Last year in November a book saved my life. I know that sounds very unlikely now. Many of you may feel I’m exaggerating—or even being melodramatic—when I say so. But that’s exactly how it was.
It wasn’t that someone had aimed at my heart and the bullet had miraculously been stopped by the pages of a thick, leather-bound edition of Baudelaire’s poetry, as so often happens in the movies. I don’t lead that exciting a life.
No, my foolish heart had already been wounded. On a day that seemed like any other.
I can remember it exactly. The last guests in the restaurant—a group of rather noisy Americans, a discreet Japanese couple, and two argumentative Frenchmen—were as always sitting around quite late, and the Americans were licking their lips with lots of “Oohs” and “Aahs” over the gâteau au chocolat.
After serving the dessert, Suzette had, as always, asked if I still needed her and then rushed happily off. And Jacquie was in his usual bad mood. This time he was worked up about the tourists’ eating habits and was rolling his eyes as he clattered the empty plates into the dishwasher.
“Ah, les Américains! They know nothing about French cuisine, rien du tout! They always eat the decoration as well—why do I have to cook for barbarians? I have a good mind to give it all up, it really depresses me!”
He’d taken off his apron and growled his bonne nuit at me before getting on his old bike and vanishing into the night. Jacquie is a great cook, and I like him a lot, even if he carries his cantankerousness around with him like a pot of bouillabaisse. He was already the chef in Le Temps des Cerises when the little restaurant with the red-and-white-checked tablecloths just off the lively Boulevard Saint-Germain in the Rue Princesse still belonged to my father. My father loved the chanson about the “Cherry Season,” so lovely and over so soon—a life-affirming and at the same time somewhat melancholy song about lovers who find and then lose each other. And although the left wing in France had later adopted this old song as their unofficial anthem, I believe that the real reason Papa gave his restaurant that name had less to do with the memory of the Paris Commune than with some completely personal memories.
This is the place where I grew up, and when I sat in the kitchen after school doing my homework surrounded by the clatter of the pots and pans and a thousand tempting smells, I could be sure that Jacquie would always have a little tidbit for me.
Jacquie, whose name is actually Jacques Auguste Berton, comes from Normandy, where you can look out as far as the horizon, where the air tastes of salt and nothing obstructs one’s gaze but the endless wind-tossed sea and the clouds. More than once every day he assures me that he loves looking far out into the distance—far out! Sometimes Paris gets too confined and too noisy for him, and then he longs to get back to the coast.
“How can anyone who’s ever had the smell of the Côte Fleurie in his nostrils ever feel good in the exhaust fumes of Paris, just tell me that!”
He waves his chef’s knife and looks reproachfully at me with his big brown eyes before brushing his dark hair from his forehead, hair that is more and more—I notice with a little sadness—flecked with threads of silver.
It was only a few years ago that this burly man with his big hands showed a fourteen-year-old girl with long, dark blond plaits how to make a perfect crème brûlée. It was the first dish I ever impressed my friends with.
Jacquie is of course not just any chef. As a young man he worked in the famous Ferme Saint-Siméon in Honfleur, the little town on the Atlantic coast with the very special light—a refuge for painters and artists. “It had a lot more style then, my dear Aurélie.”
Yet no matter how much Jacquie grumbles, I smile inwardly, because I know he would never leave me in the lurch. And that’s how it was that evening last November, when the sky over Paris was as white as milk and people hurried through the streets wrapped up in thick woolen scarves. A November that was so much colder than all the others I had experienced in Paris. Or did it just seem like that to me?
A few weeks earlier my father had died. Just like that, without any warning, his heart had one day decided to stop beating. Jacquie found him when he opened the restaurant in the afternoon.
Papa was lying peacefully on the floor—surrounded by fresh vegetables, legs of lamb, scallops, and herbs that he had bought at the market that morning.
He left me his restaurant, the recipe for his famous menu d’amour with which he claimed to have won the love of my mother many years before (she died when I was still very small and so I’ll never know if he was pulling my leg), and a few wise bits of advice about life. He was sixty-eight years old, and I found that far too early. But people you love always die too early, don’t they, no matter what age they live to?
“Years don’t mean anything. Only what happens in them,” my father once said as he laid roses on my mother’s grave.
And when—a little nervous but still resolute—I followed in his footsteps as a restaurateur that autumn, the realization that I was now quite alone in the world hit me very hard.
Thank God I had Claude. He worked in the theater as a set designer, and the massive desk that stood under the window in his little attic apartment in the Bastille quarter was always overflowing with drawings and little cardboard models. When he was working on a major job, he would sometimes go to ground for a few days. “I’m not available next week,” he would say, and I had to get used to the fact that he actually refused to answer the phone or open the door even when I was ringing his bell like mad. A short time later he was back as if nothing had happened. He appeared in the sky like a rainbow—beautiful and unattainable—kissed me boldly on the lips, and called me ma petite while the sun played hide-and-seek in his golden blond curls.
Then he took me by the hand and led me off to present his designs to me with gleaming eyes.
I wasn’t allowed to say anything.
When I’d only known Claude for a few months I’d once made the mistake of expressing my opinion openly and, my head to one side, thinking aloud about what might be improved. Claude had stared at me, aghast. His watery blue eyes seemed almost to overflow, and with a single violent movement of his hand he swept his desk clean. Paints, pencils, sheets of paper, glasses, brushes, and little pieces of cardboard flew through the air like confetti and the delicate model of his set for Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream, which he’d spent so much effort producing, was broken into a thousand pieces.
After that I kept my critical remarks to myself.
Claude was very impulsive, very changeable in his moods, very tender, and very special. Everything about him was “very,” there seemed to be no well-balanced middle ground.
We’d been together about two years by then, and it would never have entered my mind to question my relationship with this complicated and very idiosyncratic man. If you consider it closely, we all have our complications, sensitive spots, and quirks. There are things we do or things we would never do—or only in very special circumstances. Things that make other people laugh and shake their heads and wonder.
Peculiar things that are ours and ours alone.
For example, I collect thoughts. In my bedroom there’s a wall covered with brightly colored notes full of thoughts that I’ve preserved so that, fleeting as they are, they won’t be lost to me. Thoughts about conversations overheard in cafés, about rituals and why they are so important, thoughts about kisses in the park at night, about the heart and hotel rooms, about hands, garden benches, photos, secrets—and when to reveal them—about the light in the trees and about time when it stands still.
My little notes stick to the bright wallpaper like tropical butterflies, captured moments that serve no purpose but to be near me, and when I open the balcony door and a light draft blows through the room they flutter a little, as if they want to fly away.
“What on earth is that?” Claude had raised his eyebrows in disbelief when he first saw my butterfly collection. He came to a halt by the wall and read some of the notes with interest. “Are you going to write a book?”
I blushed and shook my head.
“Good gracious, no! I do it…” I had to think for a moment myself, but couldn’t find a really convincing explanation. “… you know, I just do it. No reason. Like other people take photos.”
“Could it be that you are a little weird, ma petite?” Claude had asked, and then he had thrust his hand up my skirt. “But that doesn’t matter, not in the slightest, because I’m a little bit crazy too…” He brushed his lips over my neck and I suddenly felt quite hot. “… crazy for you.”
A few minutes later we were lying on the bed, my hair wonderfully disheveled, the sun shining through the curtains and painting little quivering circles on the wooden floor, and I could subsequently have stuck another note on the wall about love in the afternoon. But I didn’t.
Claude was hungry, and I made us omelettes, and he said that a girl who made omelettes like that could be allowed any quirks she liked. So here’s something else:
Whenever I’m unhappy or uneasy, I go out and buy some flowers. Of course, I also like flowers when I’m happy, but on days when everything goes wrong flowers are for me like the start of a new regime, something that is always perfect no matter what happens.
I put a couple of campanulas in a vase, and I feel better. I plant flowers on my old stone balcony that looks out over the courtyard and immediately have the satisfying feeling of doing something quite meaningful. I lose myself in unwrapping the plants from the old newspaper, carefully taking them out of their plastic containers and putting them in the pots. When I stick my fingers into the damp earth and root around in it, everything becomes absolutely simple and I lose all my cares in cascades of roses, hydrangeas, and wisteria.
I don’t like change in my life. I always take the same route when I walk to work; I have a very particular bench in the Tuileries, which I secretly think of as my bench.
And I would never turn around on a staircase in the dark because of the creepy feeling that there might be something lurking behind me that would attack me if I turned round.
By the way, I’ve never told anyone the bit about the stairs—not even Claude. I don’t think he was telling me everything at that time either.
During the day we both went our own ways. I was never quite sure what Claude did in the evenings when I was working in the restaurant. Perhaps I just didn’t want to know. But at night, when loneliness descended over Paris, when the last bars had closed and only a few night owls walked shivering on the streets, I lay in his arms and felt safe.
That evening, as I switched off the lights in the restaurant and set off home with a bag of raspberry macaroons, I still had no idea that my apartment would be as empty as my restaurant. It was, as I said, a day just like any other.
Except that Claude, in just three sentences, had departed from my life.
* * *
When I woke up the next morning after what felt like a sleepless night, I knew that something was wrong. Unfortunately I am not one of those people who immediately spring into wakefulness, and so it was at first more a strange feeling of uncertainty and uneasiness that gradually penetrated my consciousness than a clear thought. I was lying on the soft, lavender-scented pillows; from outside the muffled noises of the courtyard entered the room. A crying child, the reassuring voice of a mother, heavy footsteps moving away, the courtyard gate creaking shut. I blinked and turned to my side. Still half asleep, I stretched out my hand and felt for something that was no longer there.
“Claude?” I murmured.
And then the realization came. Claude had left me!
What had still seemed strangely unreal the night before, and after several glasses of red wine had become so unreal that I could well have dreamed it, became irrevocable in the gray light of this November dawn. I lay there motionless and listened, but the apartment remained silent. No sound from the kitchen. No one rattling around with the big dark blue cups and cursing because the milk had boiled over. No smell of coffee to dispel tiredness. No quiet humming of his electric razor. Not a word.
I turned my head and looked over toward the balcony door: The thin white curtains were open, and a cold morning was pressing against the window. I pulled the covers more closely around me and recalled how I’d unsuspectingly entered the dark, empty apartment with my bag of macaroons the night before.
Only the kitchen light was on, and for a moment I stared blankly at the lonely still life that presented itself to my view in the light of the dark metal lamp.
A handwritten letter lying open on the old kitchen table, the jar of apricot jam that Claude had spread on his croissant that morning. A bowl of fruit. A half-burned candle. Two cloth napkins rolled up carelessly and stuck in silver rings.
Claude never wrote to me, not even a note. He had a manic relationship with his mobile phone, and if his plans changed, he would ring me or leave a message on my voice mail.
“Claude?” I called, and still somehow hoped for an answer, although the cold hand of fear was already grabbing at me. I lowered my arms and the macaroons fell out of the bag in slow motion. I felt a little faint. I sat on one of the four wooden chairs and pulled the letter unbelievably slowly toward me, as if that could have changed anything.
I had read the few words that Claude had penned on the paper in his big, sloping handwriting over and over, and eventually seemed to hear his rough voice, close to my ear, like a whisper in the night:
I’ve met the woman of my dreams. I’m sorry that it had to happen just now, but it would have had to happen sometime anyway.
At first I had sat motionless, just my heart beating like mad. So that was how it felt when the ground was pulled out from under your feet. That morning Claude had said good-bye to me with a kiss that seemed particularly tender. I didn’t know then that it was a kiss of betrayal. A lie! How contemptible, just to slink away like that!
In a surge of impotent rage I crumpled the paper and threw it into the corner. Seconds later I was sitting over it, sobbing loudly and smoothing the page out again. I drank a glass of red wine, and then another. I took my phone out of my purse and rang Claude again and again. I left messages—some desperately pleading, some wildly abusive. I walked up and down in the apartment, took another gulp to give myself courage, and shouted down the phone that he should call me back at once. I think I must have done that about twenty-five times before I realized, with the dull clarity that alcohol sometimes brings, that all my efforts would be in vain. Claude was already light-years away and my words could no longer reach him.
My head ached. I got up and padded through the apartment like a sleepwalker in my short nightshirt, which was actually the big—far too big, in fact—blue-and-white-striped jacket of Claude’s pajamas that I had somehow pulled on during the night.
The bathroom door was open. I looked around to make certain. The razor had gone, as well as the toothbrush and the Aramis aftershave.
In the living room the burgundy cashmere throw that I’d given Claude for his birthday was missing, and his dark pullover was not hanging carelessly over the chair as it usually did. The raincoat had gone from the hook to the left of the front door. I pulled open the wardrobe in the hallway. A couple of empty coat hangers knocked against each other, rattling gently. I breathed in deeply. Everything had been taken away. Claude had even remembered the socks in the bottom drawer. He must have planned his departure very carefully, and I asked myself how I had managed to notice nothing, nothing at all. Not that he was intending to go. Not that he’d fallen in love. Not that he was already kissing another woman at the same time that he was kissing me.
In the tall gold-framed mirror over the bureau in the hall the reflection of my pale, tear-stained face looked like a pale moon surrounded by quivering dark blond waves. My long hair with the center parting was as tousled as if after a wild night of love, except that there hadn’t been any passionate embraces and whispered promises. “You’ve got hair like a fairy princess,” Claude had said. “You’re my Titania.”
I laughed bitterly, went right up to the mirror, and examined myself with the ruthless gaze of the desperate. The state I was in with the dark shadows under my eyes made me look more like the madwoman of Chaillot, I thought. Above me to the right the photo of Claude and me that I liked so much was stuck in the frame. It had been taken on a balmy summer evening as we strolled over the Pont des Arts. A chubby African who’d spread his bags out for sale on the bridge had taken it for us. I still remember that he had unbelievably big hands—between his fingers my little camera looked like a doll’s toy—and that it took ages until he finally pressed the button.
We were both laughing in the photo, our heads snuggling close together against the deep blue sky that tenderly embraced the silhouette of Paris.
Do photos lie or do they tell the truth? Pain makes you philosophical.
I took the photo down, put it on the dark wood, and leaned on the bureau with both hands. “Que ça dure!” the dark-skinned man from Africa had called after us in his deep voice with the rolling Rs. “Que ça dure!” Hope it lasts!
I noticed that my eyes were filling with tears again. They ran down my cheeks and splashed like heavy raindrops on Claude and me and the whole Paris-for-lovers crap, until everything became misty and indistinct.
I opened the drawer and shoved the photo in among the scarves and gloves. “So there,” I said. And then once more, “So there!”
Then I pushed the drawer shut, and thought about how easy it was to disappear from someone else’s life. Claude had only needed a couple of hours. And it looked as if the men’s striped pajama top, which had been left—probably unintentionally—under my pillow, was the only bit of him that remained.
Happiness and unhappiness are very often close to each other. To put it another way, you could also say that happiness sometimes follows very strange and devious routes.
If Claude hadn’t left me then, I would probably have gone to meet Bernadette on that gloomy November morning. I would not have wandered the streets of Paris, the loneliest person in the world; I would not have stood at twilight on the Pont Louis-Philippe for such a long time staring self-pityingly into the water, nor would I have fled from that concerned young policeman into the little bookshop on the Île Saint-Louis, and I certainly would not have found the book that was to turn my life into such a wonderful adventure. But let’s tell things in the right order.
* * *
It was at least quite considerate of Claude to leave me on a Sunday, because Le Temps des Cerises is always closed on Mondays. It’s my free day, and I always use it to do something nice. I go to an exhibition. I spend hours in Bon Marché, my favorite big store. Or I see Bernadette.
Bernadette is my best friend. We got to know each other on a train journey when her little daughter Marie tottered up to me and cheerfully emptied a mug of cocoa over my cream knitted dress. The stains have never completely gone, but by the end of that entertaining journey from Avignon to Paris, including our not very successful attempts to clean the dress with water and paper towels in a swaying train toilet, we were already firm friends.
Bernadette is everything that I’m not. She is determined, unflappably good-tempered, very clever. She accepts things that happen with remarkable calm and tries to make the best of them. She’s the one who sorts out in a couple of sentences things I sometimes think are frightfully complicated, making them quite simple.
“Good grief, Aurélie,” she says on such occasions, and looks at me with amusement in her dark blue eyes. “What a fuss you make about things! It’s all really quite simple…”
Bernadette lives on the Île Saint-Louis and is a teacher at the École Primaire, but she could just as well be an advisor for people with complicated thought processes.
When I look into her beautiful, open face, I often think that she is one of the few women who look really good wearing their hair in a simple chignon. And when she wears her shoulder-length blond hair down, men follow her with their eyes.
She has a loud infectious laugh. And she always says what she thinks.
That was also the reason why I didn’t want to meet her that Monday morning. From the very beginning, Bernadette could not stand Claude.
“He’s a freak,” she said, after I had introduced Claude to her over a glass of wine. “I know people like that. Egocentric—and never looks you in the eye properly.”
“He looks into my eyes,” I answered, and laughed.
“You’ll never be happy with a man like that,” she persisted.
I found that a bit over-hasty at the time, but now, as I spooned the coffee into the cafetière and poured in the boiling water, I had to admit that Bernadette had been right.
I sent her a text and canceled our lunch together with a few cryptic phrases. Then I drank my coffee, put on my coat, scarf, and gloves, and went out into the cold Parisian morning.
Sometimes you go out in order to get somewhere. And sometimes you just go out to walk and walk and go farther and farther until the clouds clear, despair calms down, or you have thought a thought through to the very end.
I wasn’t going anywhere that morning; my head was strangely empty and my heart was so heavy that I could feel its weight and I involuntarily pressed my hand to the rough fabric of my coat. There were still not many people around and the heels of my boots clattered forlornly on the old cobbles as I walked toward the stone gateway that links the Rue de L’Ancienne Comédie with the Boulevard Saint-Germain. I had been so happy when I found my apartment on that street four years ago. I love this lively little district whose winding streets and alleys with their vegetable, oyster, and flower booths, cafés, and shops reach down to the bank of the Seine. I live on the third floor in an old house with worn stone steps and no elevator, and when I look out of the window I can look across at the Procope, the famous restaurant that has been there for centuries and is said to have been the first coffeehouse in Paris. Writers and philosophers used to meet there: Voltaire, Rousseau, Balzac, Hugo, and Anatole France. Great names, whose spiritual presence gives most of the guests who sit and eat there on red leather banquettes under massive chandeliers a pleasant frisson.
“Aren’t you lucky!” Bernadette had said when I showed her my new home and we were eating a really delicious coq au vin in the Procope that evening to celebrate the occasion. “When you just think of all the people who’ve eaten here—and you live only a couple of steps away … great!”
She looked around enthusiastically, while I speared a piece of wine-marinated chicken on my fork, contemplated it blissfully, and wondered for a moment if I was a Philistine.
To be honest, I have to admit that the thought that you could have eaten the first ice cream made in Paris in the Procope delighted me far more than the idea of bearded men putting their brilliant thoughts down on paper—but my friend would probably not have understood that.
Bernadette’s apartment is full of books. They sit around in tall bookshelves that stretch over the door frames, they lie around on dining tables, desks, coffee tables, and bedside tables, and even in the bathroom I discovered to my amazement a few books lying on a small table next to the toilet.
“I simply couldn’t imagine a life without books,” Bernadette had said once—and I had nodded a bit ashamedly.
In principle, I also read. But most of the time something gets in the way. And if I have the choice, I’d sooner take a long walk or bake an apricot tart: then it’s the delicious smell of that combination of flour, butter, vanilla, eggs, fruit, and cream wafting through the air that gives my imagination wings and makes me dream.
This is probably because of the metal plaque, framed with a wooden spoon and two roses, that still hangs in the kitchen of Le Temps des Cerises.
When I was learning to read in primary school and letters began to fit together into a big, meaningful whole, I would stand under it in my dark blue school uniform and decipher the words that were written on it:
The purpose of a cookery book is one and unmistakable: to increase the happiness of mankind.
This maxim had been written by someone called Joseph Conrad, and I still remember that for a long time I thought that he must be a famous German cook, so that I was all the more surprised when I chanced upon his novel Heart of Darkness. Out of loyalty to the name I even bought it—but never got round to reading it.
Anyway, that title sounded as gloomy as my mood that day. Perhaps this would have been the right time to get the book out, I thought bitterly. But I don’t read books when I’m unhappy: I plant flowers.
At least, that was what I thought at that moment, not knowing that I would spend that very night leafing with almost unseemly haste through the pages of a novel that had, as it were, thrown itself into my path. Chance? Even today I still don’t believe that it was chance.
I greeted Philippe, one of the waiters from the Procope, who gave me a friendly wave through the café window, passed heedlessly by the glittering display in Harem, the little jewelry shop on the corner, and turned into the Boulevard Saint-Germain. It had begun to rain; cars sprayed past me and I pulled my shawl tighter around me as I marched determinedly along the boulevard.
Why do awful or depressing things always have to happen in November? November is the worst time I could conceive of for being unhappy. The choice of flowers you can plant is very limited.
I kicked an empty cola can, which clattered across the pavement and ended up lying in the gutter.
It was just like that unbelievably sad song by Anne Sylvestre, “La Chanson de Toute Seule,” the one about the pebbles that first roll and then an instant later sink in the Seine. Everyone had abandoned me. Papa was dead, Claude had vanished, and I was alone as I had never ever been before in my life. Then my mobile phone rang.
“Hello?” I said, and almost choked. I could feel the adrenaline coursing through my body at the thought that it might be Claude.
“What’s up, my love?” Bernadette went straight to the point, as always.
A taxi driver screeched to a halt beside me, hooting like a madman because a cyclist hadn’t given way. It sounded like the apocalypse.
“My goodness, what’s that?” shouted Bernadette, before I could say anything. “Is everything okay? Where are you?”
“Somewhere on the Boulevard Saint-Germain,” I replied miserably and stepped for a moment under the awning of a shop that sold bright umbrellas with ducks’ heads as handles. The rain trickled out of my wet hair and I was drowning in a flood of self-pity.
“Somewhere on the Boulevard Saint-Germain? What in heaven’s name are you doing ‘somewhere on the Boulevard Saint-Germain’? Your message said that something had cropped up!”
“Claude’s gone,” I said, and sniffed into my phone.
“How do you mean, gone?” As always when Claude was in question, Bernadette’s voice immediately became a touch impatient. “Has the idiot gone to ground again without letting you know where he is?”
I had foolishly told Bernadette about Claude’s tendency toward escapism, and she hadn’t found it at all funny.
“Gone forever,” I said with a sob. “He’s left me. I’m so unhappy.”
“Oh, good grief,” said Bernadette, and her voice was like an embrace. “Oh, goodness gracious! My poor, poor Aurélie. What’s happened?”
“He’s … got … someone … else…” I sobbed. “Yesterday, when I got home, all his stuff had gone and there was a note … a note—”
“He didn’t even tell you to your face? What an asshole,” Bernadette interrupted me and took an angry breath. “I’ve always said that Claude’s an asshole. Over and over. A note! That’s just too bad … no, that really takes the cake!”
“What? You’re not still defending that idiot?”
I shook my head wordlessly.
“Now listen, my dear,” said Bernadette, and I narrowed my eyes. When Bernadette begins a sentence with “Now listen” it’s normally the signal that she’s about to let loose with deeply grounded opinions, which are often right, but often hard to accept. “Forget that creep as quickly as you can! Of course it’s bad at the moment…”
“Very bad,” I sobbed.
“Okay, very bad. But that man was really unspeakable, and deep inside you know that too. Now try and calm down. Everything will be all right, and I promise you that you’ll soon find a very nice man, a really nice man who knows how to appreciate a wonderful woman like you.”
“Oh, Bernadette,” I sighed. It was all very well for Bernadette to talk: She was married to a really nice man who put up with her fanatical attachment to the truth with unbelievable patience.
“Listen,” she said once more. “You just get in a taxi and go straight home, and when I’ve sorted everything out here I’ll come over. Don’t get so upset, please! No reason for drama.”
I swallowed. Of course it was good of Bernadette to want to come over and console me. But I had a sinking feeling that her idea of consolation was a bit different from mine. I wasn’t sure if I really wanted to spend the evening having her explain that Claude was the most useless guy of all time. After all, I’d been with him until the day before, and I would have found a little bit more sympathy rather nice.
And then good old Bernadette went over the top.
“I’ll tell you something, Aurélie,” she said in her schoolmarm voice that allows no contradiction. “I’m glad, yes, I’m actually very glad that Claude has left you. A real stroke of luck, if you ask me! You would never have managed to get rid of him. I know you don’t want to hear this now, but I’ll say it anyway: I see the fact that that creep has finally disappeared from your life as something to celebrate.”
“Bully for you,” I answered more sharply than I really intended, and I could feel that the subliminal realization that my friend was not entirely wrong was all of a sudden making me absolutely furious.
“D’you know what, Bernadette? You go off and celebrate a bit, and if your great euphoria allows it, just let me be miserable for a couple of days, okay? Just leave me alone!”
I ended the call, breathed in deeply, and then switched my phone right off.
Great! Now I was quarreling with Bernadette as well. The rain poured off the awning onto the street and I pressed myself shivering into a corner and began to think that it might be just as well to go home after all. But the thought of going back to an empty apartment frightened me. I didn’t even have a little cat that would be waiting for me and would rub itself purring against me as I ran my fingers through its fur. “Look, Claude, aren’t they just adorable?” I had said when Madame Clément, our neighbor, had shown us the tortoiseshell kittens tumbling clumsily over each other in their little basket.
But Claude was allergic to cat hair and didn’t like animals anyway.
“I don’t like animals, just fish,” he had said a few weeks after we got to know each other. In fact I should have realized then. The likelihood of being happy with a man who only liked fish was for me, Aurélie Bredin, relatively small.
Resolutely, I pushed open the door of the little umbrella shop and bought a sky blue umbrella with white polka dots and a caramel-colored duck’s-head handle.
It turned out to be the longest walk of my life. After a while the fashion shops and restaurants that stood on either side of the boulevard disappeared, to be replaced by furniture stores and bathroom suppliers, and then even these gave up and I wandered my lonely way through the rain, past the sandstone façades of the big houses that offered little diversion to the gaze and met my disordered thoughts and emotions with stoic indifference.
At the end of the boulevard, where it reaches the Quai d’Orsay, I turned right and crossed the Seine toward the Place de la Concorde. The obelisk in the middle of the square towered like a dark index finger and it seemed to me that, in its Egyptian sublimity, it had little or nothing to do with the hordes of little tin cars that hurtled hectically around it.
When you’re unhappy, you either see nothing at all and the world sinks into meaninglessness, or else you see things preternaturally sharply, and everything suddenly seems to have meaning. Even the most banal things, like a traffic light turning from red to green, can decide whether you turn left or right.
And so a few minutes later I was walking through the Tuileries, a sad little shape under a spotted umbrella that bobbed gently up and down along the empty, newly swept paths of the park, then left it in the direction of the Louvre, glided along the bank of the Seine as twilight descended, past the Île de la Cité, past Notre-Dame, past all the lights of the city as they gradually twinkled into life, until I finally stopped on the little Pont Louis-Philippe, which leads over to the Île Saint-Louis.
The deep blue color of the sky lay over Paris like a velvet cloth. It was just before six, the rain was gradually stopping, and I leaned, somewhat exhausted, over the stone parapet of the old bridge and stared pensively into the Seine. The reflections of the streetlights quivered and glittered on the dark water—magical and fragile, like everything beautiful.
After eight hours, thousands of steps, and even more thousands of thoughts, I had reached this quiet place. It had taken that much time to grasp that the depths of misery that were weighing on my heart like lead were not due just to the fact that Claude had left me. I was thirty-two years old, and it wasn’t the first time that a love affair had broken up. I had left, I had been left, I had known far nicer men than Claude, the freak.
I think it was the feeling that everything was crumbling, changing, that people who had held my hand had suddenly disappeared forever, that I was losing my grip and that there was nothing between me and the great big universe but a sky blue umbrella with white polka dots.
That didn’t actually make things any better. I was standing alone on a bridge, a couple of cars drove past me, my hair was blowing in my face, and I was holding tightly on to my duck-handled umbrella as if that too might fly away.
“Help!” I whispered quietly, and stumbled slightly against the parapet.
“Mademoiselle? Oh, mon Dieu, mademoiselle, don’t! Wait, arrêtez!” I heard hurried steps behind me, and gave a start.
The umbrella slipped from my hand, turned half over, bounced off the parapet, and fell down in a spiraling dance to land flat on the surface of the water with a barely audible splash.
I turned around in confusion and found myself looking straight into the dark eyes of a young policeman, who was looking at me with great concern. “Is everything all right?” he asked agitatedly. He obviously thought I was intending to commit suicide.
I nodded. “Yes, of course. Everything’s fine.” I forced myself to give him a little smile. He raised his eyebrows as if he didn’t believe a word of it.
“I don’t believe a word you say, mademoiselle,” he said. “I’ve been watching you for quite some time now, and no woman who’s perfectly fine looks like you did standing there.”
I was taken aback, and said nothing—I just watched the white-spotted umbrella for a moment as it sailed slowly off down the Seine. The policeman followed my gaze.
“It’s always the same,” he added. “I know these bridges. Only recently we fished a young girl out of the icy water a little bit farther downstream. Just in time. If anyone hangs around on a bridge for a long time you can be sure that they’re either madly in love or just about to jump in the water.”
He shook his head. “I’ve never understood why lovers and suicides have such an affinity for bridges.”
He ended his little lecture, and looked at me suspiciously.
“You look quite upset, mademoiselle. You weren’t going to do anything silly, were you? A lovely woman like you. On the bridge.”
“Of course not!” I assured him. “And anyway, completely normal people sometimes stand on bridges for a long time, just because it’s nice to look at the river.”
“But you have such sad eyes.” He wouldn’t give up. “And it looked just as if you were going to jump.”
“What nonsense!” I replied. “I was just feeling a little faint,” I hurriedly added, and instinctively put my hand to my stomach.
“Oh, pardon! Excusez-moi, mademoiselle … madame!” He spread his hands in a gesture of embarrassment. “I couldn’t have known … vous êtes … enceinte? In that case, you ought to look after yourself a little better, if I might say so. Can I see you home?”
I shook my head and almost giggled. No, at least I wasn’t pregnant.
He tilted his head to one side and smiled chivalrously. “Are you sure, madame? The protection of the French police is at your service. I wouldn’t want you to faint on me again.” He looked protectively at my flat tummy. “When is it due?”
“Listen, monsieur,” I replied in a firm voice. “I’m not pregnant, and am relatively sure that I won’t be in the foreseeable future. I was just feeling a bit faint, that’s all.”
And no wonder, I thought, because I hadn’t had anything all day except a coffee.
“Oh! Madame … I mean mademoiselle!” Obviously embarrassed, he took a step backward. “I’m very sorry, I wasn’t trying to be indiscreet.”
“That’s all right,” I sighed, and waited for him to go.
But the man in the dark blue uniform stayed put. He was the archetype of the Paris policeman of the kind I had often seen on the Île de la Cité, where the police headquarters are: tall, slim, good-looking, always ready to flirt. This one had obviously decided that it was his duty to be my personal guardian angel.
“Well, then…” I leaned back against the parapet, and tried to get rid of him with a smile. An elderly man in a raincoat went past, giving us an interested look.
The policeman raised two fingers to the peak of his kepi. “Well then, if there’s nothing more I can do for you…”
“No, definitely not.”
“Then take care of yourself.”
“I will.” I pressed my lips together and nodded my head a couple of times. This was the second man in twenty-four hours who’d told me to take care of myself. I raised my hand briefly, turned round, and leaned with my elbows on the parapet. I gave my full attention to studying the Cathedral of Notre-Dame, which rose like a medieval spaceship from the darkness at the end of the Île de la Cité.
I heard someone clear his throat behind me. I tensed my back and then turned slowly to face the street once more.
“Yes?” I said.
“Which is it then?” he asked, and grinned like George Clooney in the Nespresso commercial. “Mademoiselle or madame?”
Oh. My. God. I just wanted to be miserable in peace, and a policeman was flirting with me.
“Mademoiselle, what else?” I responded, and decided to take flight. The bells of Notre-Dame rang out toward me, and I walked quickly over the bridge to the Île Saint-Louis.
Many people say that this little island in the Seine, directly behind the much larger Île de la Cité and reachable only by means of bridges, is the heart of Paris. But that heart beats very, very slowly. I very rarely went there, and every time I did I was surprised anew by the calm that reigns in that district.
As I turned into the Rue Saint-Louis, the main street lined with peaceful little shops and restaurants, I saw from the corner of my eye that a tall, slim figure was following me at a respectable distance. My guardian angel was not giving up. What was this man thinking anyway? That I was going to try again at the next bridge?
I speeded up until I was almost running and then tore open the door of the first shop that still had its lights on. It was a little bookshop, and as I stumbled in I would never have thought that this step would change my life forever.
At first I thought that there was no one in the shop, but in fact it was so packed with books, bookshelves, and tables that I did not see the owner, who was standing at the end of the room with his head bent forward behind an old-fashioned counter stacked precariously with piles of books. He was deep in contemplation of an illustrated volume, turning the pages with extreme care. He looked so peaceful standing there with his wavy, silver-gray hair and his half-moon reading glasses that I hardly dared to disturb him. I paused for a moment in this cocoon of warmth and yellowish light, and my heart began to beat more calmly. I carefully risked a glance outside. Through the window, which was inscribed in faded gold letters LIBRAIRIE CAPRICORNE PASCAL FERMIER, I saw my guardian angel standing, earnestly examining the display.
I sighed involuntarily, and the old bookseller looked up from his book and stared at me in surprise, then pushed his spectacles up.
“Ah … bonsoir, mademoiselle—I didn’t hear you coming in,” he said in a friendly way, and his kind face with his intelligent eyes and delicate smile reminded me of a picture of Marc Chagall in his studio. Except that this man wasn’t holding a brush in his hand.
“Bonsoir, monsieur,” I answered in some embarrassment. “Forgive me, I didn’t mean to startle you.”
“Not at all,” he said, raising his hands. “It’s just that I thought I’d locked the door.” He looked over at the door, where a bunch of keys was hanging from the lock, and shook his head. “I’m starting to get a bit forgetful.”
“Then you’re actually already closed?” I asked, taking a step forward and hoping that the guardian angel outside the window would finally fly away.
“Take your time and look around, mademoiselle. There’s no hurry.” He smiled. “Are you looking for anything in particular?”
I’m looking for someone to really love me, I answered to myself. I’m running away from a policeman who thinks I want to jump off a bridge, and I’m pretending that I want to buy a book. I’m thirty-two years old and I’ve lost my umbrella. I wish something nice would happen to me for a change.
My stomach rumbled audibly. “No … no, nothing in particular,” I said quickly. “Just something … nice.” I went red. Now he probably thought I was an ignoramus whose powers of expression were exhausted by the meaningless little word “nice.” I hoped that my words had at least drowned out my stomach’s rumblings.
“Would you like a cookie?” asked Monsieur Chagall.
He held a silver dish of shortbread out under my nose, and after a short moment’s hesitation, I took one gratefully. There was something consoling about the sweet cookie, and it calmed my stomach immediately.
“Do you know, I haven’t eaten properly today,” I explained as I chewed. Unfortunately I’m one of those uncool people who always feel obliged to explain everything.
“It happens,” said Monsieur Chagall, without commenting on my embarrassment. “Over there”—he pointed at a table piled with novels—“you may well find what you’re looking for.”
And I really did! A quarter of an hour later I left the Librairie Capricorne with an orange paper bag with a unicorn printed on it.
“A good choice,” Monsieur Chagall had said as he wrapped the book, which had been written by a young Englishman and was called, pleasantly enough, The Smiles of Women.
“You’ll like this.”
I’d nodded and, red-faced, fumbled for the money. I hardly managed to conceal my amazement, which Monsieur Chagall probably thought was an attack of excessive anticipation of the pleasures of reading as he locked the shop door behind me.
I breathed in deeply and looked down the empty street. My new policeman friend had given up his surveillance. The probability that someone who bought a book would subsequently throw themselves from a bridge over the Seine was obviously very small from a statistical point of view.
But that was not the reason for my surprise, which gradually developed into excitement, causing me to walk much faster and then, with thumping heart, to take a taxi.
On the very first page of the book, which I was pressing to my heart in its pretty orange wrapping like a precious treasure, there was a sentence that bewildered me, aroused my curiosity—electrified me:
The story I would like to tell begins with a smile. It ends in a little restaurant with the auspicious name “Le Temps des Cerises,” which is in Saint-Germain-des-Près, where the heart of Paris beats.
It was to be the second night that I went without sleep. But this time it wasn’t a cheating lover who robbed me of my rest but—who would have thought it of a woman who was anything but a passionate reader?—a book! A book that enchanted me from the very first sentences. A book that was sometimes sad, and at other times so funny that I had to laugh out loud. A book that was both beautiful and mysterious, because even if you read a lot of novels you will rarely come across one in which your own little restaurant plays a major role and the heroine is described in such a way that you seem to be seeing yourself in a mirror—even on a day when you’re very happy and everything is going well!
When I got home, I hung my wet things over the radiator and slipped into a fresh white nightdress. I brewed a big pot of tea, made myself a couple of sandwiches, and listened to my answering machine. Bernadette had tried to reach me three times, and apologized for trampling on my feelings “with all the sensitivity of an elephant.”
I had to smile when I heard her message: “Listen, Aurélie, if you want to feel sad about that creep, then feel sad, but please don’t be mad at me any longer—get in touch. I’m thinking about you such a lot.”
My resentment had evaporated a long time ago. I put the tray with the tea, the sandwiches, and my favorite cup on the rattan table next to my saffron yellow sofa, thought for a moment, and then sent my friend a text:
Dear Bernadette, it’s so awful when you are right. Do you want to come over Wednesday morning? Looking forward to seeing you. I’m off to sleep now. Bises, Aurélie!
The bit about sleeping was a fib, of course, but everything else was true. I got the paper bag from the Librairie Capricorne off the bureau in the hall, and put it down carefully beside the tray. I had a peculiar feeling, as even then I sensed that this was going to be my very own lucky bag.
I restrained my curiosity for a while longer. First of all, I drank my tea in tiny sips, then I ate the sandwiches, and finally I got up once more and fetched my woolen blanket from the bedroom.
It was as if I wished to delay the start of the actual business of the moment.
And then, finally, I unwrapped the book from the paper and opened it.
If I were now to claim that the hours that followed seemed to fly by, that would only be half the truth. In actual fact I was so immersed in the book that I could not even have said if it was one or three or six hours that had passed. That night I lost all sense of time—I entered into the novel like the main characters in Orphée, that old black-and-white Jean Cocteau film, which I had once seen with my father when I was a child. Except that I didn’t go through a mirror after pressing it with the palm of my hand, but through the cover of a book.
Time stretched out, contracted, and then vanished completely.
I was beside the young Englishman who ends up in Paris because of his Francophile colleague’s passion for skiing (compound fracture of the leg in Verbier). He works for the Austin Motor Company and is now tasked with establishing the Mini Cooper in France in the place of the marketing manager, who will be unable to work for some months. The problem: His knowledge of French is as rudimentary as his experience of the French, and he hopes—in total ignorance of the French national character—that everyone in Paris (at least the people in the firm’s Paris branch) understands the language of the Empire and will cooperate with him.
He is outraged not only by the adventurous driving style of Parisian drivers—who try to force six lanes of traffic into a two-lane carriageway, have not the slightest interest in what is happening behind them, and abridge the driving school’s golden rule of “mirror, signal, maneuver” to its final element—but also by the fact that the dyed-in-the-wool Frenchman doesn’t get his dents and scratches repaired and is totally unaffected by advertising slogans such as “Mini—it’s like falling in love,” because he would rather make love to women than to cars.
He invites attractive Frenchwomen to dinner, and then almost has a fit as, with a cry of “Ah, comme j’ai faim!” they order the entire (expensive) menu but then pick at their salade au chèvre a few times, take four forkfuls of boeuf bourguignon and two teaspoons of the crème brûlée, before dropping their cutlery charmingly in the remains of all that cuisine.
No Frenchman has ever heard of standing in a queue, and no one here talks about the weather. Why should they? There are far more interesting topics. And hardly any taboos. They want to know why, in his mid-thirties, he still has no children (“Really, none at all? Not even one? Zero?”); what he thinks of American policy in Afghanistan or child labor in India; whether the hemp and Styrofoam artworks by Vladimir Wroscht in the Galerie La Borg aren’t très hexagonale (he knows neither the artist nor the gallery—nor even the meaning of the word “hexagonale”); if he’s satisfied with his sex life and where he stands on the subject of women dying their pubic hair.
In other words: Our hero moves from one tight spot to another.
He is an English gentleman who doesn’t really like talking. And all of a sudden he has to discuss everything. In all possible and impossible places. At work, in the café, in the elevator (four floors are enough for a discussion of car burnings in the banlieue, the Paris suburbs), in the gentlemen’s toilet (“Is globalization a good or a bad thing?”), and, of course, in the taxi, since French taxi drivers, unlike their London counterparts, have an opinion on every subject (which they also make known), and their passenger is not permitted to sit quietly keeping his thoughts to himself.
He has to say something!
In the end the Englishman puts up with it all with British good humor. And when, after many twists and turns, he falls head over heels in love with Sophie, a delightful and somewhat capricious girl, British understatement comes up against French complexity, leading at first to all kinds of misunderstandings and complications.
Until everything finally ends up in a wonderful entente cordiale. If not in a Mini, at least in a little French restaurant called Le Temps des Cerises. With red-and-white-checked tablecloths. In the Rue Princesse.
My restaurant! There was no doubt about it.
I closed the book. It was six in the morning, and I once more believed that love was possible. I had read 320 pages and was not the least bit tired. The novel had been like an extremely exhilarating trip to another world—and yet that world seemed strangely familiar to me.
If an Englishman could describe a restaurant that, unlike La Coupole or the Brasserie Lipp, for example, doesn’t crop up in every travel guide, and portray it so exactly, then he must actually have been there.
And if the heroine of his novel looked just like you—even down to the slinky dark green silk dress that was hanging in your wardrobe and the pearl necklace with the big oval cameo that you’d been given for your eighteenth birthday, then that was either a massive coincidence—or that man must have seen that woman at some time.
But if that woman, on one of the most miserable days of her life, chose this very book out of hundreds of others in a bookshop, then that was no longer a coincidence. It was fate itself speaking to me. But what was it trying to say?
Pensive, I turned the book over and stared at the photo of a likeable-looking man with short blond hair and blue eyes, sitting on a bench in some English park or other, his arm slung carelessly over the back of the seat, and smiling at me.
I closed my eyes for a minute and thought about whether I had ever seen this face before, this boyish, disarming smile. But no matter how long I searched through the drawers of my memory—I couldn’t find that face.
The author’s name said nothing to me either: Robert Miller.
I didn’t know any Robert Miller—I didn’t actually know any Englishmen at all, apart from the English tourists who occasionally wandered into my restaurant, and that British exchange student from my school days who came from Wales and—with his red hair and masses of freckles—looked just like Flipper the dolphin’s sidekick.
I studied the short biography of the author carefully.
Robert Miller had worked as an engineer for a big English car manufacturer until he wrote his first novel—The Smiles of Women. He loved old cars, Paris, and French food, and lived with his Yorkshire terrier, Rocky, in a cottage near London.
“Who are you, Robert Miller?” I asked under my breath, and my gaze returned to the man on the park bench. “Who are you? And how do you know me?”
And suddenly an idea began buzzing around my head, and I found it more and more attractive.
I wanted to get to know this author, who had not only restored my will to live in my darkest hour, but also seemed to be linked with me in some mysterious way. I’d write to him. I’d thank him. And then I’d invite him to a really magical evening in my restaurant and find out what this novel was all about.
I sat up and aimed my index finger at the chest of Robert Miller, who at this moment was probably walking his little dog somewhere in the Cotswolds.
“Mr. Miller—I’ll be seeing you!”
Mr. Miller smiled at me, and strangely enough I didn’t doubt for one moment that I would succeed in tracking down my new (and only) favorite writer.
Little did I know that this author shunned the glare of publicity like the plague.
Copyright © 2010 by Nicolas Barreau.English translation copyright © 2012 by Bill McCann
Nicolas Barreau was born in Paris, the son of a French father and a German mother. He studied romance languages and literature at the Sorbonne and worked in a bookshop on the Rive Gauche in Paris. He is also the author of One Evening in Paris, The Woman of My Dreams, and You’ll Find Me at the End of the World.