I entered my third city in a year.
Remove the signs; the language and the residents are interchangeable. Cities merge by their aspirations; their ambition for spectacle is common and this one had manifested its pride everywhere.
I had arrived a week too soon to do any work. Paris was empty. Everyone, nearly everyone, that I needed to contact, was on vacation. The population had been partially replaced by tourists in their loose-fitting clothes with elastic waistbands and querulous eyes taking in every view. More than looking at their loose change they were peering at everything twice. The long streets boarded on either side by grey stone buildings echoed like a ghost town. Signs on closed shops read that they would resume business in another ten days. Family businesses on vacation. The large department stores were somnolent too. The heat was stifling, perhaps just as it had been in August 1944. I wandered and waited. Those two sensations are interchangeable. My footsteps cracked on the pavement and I was careless in crossing the road, as there was little traffic. The boulevards trickled with a few cars. The city had the sound of a provincial town, and at night horns and sirens blared from far away, as if life was happening elsewhere.
I was light, or to be more precise, unburdened. For the first time I was not conscripted into a job. The future depended on luck, coincidence, the stuff of hope. I could discover, let chance take me: nothing was definite
My hotel was near the St Lazaire station and the normal activity, busy and commercial, in that arrondisement had ceased. Hotels were a free zone to me after months of having the flat in Pimlico. The concierge was a university student, Didier, and immediately spoke to me in English, but I insisted on conversing French. He studied computers and always had a manual on some technological language, open on his desk. He spoke English with an American accent. I told him it was necessary for me to, for the practice, so that I could deal with officials for my mission. It seemed too self-important to say mission but nonetheless, it is the right word in French. The hotel room, with a lean-over balcony, looked over the street, was typically small, but fortunately without wallpaper. I had stayed in too many small French hotels with dark wallpaper, dead and musty. On the other side of the street was a building site, fenced behind green metal panels and crooked concrete blocks. The en-suite bathroom was large enough to take one step in any direction if I did not move my arms, and so I dried myself in the bedroom.
I called Sonia after I had checked in. Lying on the bed I felt I had given away the preceding months. Unattached and without possessions. I spoke rapidly, with unusual enthusiasm. Sonia asked me if I had been drinking on the train. Not at all. As I talked, I sensed the distance between us, in the tone of her voice, or was it mine, which had disappeared in the journey under the Channel, or was probably in my case. Reflective in my hotel room.
— How are you?
But I could not hear the inflection and what she meant. Being estranged from women in hotel rooms appeared to be a habit for me. Although we were talking to each other there was an alternative track to the conversation. That is how it played to me.
— What’s it like there?
— Hot, sultry I said.
I added to strike an authentic voice on the line.
And then I said the same words in French, which I mouthed with slight gratification.
— It’s the same here. Been thinking of you here last week when we sent a taxi for ice cream at midnight.
Gone quiet. Couldn’t say anything, as the right answer was to endorse her small memento and say I remembered that moment too. Held my tongue and allowed natural time to take away the need to enjoin Sonia’s thought.
— What did you have for lunch?
The words uttered on one thing, but were about another parallel something, like a play or song with secondary meaning, but not a genuine conversation. We carried on like that, well enough, and then embarrassed said we’d better let other person go, as if they had another appointment to meet. I suspect she thought I had fled her. Maybe, I cannot recall any thought I had to say that was true. If I was bright it was not I was away from Sonia.
That phone-call happened early. We spoke on alternate days and near the end of the first week, as the new distance was understood between us, retelling the day’s events was less and less engaging. We fell back on things from months ago, as a secure reassurance, and tried to laugh together. And of course said longing things about embracing and kissing. It’s impossible to say sex, the sentence, “I want to make love to you”, is feasible but is invariably cloaked under words like hold. When she asked me how long I would be I suddenly invented reasons to extend my time in Paris and utilised logic that blamed forces beyond my influence. Being compelled rendered me to fate, an instrument of time. This passivity about my own will allowed me to be taken into the territory I would enter.
While on a business trip in New York, biographer Sam Kellett’s wife, Helen tells him their marriage is over.
To recover after the shock Sam immerses himself in work, returning to the biography of a banker. At a low ebb, he returns to London. Back at home; Sam is forced to start a new life blocking out everything else.
When he thought he was stuck in a rut his routine changes when he meets a woman who lives in a flat above him. Sonia is a potter and night owl and they fall for each other and become lovers. For the first time in a long while, Sam is content, even happy.
Summer arrives in London and Sam is restless. Despite nearing the end of the banker’s biography and living with Sonia, he is anxious about the future. One sultry night discovers a rare film from the Liberation of Paris in August 1944.
In the film the three men, two of them young, their comrade is middle-aged, are fighting in a street battle. The film intrigues and excites Sam because nothing is known about the men. It’s this mysterious quality that gives him the idea to find the real story of who the men are, and how they came to be fighting together.
He travels to Paris to trace the men. Slowly Sam pieces together a story of coincidence, character, fortune, some bad luck and heroism. Sam reconstructs the lives of each man: Marcel the quiet musician, Bruno the tough labourer, and Edouard the idealist.
In discovering the men in an old film, Sam has encountered a new man in himself.
©Copyright Guy Cranswick. All Rights Reserved. 2015