The International Writers Magazine: Dreamscapes Life Stories
The History of a Love Affair
I lean against the door, holding it open with all my weight, and manouevre the unwieldy pram through the doorway. It’s a tight squeeze and one handle catches on the side of the frame.
The pram’s wheels swivel back and forth along the wet floor in protest. After one almighty shove the wheels cooperate in a moment of submission and we roll into the hotel lobby. A porter dressed in bright, red livery rushes to my side,
“May I help you Madame?”
Muttering a muffled response in broken French, I motion to the young man to take my bags. I brush dripping strands of hair from my face and follow him as he leads us down a bright, cream corridor. Its walls are hung with faded, picturesque landscapes and cornices embellished with stucco scrolls and entwined tendrils. We reach room 116.
“Merci, Madam”. I grace the porter’s palm with a modest tip and he shuffles backwards out of the room, his head slightly bowed.
Before sitting down, I survey the room and find the crib assembled in the corner. Helena stirs as I carefully unbuckle her harness and scoop her out of the pram. She murmurs faintly as I rest her on the mattress and then stretches her arms above her head and returns to sleep with a sigh, her legs splayed unabashedly like a frog suspended in mid-leap. I peel off my drenched coat and hang it over a grey velvet chair, its threadbare seat tired and worn. It creaks under my weight. So here we are.
The sparkling water from the bedside table bubbles in my nose as I take a gulp. A miniature chandelier hangs unobtrusively above the bed, its tarnished crystals reflect the dull light of the bedside lamp. Silk curtains frame French doors to my right. They remind me of the faceless mannequins encased in shop windows along the boulevard outside, each model draped elegantly in heavy folds of fabric adorned with delicate details of lace and embroidered flowers. I imagine the Paris James described to me of rich, sophisticated women and decadent soirees. I’d always longed to possess James’ heart the way Paris had once captured it.
I struggle to part the curtains and pause while my eyes re-adjust to the light streaming into the room. The courtyard below is deserted. Wrought iron chairs stand empty, arranged casually around tables as if occupied by spirits absorbed in conversation over breakfast. The chairs glisten in the aftermath of the morning’s downpour and flower boxes of red petunias hang beneath each window. The bright, shining colours celebrate the break in the weather and I feel festive as I anticipate James’ arrival.
Tip-toeing past the crib, I leave a trail of undergarments on the floor and gather strategically placed sachets of mint-green bath salts on my way to the bathroom. Each sachet is bound in gauze and tied in a red ribbon. I unwrap and empty them one at a time into the running water, their fizz and the heat of the water combining in the oversized copper tub to emit a sweet scent of lavender bouquets.
I dip my toe into the water and hesitate before stepping into the bath. My phone is ringing.
“Darling, darling, there you are!” I smile upon hearing James’ voice. “I’ve been trying to call you since lunchtime.”
“Hello darling. My cell has been cutting out since we arrived. How are you?”
“Oh I’m fine, I’m fine. Was the train ride unbearable? Did they upgrade you to first?” James’ voice echoes down the line.
“It was fine actually. The hotel is very nice too. It’s all been quite easy getting here. We’re looking forward to seeing you of course! Little Helena."
“Yes, well about that darling. I’m afraid something’s come up. It’s all very tedious but it’s a big client and you know I really can’t say no to them right now. They’ll just go elsewhere with the market as it is.”
“Oh James, really. How could you not have had some idea." My heart sinks and I struggle to swallow.
“I’ll make it up to you, I promise. I can’t tell you much more I’m afraid. I’m so sorry darling.” James repeats my name over the phone.
Am I really surprised by his last minute revelation?
“Well I suppose we will do our best to make the most of it without you.”
I don’t try to hide the disappointment in my voice.
“I’ll be there next time, I promise. I must go darling. I’ll call you later when I’m done for the night.”
“Alright darling. Oh! Happy ..."
The line is dead.
James and I met two years ago. My memories of our fledgling relationship are like daydreams imagined in someone else’s mind. We worked like maniacs back then, each of us attorneys in a large and frantic law firm, caught up in a whirlwind of passion and urgency, stealing caresses and deflecting office gossip. A bulge announced itself in the fourth month of our courtship. It made sense to us to plan our future together and from that moment on we planned for Helena’s arrival. I left my job which had financed a comfortable lifestyle but which I soon discovered I didn’t miss and spent the remainder of my pregnancy on bed rest, confined to the walls of our small bedroom while the world carried on outside. To our relief, and my doctor’s surprise, I carried Helena to term.
Once Helena was born, Paris remained a distant memory of James’ past. One which I stumbled upon once whilst peering absent-mindedly through the bedroom window of our musty London apartment. Bored of flicking through Mother & Child I checked my watch and glanced out of the window for a glimpse of James returning home from work. It was a typically bleak winter’s afternoon and the sun was setting fast. A dark, stooped figure stood with a woman at the end of the street. I recognized James’ hunched frame, his bad posture acquired from years of compensating for his towering height. James offered the woman his umbrella. The woman wore a black, tailored skirt suit and politely declined. She reciprocated his gesture by offering him a business card. James accepted it with a self-conscious flick of his hair.
James told me of their encounter later that night and informed me that the woman was, in fact, a certain prominent character of his Parisian past. I reacted in a wildly defensive manner befitting of a pregnant woman confronted by a once- beaten adversary risen from the dead. It only strengthened my resolve to re-discover Paris for ourselves and create our own gritty, real-life romance.
All the women in Paris wear black. Well at least in the rain. Helena and I leave the hotel and order breakfast in a bistro down the street. Gerard’s is a modest establishment. A large-bellied man sits at the counter, his brown napkin tucked neatly into his shirt collar. The waiter stops at our table and considers Helena with a stern expression, wiping his hands on his greasy apron. I silently will her to scream but she gazes up at him with wide eyes, softening his cynicism with sweetness.
The soup arrives in a chipped, terracotta bowl, its onions submerged in what appears to be dishwater. Blobs of oil sit in a film on its surface and congealed cheese and burnt bread form a crust around the bowl’s edge. No matter, I’m here to watch. Gerard’s is conveniently located across the street from a decidedly more upmarket café on the corner. L’Avenue, an infamous haunt recounted in many of James’ sordid tales, is reputedly the place where wonderful, young things of Parisian society congregate to be seen and, quite conspicuously, to be heard. Its windows are dressed in petite, smoking silhouettes, their arms bent at the elbow, heads resting in their palms, thin cigarettes held between long, slender fingers. The small, round tables are packed into the small dining area, their surfaces just large enough to balance a coffee, salad and ashtray. Long necks circled in gold and knotted in scarves strain ever so slightly during short pauses in conversation to grab a sound bite from the table behind.
I gingerly cajole my croutons around the bowl, taking a sip of the luke-warm soup. Helena is asleep, her head flopped at an awkward angle, her breathing shallow and rhythmic. I look up to see a woman accept her change from a young waiter. She waves him away with a flirtatious smile and puts away her purse. Her manicured nails are painted in bright red varnish and her hands appear blood stained from a distance. My waiter is nowhere to be seen. I leave a generous tip under the bowl and get up to leave.
The woman and I are heading in the same direction. As I approach the hotel I carry on walking and cross to her side of the road. I suppose I’m following her, although most of me doesn’t care where she is going. I find myself falling into step with her and maintain her pace whilst keeping a discreet distance behind. She disappears into crowds and emerges effortlessly, a witch-like apparition. I watch her with admiration and envy. Her cigarette pants fall tapered to her slender calves and her black coat is cinched in tightly at the waist. An oversized crocodile tote swings from her arm and wisps of her fashionably delinquent brown hair escape her loosely bound chignon in the breeze. I struggle in pursuit, taking long strides, puddles spraying from the sides of the pram and Helena’s jelly legs bouncing up and down as I scramble over wet cobblestones. Her stilettos barely touch the ground. I rest as we stroll down a quiet back street, following in the calm of her wake.
I lose her at the traffic lights. A wheel catches Helena’s blanket and it is sucked underneath the carriage. I stop to retrieve it, unraveling the tangled heap on the ground and feel a surprising sadness as I touch the black grime smeared across the soft, pink cashmere. Helena sits awake and upright in an uncomfortable slump and whimpers in a foreboding tone. The phantom is gone, swallowed by the swelling crowd of anxious commuters jostling for position as they queue for the evening Metro.
I give up the chase, noticing the sting of the chill in the air as I catch my breath. I wonder how far I’ve walked. Helena shouts for my attention and I rush to I unwrap a baby biscuit. I crouch down to offer it to her in lieu of her dinner. She takes it begrudgingly and I bury my head into her tiny chest, holding back tears.
Light rain settles on the back of my neck. Its just one weekend, there will be others. Any rising doubts are temporarily dispelled as I clear my throat and take a deep breath. The Pont des Invalides lies ahead and our hotel awaits on the other side of the river. The rain drums against the large, red umbrella wedged in Helena’s pram and she peers around its edges, catching glimpses of the city around her as we hurry towards a pagoda at the foot of the bridge.
We cross the road and take shelter. Helena sneezes and giggles. Her button nose is red but I feel her forehead and she’s warm. I roll her damp, pilled socks over her tiny toes and tickle the soles of her feet. She reaches for the wooden rattle I’m waving in front of her and accepts it curiously, willing to be distracted for a few minutes. Squinting, I size up the photo. Helena’s round, beaming face appears disproportionately large in the frame and the Eiffel Tower is reduced to a mere smudge in the background, balancing precariously on the slanted horizon.
I remember my first trip up to the top. My best friend and I peered out over the city, marvelling at the uniformity of its white streets. The spread of the warm light of dusk soon turned the city into glowing shades of orange, pink and blue, illuminating it like light reflected upon the marble of the Taj Mahal. Every sight, smell and sound of the city embodied my loftiest dreams and desires.
I raise my eyebrows and give Helena an encouraging look,
“Say cheese, sweetie!”
Her little face is bright and her arms are outstretched. It has stopped raining and a sharp, clear sky penetrates the clouds in shards of blue. Helena gnaws at my hand and I reach into my bag for the plastic ornament forced upon us by a hooded teenager flashing his coat lining to expose an array of dog-eared postcards. The Eiffel Tower feels small in my hands, its romantic grandeur a cheap joke, like a trinket bursting from a Christmas cracker. I hand it to Helena and she passes it from hand to hand, as if weighing its worth, and throws it to the ground. It ricochets off the pram and slips between the railings. Helena watches transfixed and squeals with delight as it plunges into the Seine with a tiny splash. I much prefer Paris in the rain.
© Jennifer Marshall May 2010
jennifer_marshall at mac.com
Jennifer Marshall is currently writing her first novel
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