When you clap, your expensive gold bangles jingle down your elegant arm. Your expensively-styled hair glints gold in the evening light. Your skin is fresh and dewy - golden - even though you’re much older than me.
‘We’ll eat dessert in Paris herself tonight!’ you announce in your sing-song voice. You, who barely eat anything. You, for whom salad leaves make a meal.
Maybe you feel sorry for me, because you caught me ramming a pain au chocolat into my mouth this morning when I thought you weren’t looking. I’ve been constantly hungry, staying at yours.
‘Paris now?’ My eyelids droop over my gritty eyes, tiredness clinging like the too-tight jacket I bought to try to emulate your chic style.
‘What better? Paris at night! She is alive, exciting,’ you trill.
That first evening, before I was wiped out with worry and responsibility, I’d have loved this. But an evening in a smoky riverside bar, jazz, forkfuls of buttery pastry washed down with table wine?
I ought to want Paris at night. Even though I yearn for sleep. ‘Marvellous. We will the train take?’ I ask, in wonky French. It’s a simple fifteen-minute ride. Quicker than arduous trips on regulation school buses to pointless theme parks with travel-sick, bickering children, which I’ve endured all week, whilst you claimed important school business prevented you from coming too.
‘No, I’ll drive, it’s quicker,’ you say, in faultless English.
Your 2CV surprises me. I thought you’d drive something sporty, but it’s a classic, and good for city driving, I suppose. You reverse speedily, before I’m properly belted in, then we hop forwards in lurches. Your gear-charging is not as smooth as your outfits. ‘Alain’s car,’ you mutter. Alain is at the country house, you’d said. When I stayed last year, he’d cooked delicious evening meals, every one of them followed by dessert. You brake at a red light, your car well across the ‘stop’ line. ‘Normally, Alain drives,’ you say.
Soon, modern steel and glass buildings dwarf us - we’re close to the historic centre. Paris! Really here, not stuck in the suburbs conducting educational ‘bonding’ between our two schools.
‘Nearly there!’ you squeal, and I giggle, caught up in your enthusiasm.
I’m dizzied by weaving headlights. Accelerating, you speed towards a solid row of buildings, and I wince, squint because I can’t bear to watch, wait for the crunch. You laugh your tinkling laugh, and have somehow swung the car through the tiniest alleyway into a carpark, stopping the 2CV slant-wise between marked lines.
I clamber out and stretch, ready to wander in the warm evening air.
You light a cigarette, inhaling deeply. Your narrow neck tilts, watching the upwards spiral of smoke. ‘Smoking keeps me slender. You should try it,’ you wink, and amble across the road without me. A car-horn blasts, but you don’t look.
I wait for a big enough gap, and lumber after you, holding my stomach gently.
On the Pont Neuf, you’re a graceful vision in warm lamplight. The Seine ripples with scattered light. Glass-topped tourists boats glide beneath, their passengers eating and drinking, ignoring the views. I pause, take it all in: the history, the atmosphere, the architecture, while you grind the butt under your patent shoe.
When you click-clack away, I dash behind. We are headed for St Germain, the Left Bank. So much to see!
You turn into a street crammed with stalls: sugar, cinnamon and nutmeg clouds envelop me in warm hugs, but you refuse to stop.
Finally, you wait for me to catch up in a cobbled square. Narrow houses are festooned with wrought-iron balconies. Artists in garrets. Authentic Paris. I’m properly awake now and gulping it in.
But you droop. Your eyes dim and your mouth sags. ‘I am sorry. I came with Alain, but now the café is gone.’
Hopeful and inept, I stammer: ‘We perhaps to buy food from the market stalls?’
‘It's too late and you don’t need to eat.’ You tip-tap away and I chase the sound, almost-running back to the car, stung. We’ve been in Paris maybe ten minutes, tops.
In the car, I lean into my seat and close my eyes. ‘My baby is died,’ I say, before I realise I have spoken aloud. I haven’t talked about my miscarriage with anyone. Not since the scan technician said I’d need surgery to ‘remove the remaining products of conception.’ That same moment when I understood my planned summer of Maternity Leave was also down the pan, and that I’d have to lead this French Exchange instead.
You take a hand from the wheel to pat mine, and look at me with concern. The car drifts over the carriageway and I grab at the wheel. You slap away my hand and correct our course. ‘Your baby might have been damaged. Now your career can progress. Move onwards, like me, always.’
When the engine slows, I open my eyes, expecting to be home. We’re at traffic lights. We stopped here five minutes ago, though we can’t be far from your flat. You must have looped around. You drum the steering wheel with narrow fingers, light another cigarette. Smoking in the car might have bothered me, once.
‘I’ve forgotten the way,’ you say. ‘See any signs?’
‘No. I will commence to look.’
And you drive on. I strain my aching eyes, attempting to decipher unfamiliar place names in the darkness. The car’s too hot. I feel sick and lower the window. You shiver delicately, reminding me of your spoilt Siamese cat. You suck deep on your cigarette, lips popping.
‘This is my first time driving since he left,’ you say.
‘Yes. Now he lives by the sea and I stay in the apartment.’
‘Gosh, I’m sorry.’
‘I will have to learn cooking. Or starve!’ You laugh a humourless laugh.
Silence lengthens, like the river. ‘You’ll be fine,’ I say, wondering. There’s a sign labelled Central Paris, so I point and say: ‘Maybe start again?’
Without warning, you swerve down a slip road where headlights race towards us. I bang the dashboard screaming: ‘Stop!’ then again in French: ‘Stop! Turn yourself around. Wrong way up!’
Horns blare and lights flash. You spin a tight little U-turn on the motorway we have somehow joined against the flow and we skid, rocket back up the slip road. I am in tears, heart speeding and head thumping. You laugh – good humour restored and cigarette still carefully pinched between two delicate fingers while you nudge the steering wheel with your thumb. You remove both hands to open your window and flip out the butt. I concentrate on breathing.
‘You should relax more,’ a doctor had said, afterwards, as if the miscarriage was my fault.
You whizz through sleeping residential streets, crawl along empty main roads. I begin to plan the train trips we’ll take on your return visit to me in a month, and what we’ll eat. A different dessert with every meal.
According to another road-sign, we're turning towards Paris yet again.
‘We’re home!’ you laugh, and somehow you are right. We’ve overshot and spiralled back to where we started.
Helen Chambers writes flash and short stories and has words in Janus, Ellipsis, and Spelk. She won the Fish Short Story prizein 2018. This summer, she’s directing The Winter’s Tale for Wivenhoe Outdoor Shakespeare and worries about staging ‘exit pursued by bear.’ Read about this, and her other publications at: helenchamberswriter.wordpress.com