This was a new Paris. I’d known it before of course, but only as our Paris, where Drew and I went to be the two of us alone, just us together, the way our families hadn’t wanted it to be.
“You’ll have half-caste children,” his father had warned.
“How can we know about someone from here?” my parents muttered.
Yet Drew and I skulked around London, expert at hiding in public places, sneaking in and out of each other’s apartments, always alert, always ready to deny our togetherness. And no one ever caught us in all those years – we were much too smart for them. But sometimes, when we grew tired we’d run away to Paris, to be welcomed-in like beloved children to float in a haze of moonbeams and stars and flowers like the lovers in Chagall paintings, soaring over the balconies of cosy apartments, the grey slate rooftops and chimney pots of different sizes all mis-matched and enchantingly uneven, with Madame Juliette, the patronne of our favourite hotel, smiling over us. No one disapproved or tried stopping us as we drew close in the softness of our Paris evenings, the luminescent pink of dusk embracing us on the hill of Montmartre.
And now I was back, and we were married, able to live out in the open. But this time I rode up alone on the escalator into the Place des Abesses- our Place, with its tables of idlers and dappled sunshine and drunks squabbling on benches.
“I have to go to Paris,” I’d insisted to Drew, weeks earlier.
I needed to get away from London, from our life of trying to believe that we had won, that we had got everything we had wanted. But Drew had too much work on, he’d claimed: too many deadlines and a visit from a CEO who needed impressing. Drew didn’t seem to notice or care that I went ahead and booked my ticket. Days went by and his remained un-bought, and he didn’t change his mind as he would have done once.
“I’ll be okay alone,” I said.
“Of course you will,” he agreed. “You’ll be there in time for the Eclipse. You’ll see it far better from Paris.”
Only Drew could have thought of the sun and moon and planets as I went to Paris without him.
He had shown me the stars when he was drunk at University, pointing out constellations on the long walk home after the pubs and bars had closed and we walked back to Halls of Residence with our friends, the two of us dropping behind unnoticed. The stars then were beautiful, vast and distant and relevant, the events of the universe connected to us.
Drew sighed then and I saw how tired he was, the way we both were now – tired and afraid of this new way of things, of not wanting, longing to be together, liking the same things at the same time together.
“Maybe it’ll be good to have some time apart,” Drew reflected.
My heart tightened, the dreamy unknowing lovers in the skies of Paris floating firmly down to the ground to join the sombre, bowed-down masses. On and on we stumbled behind those others, headed forever to work and back, to eat and sleep and return to the city’s steely monstrous towers where we were swallowed whole. No wonder the flowers and moonbeams and dancing angels had flown away. We hadn’t even seen them go.
Now at our secret hide-away hotel on the Butte of Montmartre, our tiny blue-painted room with its Breton bed and white cocoon of embroidered linen had been given to another couple.
“Do not worry, please,” Madame Juliette pleaded with me. “I’ve made a mistake with your booking, but I will give you a much better room. A very much nicer room- tres jolie.”
She fussed around me, trying to cheer me up, but there was no need, it was better this way. Gladly I accepted an unfamiliar room: red and pink roses on the wallpaper and a vast bed- a gleaming wooden boat adrift on the dull gold carpet. From the window I could see into the apartments opposite, rooms of other peoples’ worlds: red tulips drooping from a blue glass vase, a shelf of books, an amber lampshade. As the afternoon passed, the rooms filled with shadows and waited for their people to return, to live life into them once more; for the lamps to glow on rich unhurried evenings.
For dinner that night I went to a Chinese restaurant below the Sacre Coeur, where Drew and I used to go. It was small and scruffy and intimate, like the front room of a home. The owners used to be a Chinese man named Ling with a ponytail and round steel-rimmed glasses, and his wife Michelle, who was half-French-half-Chinese. The last time we were there, they had a small fat baby. All through the evening they used to chat with the diners, as if we were all their friends; and some were, I think. Once, the two of them and the two of us shared a bottle of eau de vie after everyone had left and they told us about their neighbourhood of artists and Tai Chi and yoga teachers and people living exactly as they wanted to – the way I wanted to as well. Later Drew and I were at a café having a last drink when Ling and Michelle came down the steps of the hill, the baby asleep in a sling on Ling’s back. At the foot of the stairs Ling drew Michelle to him and the three of them drifted down the road, a whole world of their own, needing no one else. All anyone could do was look on at them and wish for such a world for themselves. Once they gave us their business card for the restaurant, which read simply: ‘Chez Ling and Michelle’. Nothing more, because nothing more was needed. I put it in a picture frame filled with mementoes of our beautiful secret Paris life- Metro tickets, postcards of the Nympheas and Utrillo views, chocolate wrappers and patisserie bags that had once wrapped eclairs we’d eaten outdoors on nameless Parisian streets.
I hung up the picture in our flat after we were married, in full view of anyone who came to visit, even relatives – no more hiding it under the bed. But maybe that all came too late in the end, for too much secrecy will smother and blind and divide you from all that was simple and right once with a silent slithering knife stroke. But I was back now where it was easy to know what mattered and where everything felt possible once more.
I went out early for dinner and arrived at the restaurant as the first guests were just starting on drinks. And there was Ling! Still the owner of the restaurant. He even looked the same: the same steel-rimmed round glasses, and the ponytail only grown a little silvery.
“How’s Michelle?” I asked.
“Michelle? Oh, we split up. A long time ago, actually.”
He didn’t seem to think it shocking, just a fact of life, the kind of thing that happened to people. Their daughter- the baby- was six now, he said, and laughed when I was shocked at how old she had got. She lived with him, he added. A babysitter looked after her in the evenings when he came to the restaurant. He shrugged, as if to say: ‘So what? That’s life. Get over it.’
When the other customers had left, Ling poured us both glasses of eau de vie that burned all the way down my throat, just like the last time.
“You have lunettes for the eclipse?” he asked. “You know it’s tomorrow?”
I’d forgotten. He went to look for a spare pair he’d received with the newspaper.
“Sorry,” he said coming back. “Maybe I gave them to someone else.”
He resumed telling me about his travels in the South of France when he’d first arrived from China: grape-picking on farms, camping on mountains and bathing in icy streams, nights alone under the stars. All of this he’d told Drew and me before on other evenings, but he’d forgotten. Forgotten us too, no doubt- although he said he hadn’t. The past was a series of stories and completed events for Ling, a painted screen elegantly scrolling by, not a place that may still exist, to scramble back to in search of the beginning; the right life that one had been planning. As I was leaving, Ling gave me his card, which now just read: ‘Chez Ling’.
“See you!” He grinned.
Outside I turned back and he was putting away the bottle of eau de vie, taking the glasses to the kitchen where a canvas curtain across the doorway came down and screened him from view.
At the hotel, the reception hall was silent and watchful as I let myself in with the key that Madame lent to her guests. The door to her quarters was firmly closed. I went upstairs to my room and into bed. The blanket stayed tight and flat, bleakly unfilled where Drew would have been. I wanted to telephone him and make him catch the first train out in the morning, to help me find that sweet perfect world we had meant to make for ourselves. But we were weighed down by uncertainty and fear and lost like all those bowed down others we had joined and our dreams that had seemed so much more important than anyone else’s were just as lost to us, as theirs must have been to them. Yet those others went on with life while we floundered. How could they go on? How could anyone bear it?
A rhythmic squeaking creaking rocking started up on the other side of the wall; a man’s helpless urgent sighs, a woman’s thin cries, savage and lonely-sounding. Their bed tapped at the back of my head, knock, knock, squeak, squeak, on and on; sigh, sigh, argh, argh. And then all was silent. Through the ringing stillness of the Paris night no one else seemed alive, just them and me.
The next morning the streets were empty, the grey sky heavy and glowering as if a storm were brewing. The sun broke through at last, wavering down, pale and tremulous. I sat outside at the café where I had gone each day, but the coffee was too bitter and it made my head ache. The two waiters watched me from the bar; one with dark, slicked-back hair raised an eyebrow at the other with curly blond hair, who smiled wryly, glancing at me. A whirling cold wind blew around the Place, swooping under the café awning. The metal tables rattled, shivering. A man with longish black hair falling across his eyes and into his collar went past along the pavement. He came and sat down next to me.
“Salut,” he said. He wasn’t handsome at all, but his eyes were a vivid blue, a black outline around the iris.
“You’re watching the eclipse from here?” he asked. “Have you got glasses?”
He was very interested in eclipses, as it happened. He told me all about the last one he’d seen, in Africa.
“I’m an astronomer,” he explained. “And you? You’re here on holiday?”
“My husband had to work.”
His gaze grew intent. A ray of pre-eclipse sunlight glanced across his eyes making them glitter blindly.
“Your husband, isn’t coming to join you?” he enquired.
“No, not this time.”
It didn’t matter anymore that Drew wasn’t there with me. There was nothing to see. This was not our Paris. Paris had turned away and opened up to other people, letting them in to take our places, to have their chance at becoming what we had tried to be.
The sky grew darker and a small group hurried down a side-street as if running indoors out of danger.
“You want to come back with me to my apartment to watch the eclipse?” the man asked
“No. Thanks anyway.” I said.
He stayed on a little longer then left, and I hurried back, myself, to the hotel.
I watched from my window as the darkness thickened above the houses. Someone shouted down on the street, a testing cry, as if checking they could still be heard in the stillness. The church-bell in the Place rang dolefully. On television a man in a purple suit and special spectacles stood with a crowd inside a cathedral, all looking through a stone archway at the sun disappearing.
“Extraordinaire!” the man in the purple suit shouted. “Sensationelle!”
A thin wind stirred the long lace at the window. Streetlights came on below. Birds cried shrilly then grew silent. A shadow sneaked across the floor inside my room.
“Toute est NOIRE!” the presenter cried in the cathedral.
“Le SILENCE!” he breathed into the microphone.
An old couple came out onto a balcony opposite. They were wearing dressing gowns: his navy, hers maroon. They shared a pair of cardboard spectacles and stood side by side, each a sturdy warm wall against the other, as they looked up into the storm-grey darkness. Once whenever Drew touched me, my skin buzzed tingling, almost aching from the feel of him. Now we tensed in those same moments, resisting joining and being lost, needing to stay distinct. Yet we were more entangled now than we had ever been, trapped in a life we had unthinkingly built and sealed ourselves in. No traces of our Paris life remained for us– not even in Paris. I had thought that all we needed were those old lost pleasures to show us the way again, but that time of hope and belief and promise was gone. The past had left Paris. There was nothing there for me to take home to him.
On the balcony opposite the old couple talked on and on, become one sure mass not resisting, not parting, yet two forms, separate, sturdy. A room with a table laid for lunch: wine, baguette, a salad of lettuce, waited behind them, and beyond it, out of sight, known only to them, the whole of the life they had made for themselves.
From the television, the crowd in the cathedral cheered as the sun broke out from behind the moon and blazed free again. Outside, the sky grew light, impatiently clearing the grey, a clear true blue emerging, spreading wide.
“Ooh les couleurs sont belles!” the presenter yelled happily.
That evening the sky glowed pink-amber, seductive and perfect, as if making up for the disruption. At the café in the Place, a man all in white: jeans, jumper, sailor’s hat, waved at me- the man from the morning, I realised. He looked ridiculous.
“You want to see a film together?” he asked.
I might have gone. I almost did. Just to see where the unknown risky things that other people did abroad might lead me. But not to the past, I suspected, not to anything I wanted. I smiled and shook my head and he finished his beer.
“I will be down the next street,” he said. “At the café on the corner. If you want to meet…?”
We shook hands and he left.
I stayed and drank a glass of sweet chill rosé while the last of the sun glowed over the Place and the couples taking their places at the tables for the night ahead. All the way back to the hotel, climbing up the hill, I passed the couples, the night coming in making them reach for each other, the time arrived when you longed to blur and merge and be held by the one person who truly knew you. There was no escaping the weight of that longing, the vacancy in me that silently needed him.
Back in my room the telephone rang late, long after midnight. It was Drew.
“I’m coming over,” he said fiercely. “I don’t care what you say, this doesn’t feel right. I’ll be there tomorrow, about ten.”
And the next morning he rode up on the escalator from the Metro, rising into view under the green iron awning. He marched across the Place to me. We hugged at my table, his arms tightening around me, and we kissed, right there on the pavement in front of everyone, the way we do only in private usually.
“I missed you,” he murmured against my face as my cheeks buzzed and tingled from him. “Let’s not do this again, okay?”
The dark-haired waiter stopped with his tray of drinks and watched us. He nodded, approving.
“C’est mieux comme ca, huh?” he said to the other waiter.
“C’est comme il faut, oui, oui,” the other waiter agreed.
How it ought to be. They were right, of course. My heart beat gladly. And the angels and moonbeams were back over the rooftops, whirling in a haze of stars and flowers. They’d been there the whole time of course- over us, not Paris, just obscured temporarily.
Amanthi Harris was born in Sri Lanka and grew up in London. She studied Fine Art at Central St Martins and has degrees in Law and Chemistry from Bristol University.
Her novel BEAUTIFUL PLACE will be published by Salt (September 2019). LANTERN EVENING, a novella, won the Gatehouse Press New Fictions Prize 2016 and was published by Gatehouse Press (2017). Her short stories have been published by Serpent’s Tail and broadcast on BBC Radio 4 as Afternoon Readings. She also runs StoryHug, an ACE funded storytelling, art and writing project.
Author’s photo by Maxi Kohan..
Cover image, foto by Melina Piccolo.