We were walking together on the broad cobbled path that banks along the Seine. Behind us, the Friday-night cars were queuing in a wrapper of brake lights and exhaust haze; the toxic red of hometime.
On the path as we walked, your sweater tied round your shoulders, compact joggers, moving faster, swerved to avoid us, while lovers, moving slower, stopped in our way, paused to light each other's cigarettes or to kiss.
We were not lovers.
The evening was stretching itself. The day's muscle had begun to relax. A girl in Lycra fixed her date for the night on her mobile phone. A man in a trenchcoat let his phone ring and ring, smiling to everyone as they glanced at his briefcase going off like an alarm.
At the boat quays couples were waiting to join one of the neon-lit dinner and dance boats, while on other boats - the barges - a cat washed itself by a smoking funnel and a woman with her hair in a scarf threw coffee into the water.
So many lives, and ours too, tangled up with this night, these strangers. Strangers ourselves.
Slightest accidents open up new worlds.
We were both staying at the same hotel. We had arrived the day before, and in the lobby our partners had suddenly spotted one another and thrown their arms around each other like they were old friends. Not surprising, because they were old friends.
You and I had never met. We hung back smiling shyly, slightly irritated by all this bonhomie we couldn't share. Then the plan had been made for the next night, to eat at a restaurant nearby, and would it matter - no, it would be fun - if those two long-lost buddies went on ahead, and you and I walked to the restaurant together, getting to know each other.
Not knowing you, and knowing that small talk is not my best point, I started to tell you about George Mallory, the Everest mountaineer. I'm putting him in a book I'm writing, and strangers often like to hear how writers write their books. It saves the bother of reading them.
'So you're a writer?'
'I've never heard of you.'
'Have you had anything published?'
'Can I buy it in the shops?'
'What, here in Paris?'
'In English too?'
(I said small talk is not my best point.)
'So you're a writer?'
'What kind of things do you write?'
'Stuff you make up?'
'I prefer real life.'
'Why is that?'
'Don't you like surprises?'
'Not since my fifth birthday when I was given an exploding cake.'
'Could you eat it?'
'The candles were little sticks of dynamite and they blew the cream and sponge all over the room.'
'What did you do?'
'Scraped it off the walls. Tried to act normal.'
'Difficult . . .'
(Then she paused. Then she said . . .) 'To me that's life - a cake with little sticks of dynamite on the top.'
'That doesn't sound like a life with no surprises.'
'Oh, but it is. That's just what it is. You see, I know it's going to blow up in my face.'
I looked sideways at her as we walked. To me she seemed confident and poised in soft black jeans, white shirt, a slash of lipstick, and a handbag built to take a credit card and a make-up brush. Her sweater was a ribbed cashmere crewneck, tied like a sack, hanging like a dancer.
'What brings you to Paris?' (Small talk, not bad.)
'The Eiffel Tower.'
'Do you like towers?'
'I like structures without cladding.'
'OK, it's a good motto.'
'I try to let the lines show through. Not on my face, of course, but elsewhere. My work, my life, my body.'
(Suddenly, very badly, I wanted to see her body. I suppressed the thought.)
'Clean living?' I said.
'Clear space. The easiest thing in the world is to wallpaper yourself from head to foot and put an armchair in your stomach.'
'Oh no, it's very comfortable. That's why people do it.'
'But not you.'
(She suddenly took my hand.) 'This is where I feel things.'
(She guided my hand over the low waistband of her jeans.) 'Excitement, danger . . .'
(She flattened my hand on her abdomen and held it there.)
'Sex. And to go on feeling I have to keep some empty space.'
(Suddenly she let my hand drop. I looked at it sadly.)
She said, 'What about you? What brings you to Paris?'
'A story I'm writing.'
|'Is it about Paris?'|
'No, but Paris is in it.'
'What is it about?'
'What are your other books about?'
'Can't you write about something else?'
'So why come to Paris?'
'Another city. Another disguise.'
We went up on to a little wooden bridge and lounged against the metal rail. The broad view of the river was a cine film of the weekend, with its amateur, hand-held feel of lovers and dogs and electric light and the spontaneous, unsteady movement of people crossing this way and that, changing their minds, pausing, going out of focus, looming too close. The ribbon of film that was the moving river fluttered and unrolled and projected itself against the open sky and the jostle of the Ile de la Cité.
Frame by frame, that Friday night was shot and exposed and thrown away, carried by the river, by time, canned up only in memory, but in itself, scene by scene, perfect.
I thought, 'This is all I have, all I can be sure of. The rest is gone. The rest may not follow.'
There was a woman near me, eating an ice cream with the intensity of a sacrament. The look on her face, her concentration, belonged to the altar.
A man knelt down and fastened his Scottie dog into a little tartan coat. Feet passed round him. His fingers fumbled with the buckles.
A child, holding its mother's hand, was crying over a punctured Mickey Mouse balloon and then, the limping, failing helium ears and deflating black nose lurched over the railing and slipped down flat on the water.
Away it went - mouse, dog, ice cream, now. Already we were in another now, and the pink of the sky had faded.
'Where's the restaurant?' you said.
'I don't know. I thought you knew.'
'No - I thought you knew.'
'Well, what was the name?'
'Ali's. A Turkish place.'
'Are you sure?'
'We can call the hotel. The concierge will know.'
'We're going to be late.'
'There's plenty of time.'
She smiled and rested her arm around my shoulders. I tried to look natural.
'Are you usually so friendly with strangers?'
'Any particular reason?'
'A stranger is a safe place. You can tell a stranger anything.'
'Suppose I put it in my book?'
'You write fiction.'
'So you won't lash me to the facts.'
'But I might tell the truth.'
'Facts never tell the truth. Even the simplest facts are misleading.'
'Like the times of the trains.'
'And how many lovers you've had.'
I looked at her curiously. Where was this leading?
'How many have you had?'
'9.48,' she said, sounding like a platform announcement.
'Was that the previous one or the one here now?'
'The one here now is not listed in the timetable.'
'What does that mean?'
'It means I'm married, but not to him.'
'Then to whom?'
'Oh, to a man built like a dining car - solid, welcoming, always about to serve lunch.'
'Don't you like that?'
'There are nights when I'd prefer a couchette.'
'Is that why you're in Paris?'
'And there are nights when I'd prefer nothing at all.'
'A structure without cladding.'
'As you get older, the open spaces start to close up.'
'You seem to have slipped through.'
'I get reckless. I risk more than I should.'
'Have you left your husband?'
'No, just lied to him.'
'Can you lie to someone you love?'
'It's kinder than telling the truth.'
'Are you still close?'
'As close as two people growing apart can be.'
She walked ahead, her sweater swinging against her back. Then she turned to me.
'You keep the form and the habit of what you have, but gradually you empty it of meaning.'
'If you feel like that, you should leave.'
'I still love him.'
'You can love someone and leave them. Sometimes you should.'
'Well, anyway, it's not my business.'
Then she made a speech. I suppose you can guess the lines.
Inside her marriage there were too many clocks and not enough time. Too much furniture and too little space. Outside her marriage, there would be nothing to hold her, nothing to shape her. The space she found would be outer space. Space without gravity or weight, where bit by bit the self disintegrates.
'Can't you understand that?'
I didn't answer. I had heard these arguments before. I had used them myself. They tell some truth, but not all the truth, and the truth they deny is a truth about the heart. The body can endure compromise and the mind can be seduced by it. Only the heart protests.
The heart. Carbon-based primitive in a silicon world.
'There's something wrong.'
'With what I say?'
'With the sweet reasonableness of it all.'
'You want me to storm out with nothing but a tapestry and a pair of candlesticks?'
'I wasn't thinking about your luggage.'
'A friend I knew did just that. Took nothing else and left.'
'I admire her.'
'You are an absolutist then.'
'What's one of those?'
'All or nothing.'
'What else is there?'
'The middle ground. Ever been there?'
'I've seen it on the map.'
'You should take a trip.'
'And when I get there I can go round and round in circles like everyone else.'
'What have I done to deserve this?'
'You're the one who talked about risk and freedom and structure without cladding.'
'Meaning you just want what everybody wants - everything.'
'What's wrong with that?'
'Nothing - but you have to pay for it yourself.'
'So I want to have my cake and eat it?'
'That's understandable, given your history.'
She laughed and took my arm, holding me to her.
'I like you.'
'You want to fight.'
'The world is my boxing ring.'
'Do you have to fight everyone?'
'Only the enemy.'
'Is it that simple?'
'You can be so subtle you just tie yourself up in knots.'
'You can be so simple you just go nine rounds with yourself.'
'Well yes, I do, often.'
'To stay on my toes.'
'You should relax.'
'I look silly in an armchair.'
'What do you look like in bed?'
I was so surprised I said nothing. Then, on the bridge, not caring about anyone else, she leaned forward and kissed me. A soft open kiss.
'This is a bad idea.'
'You are married to one person, in Paris with another, and we're late for supper.'
'You only live once.'
'You can live as many times as you like at your own expense.'
'So you won't buy me supper then?'
She was laughing. She laughed at my discomfort, at my seriousness. That's how I remember her, laughing at me, on a wooden bridge in Paris.
She had been laughing that afternoon when we were caught in the rain at Les Halles. I had been out on my own, looking for a particular shop where I could buy a snare. I didn't realise it would be set for me.
The shop - Exterminateur des Animaux Nuisibles - has been in the old meat market since the 1920s, and its wood and glass shopfront, and its high-polished counter, have never changed. The customer can brood over the cockroach chart and buy a nasse or a piège that will kill almost anything. The shopkeepers serve with the solemnity of bank clerks. Their business is hushed and discreet. Your purchase is wrapped in brown paper and tied with string. When I was there, a man in a brown overall was testing a mousetrap with a piece of Roquefort.
As I came out, you sprang at me, laughing, and caught my arm to drag me away. You said something about a string quartet in the Metro. The rain was coming down in slices. A beggar with a shredded umbrella wanted a franc.
We ran past a group of men - button-down shirts, cardigans, cigarettes - sheltering under an awning while the rain pelted off the canvas and on to the tips of their shoes.
We ran through the scattering shoppers, through the boys on bicycles, through the wicker chairs hurled indoors by the barman.
We ran through the jump-course of fake Louis Vuitton luggage, vanishing under a tarpaulin to the yells of the African sellers. We ran straight for the steaming Metro and into a cascade of Vivaldi.
Four kids - and kids is all they were - had set up their music stands and opened their instrument cases, and they played without hesitation, passionately, blocking the entrances and exits, and nobody cared because the music was stronger than either the need to go home or the flooded afternoon.
You were delighted. Your hair dripped on to your shoulders and your mouth was slightly open. Your face was flushed from the running and the rain. I thought you were lovely, and I smiled too, at the pleasure of it, and at the chance.
I had planned my afternoon. Chance had changed it. Is chance the snare or what breaks the snare?
We caught a train to the Louvre. You wanted to come up through the great glass pyramid. You said it was like being reborn. You said it made you feel like an Egyptian Princess, and for a moment I thought I knew you, by the waters at Karnak, and I caught the scent of your herb-anointed bandages, and the smell of your fear, as they carried you into the darkness from which there can be no return.
But there you were, running up the staircase, round and round, from the basement of yourself, free at last, and as you burst into the steel and glass of the pyramid, the sun came out, turning the puddles into ten thousand mirrors that shone on the glass as if to furnace it.
Nothing is solid. Nothing is fixed. These are images that time changes and that change time, just as the sun and the rain play on the surface of things.
You pointed to the Café Marly, and we walked across to a glittering table. A waiter in a white jacket brushed the raindrops off the marble surface, and flared his nostrils at us with that hotel-trade mixture of servility and disgust.
'Deux coupes de champagne.'
He nodded his head as though he were snapping it shut. Around us, underneath the statues of dead Frenchmen, teenagers shoved postcards into their backpacks and drank Coke from the bottle. The sun was sharp. Everybody was happy. I was happy with the lightness of being in a foreign city and the relief from identity it brings. I stretched out my legs. I stretched out my mind. My mind reached forward into the unlimited space it can occupy when I loose it from its kennel.
The waiter returned with his silver tray and put down the two flutes with a little click. You raised your glass.
'Well, what shall we drink to?'
'Here's to Chance.'
'Now you choose.'
She paused and thought a moment, then smiled.
'All right. Harold Bloom.'
'For his translation of the Jewish blessing. I guess you're not Jewish?'
I shook my head. She raised her glass again.
'More life into a time without boundaries.'
Then something like a raindrop was in her eye.
The evening was cooling. She and I had walked without speaking, back over the Pont Neuf, to a little triangle of grass and birch trees set on all sides with small restaurants. I like to eat here. Someone once called it 'the sex of Paris'.
I was angry with myself. The afternoon had been an anticipation - I don't know what for - I do know what for, but I would have been glad and disappointed if nothing had started to happen. If we had gone to the restaurant as planned, and the rest had stayed as a memory whose truthfulness is not in the detail.
The trouble is that in imagination anything can be perfect. Downloaded into real life, it was messy. She was messy. I was messy. I blamed myself. I had wanted to be caught.
We slowed down. She spoke.
'You're angry with me.'
'This is the place - Paul's.'
'I said too much too soon.'
'The décor hasn't changed since the 1930s.'
'I don't hold you cheap.'
'The women who serve wear white aprons and won't speak English.'
'I just want to hold you.'
She took me in her arms and I was so angry I could have struck her, and at the bottom of my anger, conducting it, was a copper coil of desire.
'And I want to kiss you.'
|A man was exercising two Dalmatians under the trees. Spots ran in front of my eyes. |
'Kiss you here and here.'
The man threw them two red tennis balls and the dogs ran for the balls and fetched them back - black and white and red, black and white and red.
This feels like a grainy movie - the black dresses and white aprons of the matrons moving inside the lighted window of Paul's. Your black jeans and white shirt. The night wrapping round you like a sweater. Your arms wrapped round me. Two Dalmatians.
Yes, this is black and white. The outlines are clear. I must turn away. Why don't I?
In my mouth there is a red ball of desire.
'These tiny hairs on your neck . . .'
Fetch. My heart returns to me what I turn away. I am my own master but not always master of myself. This woman wants to
be . . .
We went inside. I ordered artichoke vinaigrette and slices of duck with haricots verts. You had pea soup and smoked eel. I could have done with several bottles of wine, but settled for a Paris goblet, at one gulp, from the house carafe.
You tore up the bread with nervous fingers.
'Where were we?'
'It's not where I want to be.'
'It didn't feel like that when I held you.'
'No, you're right.'
She has beautiful hands, I thought, watching her origami the baguette. Beautiful hands - deft, light, practical, practised. Mine was not the first body and it wouldn't be the last. She popped the bread into her mouth.
'Where shall I start?' I said, ready with my defence.
'Not at the beginning,' she said, feeding me crumbs.
'We both know the usual reasons, the unwritten rules. No need to repeat them.'
'You really don't care, do you?'
'About you? Yes.'
'About the mess this will make.'
'I'm not a Virgo.'
'Oh God, just my luck. I bet you're obsessed with the laundry.'
'I am, as it happens.'
'Oh yes, I had a Virgo once. He could never leave the washing machine alone. Day and night, wash, wash, wash. I used to call him Lady Macbeth.'
'What are you going to call me?'
'I'll think of something.'
The artichoke arrived and I began to peel it away, fold by fold, layer by layer, dipping it. There is no secret about eating artichoke, or what the act resembles. Nothing else gives itself up so satisfyingly towards its centre. Nothing else promises and rewards. The tiny hairs are part of the pleasure.
What should I have eaten? Beetroot, I suppose.
A friend once warned me never to consider taking as a lover anyone who disliked either artichokes or champagne. That was good advice, but better advice might have been never to order artichokes or champagne with someone who should not be your lover.
At least I had chosen plain red wine.
And then I remembered the afternoon.
She looked at me, smiling, her lips glossy with oil.
'What are you thinking about?'
'We should have gone to bed then.'
'We hardly spoke six sentences to each other.'
'That's the best way. Before the complications start.'
'Don't worry. No start. No complications.'
'Are you always such a moralist?'
'You make me sound like a Jehovah's Witness.'
'You can doorstep me any night.'
'Will you stop it?'
'As you say, we haven't started yet.'
'After supper we go back to the hotel and say goodnight.'
'And tomorrow you will catch the Eurostar to London.'
'And the day after you'll fly Air France to New York.'
'You must be a Jehovah's Witness.'
'Why must I?'
'You're not married but you won't sleep with me.'
'You are married.'
'That's my problem.'
'True . . .'
'Well then . . .'
'I've done it before and it became my problem.'
'I fell in love.'
It was a long time ago. It feels like another life until I remember it was my life, like a letter you turn up in your own handwriting, hardly believing what it says.
I loved a woman who was married. She loved me too, and if there had been less love or less marriage I might have escaped. Perhaps no one really does escape.
She wanted me because I was a pool where she drank. I wanted her because she was a lover and a mother all mixed up into one. I wanted her because she was as beautiful as a warm afternoon with the sun on the rocks.
The damage done was colossal.
'You lost her?'
'Of course I did.'
'Have you got over it?'
'It was a love affair not an assault course.'
'Love is an assault course.'
'Some wounds never heal.'
She held out her hand. What a strange world it is where you can have as much sex as you like but love is taboo. I'm talking about the real thing, the grand passion, which may not allow affection or convenience or happiness. The truth is that love smashes into your life like an ice floe, and even if your heart is built like the Titanic you go down. That's the size of it, the immensity of it. It's not proper, it's not clean, it's not containable.
She held out her hand. 'You're still angry.'
'I'm still alive.'
What to say? That the end of love is a haunting. A haunting of dreams. A haunting of silence. Haunted by ghosts it is easy to become a ghost. Life ebbs. The pulse is too faint. Nothing stirs you. Some people approve of this and call it healing. It is not healing. A dead body feels no pain.
'But pain is pointless.'
|'Not always.' |
'Then what is the use of suffering? Can you tell me that?'
She thinks I'm holding on to pain. She thinks the pain is a souvenir. Perhaps she thinks that pain is the only way I can feel. As it is, the pain reminds me that my feelings are damaged. The pain doesn't stop me loving - only a false healing could do that - the pain tells me that neither my receptors nor my transmitters are in perfect working order. The pain is not feeling, but it has become an instrument of feeling.
She said, 'Do you still like having sex?'
'You talk as though I've had an amputation.'
'I think you have. I think someone has cut out your heart.'
I looked at her and my eyes were clear.
'That's not how the story ends.'
There is always the danger of automatic writing. The danger of writing yourself towards an ending that need never be told. At a certain point the story gathers momentum. It convinces itself, and does its best to convince you, that the end in sight is the only possible outcome. There is a fatefulness and a loss of control that are somehow comforting. This was your script, but now it writes itself.
Break the narrative. Refuse all the stories that have been told so far (because that is what the momentum really is), and try to tell the story differently - in a different style, with different weights - and allow some air to those elements choked with centuries of use, and give some substance to the floating world.
In quantum reality there are millions of possible worlds, unactualised, potential, perhaps bearing in on us, but only reachable by wormholes we can never find. If we do find one, we don't come back.
In those other worlds events may track our own, but the ending will be different. Sometimes we need a different ending.
I can't take my body through space and time, but I can send my mind, and use the stories, written and unwritten, to tumble me out in a place not yet existing - my future.
The stories are maps. Maps of journeys that have been made and might have been made. A Marco Polo route through territory real and imagined.
Some of the territory has become as familiar as a seaside resort. When we go there we know we will build sandcastles and get sunburnt and that the café menu never changes.
Some of the territory is wilder and reports do not tally. The guides are only good for so much. In these wild places I become part of the map, part of the story, adding my version to the versions there. This Talmudic layering of story on story, map on map, multiplies possibilities but also warns me of the weight of accumulation. I live in one world - material, seeming-solid - and the weight of that is quite enough. The other worlds I can reach need to keep their lightness and their speed of light. What I carry back from those worlds to my world is another chance.
She put out her hand. 'I want to rescue you.'
'From the past. From pain.'
'The past is only a way of talking.'
'Then from pain.'
'I don't want a wipe-clean life.'
'Don't be so prickly.'
'What do you want? Tell me.'
'Only the impossible is worth the effort.'
'Are you a fanatic or an idealist?'
'Why do you need to label me?'
'I need to understand.'
'No, you want to explain me to yourself. You're not sure, so you need a label. But I'm not a piece of furniture with the price on the back.'
'This is a heavy way to get some sex.'
The waitress cleared the plates and brought us some brown and yellow banded ice cream, the same colour as the ceilings and walls. It even had the varnishy look of the 1930s. The cherries round the edges were like Garbo kisses. You speared one and fed it to me.
'Come to bed with me.'
'Yes now. It's all I can offer. It's all I can ask.'
'No difficulties, no complications?'
'Except that someone will be waiting for you in Room 29.'
'He'll be drunk and fast asleep.'
'And someone will be waiting for me.'
'Just a friend.'
'Well then . . .'
'I'll leave a message at the night desk.'
She got up and fiddled with some change for the phone.
'Wait . . .'
She didn't answer. There she was, at the phone, her face turned away from me.
We went to a small hotel that used to be a spa.
The bathrooms still have steam vents and needle showers, and if you turn the wrong knob while you're cleaning your teeth the whole bedroom will fill up with steam like the set of a Hitchcock movie. From somewhere out of the steam the phone will ring. There will be a footstep on the landing, voices. Meanwhile you'll be stumbling for the window, naked, blinded, with only a toothbrush between yourself and Paris.
The room we took at the Hotel Tonic was on the top floor. It had three beds with candlewick counterpanes and a view over the rooftops of the street. Opposite us, cut into the frame of the window, was a boy dancing alone to a Tina Turner record. We leaned out against the metal safety bars, watching him, watching the cars pull away. You put your hand on the small of my back under my shirt.
This is how we made love.
You kissed my throat.
The boy was dancing.
You kissed my collarbone.
Two taxi drivers were arguing in the street.
You put your tongue into the channel of my breasts.
A door slammed underneath us.
I opened your legs on to my hip.
Two pigeons were asleep under the red wings of the roof.
You began to move with me - hands, tongue, body.
Game-show laughter from the television next door.
You took my breasts in both hands and I slid you out of your jeans.
Rattle of bottles on a tray.
You don't wear knickers.
A door opened. The tray was set down.
You keep your breasts in a black mesh cage.
Car headlights reflected in the dressing-table mirror.
Lie down with me.
Get on top of me.
Ease yourself, just there, just there . . .
Harry speaks French, he'll pick up the beer.
Stella or Bud?
Do you want nuts?
Make me come. Make me.
Ring her after midnight your time, she said.
Just fuck me.
Got the number?
The next morning I woke late and turned over to kiss her.
She had gone. The sheet was still warm but she had gone. I lay there, my growing agitation of mind beginning to fight with the gentle heaviness of my body. I had no idea what to do, so I did the obvious - got dressed and ran round the corner to our other hotel.
At the Relais de Louvre my own room was empty. Not surprising. There were my clothes and travel bag, and one ticket home. Well, I had given up any right to company.
I went down the corridor to Room 29. The door was open. The maid was cleaning up.
'Où est la Mademoiselle?'
The maid shrugged and switched on her Hoover. Paris is full of mademoiselles.
I rang the front desk.
Room 29 had checked out and there was no forwarding address.
I walked to a little café on the river and ordered some coffee and croissants. No difficulties. No complications. Not even goodbye. So that's the end of it then.
I felt as if I had blundered into someone else's life by chance, discovered I wanted to stay, then blundered back into my own, without a clue, a hint, or a way of finishing the story.
Who was I last night? Who was she?