memoirs, art and fragments by Thomas Milner

Archive for July 10, 2011

Paris in the spring is a movable feast

It was an early spring evening and the lights were starting to go on all over Paris.

John and Emma Sawyer were sauntering along the Pont Neuf every now and then leaning over the parapet to watch a Bâteau Mouche slide slowly past beneath, the brightly-lit tourists, holding their little translation-pods, obediently looking first to the left and then to the right, as directed. Then they would look up and contemplate one the most famous cityscapes in the world, dominated by the elegant and iconic Eifel Tower rising up from the Champs de Mars.

They had been married for about fifteen years, and the first flush and excitement of their early relationship, before and immediately after the wedding, had given way first to settled contentment and then finally to mere habit. But all was not well; tiny grits of irritation and resentment were forming, on both sides. They had no children. At first it was because they both led career-driven lives, and later a reluctance to commit to parenthood and change their well-ordered lives made them pause and finally, tacitly admitting to themselves that they had fallen out of love, there seemed to be little point.

And then there were their respective careers. Emma, the better educated and (dare one suggest) slightly more assertive of the two, after studying Fine Art and Modern Languages at university, had secured a curatorship at the British Museum in the Roman and Etruscan Ceramics department, a job which she found congenial and self-fulfilling. John, on the other hand, had held down a soul-destroying teaching post in an inner-city Comprehensive school, trying to beat English literature into uninterested and recalcitrant kids, for about eight years, before having a minor nervous breakdown. He was now managing an up-market wine-bar in the City which, after the collapse of the financial markets, was in danger of being closed down. It was to cheer up her depressed husband that Emma proposed taking the Euro-Star across to Paris for the weekend.

Emma, through frequent professional visits to the Louvre, knew Paris quite well and organized the weekend, from the moment of emerging from the sleek, high-speed train at the Gare du Nord, to the fast cab ride, down the Rue de la Paix, swooping along the rollercoaster tunnels of the north bank of the river and finally to their smart little hotel on the Isle Saint-Louis, in the shadow of Nôtre Dame. Now they were having a stroll before dinner, drinking in the sights and sounds of the beautiful city on that spring evening. It sounds idyllic, doesn’t it? But it wasn’t really: a key ingredient was missing – contentment. John was tense and moody as Emma enthusiastically kept her end of the conversation going.

–              I do love Paris, don’t you Johnny! I think that must be Les Invâlides over there, you know, where the tomb of Napoleon is … and oh, do look, in the distance you can just make out the lights of the Sacré Coeur … and as for the Tour Eifel, all lit up like that!


Later they had dinner at La Coupole in Montparnasse. The darkly-lit restaurant, once the haunt of writers like Sartre, Hemingway and Henry Miller, was now an expensive tourist trap, full of culture-vultures eager to drink in the air of Bohemian chic. It was a split-level room, with oak railings looking down on the discreet lamps and the white table cloths, lined with shining green leather banquetes – it had oodles of atmosphere, did that restaurant). Emma had booked in advance. As they sat down, she looked around appreciatively:

–              Can’t you just see Hemingway, at that table in the corner, Johnny, scribbling away … perhaps writing the words Paris in the spring is a moveable feast …

–              He’d have been more likely to be leaning against the bar, getting pissed and talking hot air … anyway, at these prices, all that bunch wouldn’t have been able to afford this place. By the way, Em, what made you choose this restaurant?

–              The assistant director of the museum brought me here for lunch on my last trip; you remember, I told you, to celebrate the transfer of those 3rd Century BC Etruscan terracotta bulls? But perhaps you weren’t listening as usual.

–              Perhaps my attention span in 3rd Century Etruscan ceramics is rather limited … anyway what’s he like, this French museum bloke?

–              Oh, you know the type – middle-aged, over-weight – more into management than scholarship; don’t tell me you’re jealous again, Johnny! Anyway, to change the subject, what were you talking about with that strange little chap on the bridge?

–              Oh him, he was peddling souvenirs; he was a tenacious little bugger, I’ll give him that; in the end I bought one of these just to get rid of him.

They both moodily studied the menu; actually Emma had lied about the museum director; Jean-Luc, had been an attractive and charming man with a witty flow of small talk, which made lunch seem to go by in a flash – and her husband had not been deceived by the slight shift in her voice. They ordered costly but simple food and wine, (Huîtres à la Bretagne with a bottle of Muscadet, followed by Escalope de Vaux à la Milanaise accompanied by a bottle of  Chinon). Suddenly John got up abruptly, knocking over a wine glass, and stalked off in the direction of the bathroom and simply vanished. Emma never saw him alive again.

To be continued.

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