undeniable mystery. She lost that great love, and it is that which made her what she was. But I cannot tell you anymore than that.’
When Camille finished her explanation, she fell on the coffee table in front of Seraph. Her head bowed, she began to cry, sniffing and dripping with tears. Seraph got up off the sofa and knelt down, taking Camille in her arms. They played mother and daughter to one another, and Seraph’s mind turned to one thing – when had this love affair taken place, what happened to him and also to her own parents? She didn’t want to launch a barrage of questions at Camille, who was obviously grieving and was just as forlorn as she over Eve’s passing. She decided she would find out for herself what had happened, even if it killed her, and she would finally lay all this to rest. She didn’t care what it took, she would do it. It was time.
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