Friday, December 20, 2013

Down and Out in Paris by Arun Dawani

Arun Dawani's character Vallerie anticipates a romantic weekend in Paris, but finds Luke distracted.

"I'm really glad you could make this weekend," I tell Luke.

"I am too," he says, squeezing my hand. It's been three weeks since I last saw him and I don't want it to be another three weeks before I see him again. He's forty-nine but looks much younger. He may not be the most handsome man I've ever seen but even his 'imperfections', a fading hairline and burgeoning midriff, are endearing. I love his ash coloured hair, always tousled like a naughty child, the gentle lines on his forehead, which I like to think come from frowning too much, his almost bashful smile and the way he looks when we're driving at night, shadows sliding over his kind face.

I'm excited about seeing Paris for the first time but that's not the reason I'm so happy. I stare out of the train window and try to imagine how I would feel if I suddenly found myself alone on the Eurostar. A pang of loneliness hits me and I turn towards him and put my hand on his arm, which is sturdy and reassuring, to make sure he's really there. It's the beginning of a weekend which I have looked forward to so much and I picture a sand timer which has just been turned over, the top of the hourglass completely full. I wish it could stay that way.

We're staying at the "Secret de Paris" a boutique hotel in the 9th arrondissement and it looks just perfect. Luke gave me the choice of Secret or one of the big chain hotels like the Hyatt or the Marriott. I'm sure those hotels are very nice but they look like the sort of places you would stay if you were travelling on business, not on a romantic weekend. Secret looks so, I don't know, 'intimate' I think would be the right word. I close my eyes and snuggle up to him, feeling slightly giddy thinking about wandering around the City of Light arm in arm, not having to worry about being seen.

The train arrives at Gare Du Nord at 7:15pm. The station is grimy and confusing. Non-French looking people with rough voices try to sell us tickets for the Metro in incomprehensible English. We get slightly lost, it's the first time Luke has taken the Eurostar, but eventually find the taxi rank outside the front of the station. We stand in line for ten minutes then climb into a taxi for the short journey to our hotel. We trundle along a long road called the Rue de Maubege and pass banks and pharmacies and restaurants and hotels and mobile phone shops and I think about an article I read a while ago about Japanese women that experience a phenomenon known as 'Paris Syndrome'. These women come to Paris with an idyllic image of the city and the reality of dirty streets and rude Parisians is traumatic enough to send them into a temporary psychosis. Their own expectations drive them mad.

The driver pulls up outside the hotel and Luke pays the fare. The neighbourhood, which I know from my online research to be the Trinité quarter, is trendy and young, abound with artisanal chocolatiers and bakeries, fashionable bars and restaurants nestled among the usual high street names or hidden down back alleys and side streets. Luke tells me that the Eiffel Tower, Sacré Coeur and Louvre are just a short train ride away and, if I would like to, we can see them all in the next couple of days. The hotel is also close to Pigalle, the sleazy part of Paris famous for its sex shops, prostitutes and the men who pay for their services. Luke is nodding off on the train and I tease him by telling him that I'll have to keep an eye on him to make sure he doesn't slip off there one night after I'm asleep and he tells me, half awake, "Why would I need them, when I have you?"

It's already dark and the outside of the hotel is bathed in purple and violet light, hip and futuristic. Checking in, Luke is asked to hand over a credit card. He asks the front desk person to confirm that the card won't be charged and is assured that it won't be, the hotel just needs to take an imprint for security. Luke is really paranoid about using his credit card. I asked him why once and he told me that he has been defrauded a couple of times, somebody cloned his credit card and racked up thousands of pounds on it. He got the money back in the end but only after a lot of hassle so now he prefers to pay cash whenever possible. We're shown up to our room by a bellboy and Luke tips him €10 which makes the bellboy happy. I wonder if he's trying to impress me and hope that he is. He lets me choose the type of hotel room and I opt for the Tour Eiffel, lit in a calm and cool blue. I almost went for a Moulin Rouge room, all gaudy and velvet red but although it looked like great fun it didn't seem appropriate somehow. Looking around our Tour Eiffel room I think I made the right choice, it's elegant but chic and modern, the theme not overly intrusive. If the hotel were in any other city, the room may be slightly gauche but here in Paris it's not. When I see the Jacuzzi bath I tell Luke that we should try it out right away, to make sure it works. His eyes light up and I strip off, pausing to let him appreciate the new La Perla underwear that I bought especially for this trip. It cost much more than I can really afford but his reaction makes it worth it. We take a bath together and he kisses me urgently, telling me how much he has missed me. We get out of the bath and make love on the bed, still dripping wet.

We're both ravenous and head out into the balmy evening to find somewhere to eat. We haven't made a reservation but it doesn't matter because there are dozens of brasseries and restaurants around to choose from. We walk around for a short while, inspecting the framed menus of promising restaurants. I'm a bit cold and Luke takes off his coat and wraps it around my shoulders. He's always so gallant and makes me feel protected and warm like nobody else ever has. We choose somewhere to eat and a few minutes later we're seated in a cosy corner of a charmingly rustic brasserie. We laugh at each other's attempts to order in clumsy, secondary school level French.

"Is your mother really French?" he asks me, after I just fluffed asking for some butter.

"Yes, honestly she is," I tell him.

"Then why is your French so bad?" he asks.

I shrug, "I don't know. My father doesn't speak one word of French so my parents only ever spoke English in our house."

"Didn't your mother speak to you in French when it was just the two of you?"

"No, she didn't. She'd been in England so long that English had almost become her native language. It's a shame isn't it?"

"It really is," he says.

"You can tell her when you meet her," I say.

Just as dessert arrives Luke's phone starts to ring. He ignores it but then a few seconds later it rings again.

When it rings for a third time I stare down at the table and ask him, "Is it her?"

"Yes," he tells me, "I'm sorry."

"You can answer it if you want to," I say.

We get back to the hotel around 11pm. We make love again and I tell Luke that it's ok, he doesn't need to use anything because I want to feel him inside of me but he does anyway. Afterwards he falls asleep quickly, exhausted from work and the journey. I lay awake, too many thoughts swirling around my head to sleep. Since we started seeing each other we haven't spent more than a few hours in each other's company at a time, we've never even actually slept in the same bed. I want to show Luke that being with me all the time is so much better than a stolen evening here or there. I think about the obstacles in our way. Leaving his wife will be a leap of faith but I think I've made it clear to him that he'll be landing on solid ground. From what I've heard about his wife, the divorce is bound to be messy and expensive but that can't be helped. The biggest problem is children. He already has them but that doesn't mean he won't want them with me, does it? I've avoided raising the issue for fear of scaring him off but at thirty-eight I don't have all that much time and I do want them so much. After a while I manage to fall asleep and I dream that I'm falling from the Eiffel Tower but before I hit the ground I wake up with a jolt.

Luke is already up and dressed, by the time I awake. "What time is it?" I ask him sleepily and he tells me that it's already 10am. It's the first time he's seen me in the morning and I feel self-conscious but he tells me that I look beautiful. I sort of cover my face with my hand as I go into the bathroom to brush my teeth, take a quick shower and put make-up on. We get downstairs just in time to have breakfast. It's a buffet and Luke makes sure he gets his money's worth. First juice and cereal, then toast and jam, bacon and eggs, a muffin and a waffle to finish off with. I eat an apple and a bowl of muesli. It feels slightly weird having breakfast with him. I'm used to drinking delicious wine with him in moodily lit restaurants, everything dreamlike and soft around the edges. Breakfast is transparent and stark but it feels like we've begun the transition from an affair into a relationship.

"Where do you want to go today?" he asks me, brushing loose strands of hair off my face.

"I don't know," I say, "What do you suggest?"

"We can see some of the sights in the day, if you like. Then I was thinking we could take a cruise down the Seine in the evening?"

"That sounds perfect," I say.

In one day we see the Sacré Coeur, Notre Dame, the Louvre and the Palais Garnier. We walk the length of the Champs Elysees and take pictures by the Arc de Triomphe using my phone because Luke says that his Blackberry doesn't take good pictures. We can't possibly fit everything we want to do into two days and I ask him if we can come back again, for longer next time, and he promises me that we will.

During the day, he checks his phone occasionally for messages but doesn't answer it when it rings, which is a lot. When the phone won't stop ringing he turns it off but he excuses himself twice to make brief phone calls. I casually ask him if everything is alright and he tells me that it's work but I don't think it is. He spoke to her on the phone one time when he was with me, actually we were in bed, and I ended up embarrassing myself by sobbing like an idiot in front of him. He doesn't want to put me through that again. I've been doing my best not to think about any of this but it's difficult not to when she keeps reminding me by calling him every five minutes. He doesn't even love her, the only reason he has stayed married to her for this long is because of the children. They haven't slept together for months. A few weeks ago I told him that I couldn't keep seeing him like this and he told me that he just needs a bit more time. His eldest son is studying for A-levels at the moment and Luke doesn't want to ruin his chances of getting into a good university. He's such a good person and is desperate to extricate himself from his lifeless sham of a marriage without hurting anybody.

Amazingly we manage to bump into someone he knows while strolling hand in hand around the Place de la Concord. She's about my age and is in Paris for a symposium. She's not English, she sounds like she's from Russia or somewhere in the former Soviet bloc. The woman seems a little bit flustered but then Luke does tend to have that effect on women. He introduces me by name only but the woman barely acknowledges my presence. After a few minutes of meaningless chat they part company. Without me asking who she is, Luke tells me that they worked together for a short while a couple of years ago. I ask him, "Are you worried it might get back to -"

He cuts me off, "No, They don't know each other or have any friends in common. It's a little embarrassing, but I think she had a bit of a crush on me." That explains why she was so weird with me.

We stop for coffee at a delightful café overlooking the Eiffel Tower. Luke gets up to use the restroom and does something very rare for him, he leaves his phone on the table. Although it's not the right thing to do I pick up the phone to check his text messages but his phone is password protected and I quickly put it back on the table before he returns. We make our way to the Pont Neuf and buy tickets for the river cruise leaving at 8pm. The boat is double decker and it's warm enough to sit on the upper deck. It's dark now and I stare into the black water, the Seine glistening below so invitingly that I have this weird compulsion to dive in. We visited the Louvre in the day but looking at it at night from the river is like seeing it for the first time and it's magnificent. The guide tells us that it took more than 650 years to build and I wonder how the people who worked on it for the first 600 years felt, knowing that they would never see it finished. We pass Concorde Square, the Eiffel Tower, Orsay Museum and Notre Dame and by the time the cruise finishes I'm head over heels in love with Paris.

After the boat cruise we stroll along the Seine.

"I'm so happy to be here with you," he says.

"Are you?"

"Of course I am, can't you see? I wish it could be longer."

"It could be like this all the time," I say.

"It will be, I promise."

"When?" I ask teasingly, but my heart is beating fast.

"Soon darling, I just need a bit more time."

"I love you Luke but it's been over a year," I say, keeping my tone as soft as possible.

"I know. My son has A-Levels coming up and needs to do really well if he's going to get into Cambridge. If I do this now it could wreck his chances."

"Do you think you'll want more children?" I ask.

"One step at a time, ok?" he smiles at me and kisses me gently on the forehead.

"Right," I say, relieved that he's not totally against the idea.

The next morning we're woken early by his phone ringing again and again. He leaves the room to answer the call and when he comes back in he looks anxious. "Vallerie, I've got some bad news," he says. I wonder if his wife has been involved in a terrible accident.

"What's wrong?" I ask.

"There's an emergency at work and they need me." he says. "I can't tell you how much I hate to do this but I have to go back early."

My heart falls through the floor. "But It's your holiday. Do they know you're out of the country? Can't one of your associates handle it?"

"That's who I was speaking to just now. She was in tears, she's overwhelmed and the client is being totally unreasonable."

"It's the weekend though. Can't all this wait?"

"I wish it could but they want documents to go out first thing Monday morning so there's no choice. I promise you I'll make it up to you," he says.

"When do you have to leave?" I ask.

"As soon as possible," he tells me.

"Ok, I'll start packing," I say.

"No Vallerie, you don't need to. The hotel is paid up until Monday morning. Why don't you stay and pamper yourself a bit? You can go shopping, this hotel has a great spa -"

"Pamper myself? What are you talking about Luke? I don't want to stay here on my own."

"It's a waste for you to leave now. Please stay," he almost begs.

"No, I really don't want to," I tell him, adamant.

"I have to fly back," he says. "You're booked on the Eurostar, so we can't travel back together anyway."

"Can't you get me a ticket on the same flight you're taking?" I'm too upset to notice how stressed he looks.

"I wish but there was only one seat left on that flight," he says meekly.

"Really? Let me check, there may be seats available," I say, booting up his laptop. "What's the flight number?"

"Vallerie, please don't," he says.

"I don't understand," I tell him.

"We can't fly back together," he says.

"Why not?"

"It's complicated," he says, unable to look me in the eye. "I do have an emergency at work but there's something else." He's speaking so quietly I can barely hear him and he looks like he's about to break into pieces. "I got a voicemail from my wife. She managed to get into my e-mail and she saw the receipt for our Eurostar tickets. She told me that if I wasn't on the next flight back then she would leave me. She's going to be waiting for me at the airport."

"Isn't that what you want?" I ask. "So we can be together?"

"Yes, of course it is. But not like this. I'll lose everything," he says, "and it will make things much harder for us. Please just trust me, this is the best thing for us right at this moment." He caresses my face. "You understand don't you?" he asks, almost desperately.

After he's gone I lie down on the bed and stare at the ceiling. I want to leave this hotel, to get out of Paris but I feel numb and frozen. I check my phone every few minutes, hoping that he'll message me that he's changed his mind and is on his way back but he doesn't and after a few hours I know he must be in the air already. When I can't stand being in the hotel any longer I go out and walk around in a daze. The city looks ugly and menacing, the people malevolent. My train doesn't leave for another eight hours and I start thinking about how to pass the time which stretches out before me like a void. I return to the room and get a phone call from reception telling me that I need to check out, so I pack up and head downstairs. The front desk person tells me that Luke has already settled the room bill in cash but that breakfast this morning hasn't been paid for. I didn't have any breakfast so Luke must have eaten after we last spoke and charged it to the room. Robotically, I hand over €30 and then take a taxi to the Gare du Nord where I wait for six hours before taking the Eurostar home.

5 comments:

  1. this is so beautifully written, one example, of many, : 'the way he looks when we're driving at night, shadows sliding over his kind face',
    and has the ring of truth about it. I liked it enormously.

    Michael McCarthy

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  2. Very nicely done. I like the grim reality check of someone coming to Paris (or any site with such build-up). And I really enjoyed the overall writing style.
    Obviously Vallarie was being taken for a ride by more than just the Eurostar...

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  3. A new take on an old story. One feels exasperated and empathetic with Vallerie in turn, experiencing her disappointment and disillusionment when she can no longer deny the truth. Convincingly written.
    Beryl.

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  4. Thank you all so much!!! It's the first short story I've written and I'm really pleased that you enjoyed it.

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  5. Quite lovely, and sadly, quite realistic.

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