Monthly Archives: January 2012

Friday, January 22, 2010

The week has gone quickly. My husband is still in Milano. He called me the other day with the news that he wouldn’t be back for another week. I said I understood and then hung up. He didn’t call back.

The note is still on my mind. Is it an invitation from Cyril? Or someone my husband knows? Both explanations seem plausible. I play Coldplay’s “Warning Sign” on repeat on YouTube. It’s the only track I’ve been listening to for the last three hours. The lyrics are fading into familiarity. Isn’t that what warning signs do? After a while we don’t see them anymore.

 

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

I wake up early. It’s exceptionally quiet. I go to the large windows, drawing the curtains. The street is covered in snow and not a soul can be seen for as far as my eyes can reach. The house is freezing. So I go downstairs to blast the heating system and then make myself a cup of coffee. A double espresso, which I bring upstairs, along with the newspaper that made it after all. I haul out my laptop, which sits under the bed. Dust balls and cat hair whirl across the parquet floor before collecting in a forgotten corner. I don’t take much notice and instead focus my concentration on an email to the receptionist telling her they shouldn’t expect me in today. The morning is still early when I jump into the shower and let the hot, steaming water hit me like a summer monsoon rain. The heat warms up the cold air, creating a cloying mist that settles on the bathroom’s interior. It sticks to my skin, and as I do my make-up pearls of sweat run down from the folds of my breasts. Although they infinitely annoy me, I let them run their course. Mind over matter, I think to myself. Mind over matter.

I find little point dressing up, so I pull on a beige tracksuit that sits atop the dirty laundry basket, waiting to be washed. With that and a light breakfast I sit down in my study. We have a new major assignment that should take my attention for most of the day. Yet I can’t take my mind off last night’s events. I go back to the library and pull out the book that Cyril had drawn my attention to. The enigmatic note is still there, inserted once more after our brief discourse. It should have been left to obscurity, but fate seemingly had different plans.

The note is not old, written on cheap inkjet paper. The street doesn’t say anything to me, so I take the book and the note and return to my computer.

I enter 84 Rue Saint-Honoré into the Google search field and hit Enter. The first entry is a club called Le Liberty, piquing my curiosity enough to click further.

Friday, September 12, 2003

It’s so curious: one can resist tears and ‘behave’ very well in the hardest hours of grief. But then someone makes you a friendly sign behind a window, or one notices that a flower that was in bud only yesterday has suddenly blossomed, or a letter slips from a drawer…and everything collapses.  ~Sidonie Gabrielle Colette, French Writer (1873 – 1954)

It was the day of Carl’s departure. Hoping for a divine intervention had been hopelessly, endlessly fruitless, and as I watched him packing, I silently cried. The tears of bitter love covered in thorns. There was no point in outbursts or anxiety attacks — feigned or real. The days where those tactics might have had some effect were long gone, having been substituted by a more sinister and ominous climate. I asked him what he would do next, but he stayed silent. I knew it was the time for goodbye.

 

The cab arrived, and he fed the cat one last time, patting it whilst it was eating, before it would once more return to its rightful owner. Then he turned out the light. He waited for me to leave first, and passively I obliged. I followed him downstairs and asked if I could say goodbye at the airport, but he said it was probably better we said our goodbyes at once. It was the first sentence he had uttered all morning. I took his hands and pulled them around me in a hug. He let one go, patting me on my head, drawing my forehead towards his lips. As I started to cry, he hushed me gently, hugging me even harder. For a moment I thought he cried too.

“I have to leave now. I’ll call you when I arrive.”

With that he stepped into the car. There was no “I love you”, no “goodbye”. There was simply nothing. Because soon the car turned around the corner and he was gone.

I had promised to lock up the apartment for him, so I went upstairs a final time. I imagined the many times we had sat at that kitchen table, laughing at each other’s jokes or listening intently to the stories we shared. I would sit in a rickety rocking chair, naked but for one of his used shirts as makeshift cover. Now it was all but distant memories I would have to learn to either cherish or forget.

I closed off the flat and went home. A bottle of Moët et Chandon and two sleeping pills sent me off into a coma.

Summer 2003

The summer turned out to be unusually hot — in more ways than one. I split my days and nights between working in a local sandwich bar, catching up on my studies and seeing Carl. We both knew our romance was not to last as he was going back to Sweden in the autumn. It pained me to have been dealt a deadline for our love, or perhaps more like an execution date when our bodies would be separated by the guillotine of geography, if not forever then for a long while. Carl didn’t seem to share the same concerns, but I chalked it up to irrevocable differences between the male and female sexes. We would meet up in the early evenings after my work, often at La Perle, or else Le Café Suédois on 11 Rue Payenne in the 3rd arrondissement, where Carl was holding down a part-time summer job. The evenings were spent trawling cafés and nightclubs. Monday was our cinema night, and on Tuesdays and Wednesdays we would cook for each other. Carl was the far better chef with a large repertoire of Swedish and French recipes, but didn’t seem to mind my bland spaghetti bolognese or lemon chicken.

As summer progressed well into August, the prospect of separation became more and more imminent. I tried to bring it up, but Carl would brush it aside as something that wasn’t even a dot on the horizon — at least not on his. For he was the one leaving for home and his family. An ex-girlfriend who had figured in the background was waiting impatiently for him, and knowing their strong bond I couldn’t help but feel the underlying threat to the unity going by the name of ‘us’.

The last three weeks before he left can only be described as dreadful. A slow-motion train crash with no escape. We argued practically every day, and the few days we didn’t were paved with a frosty atmosphere that was as thick as icing. After every argument I would beg him not to leave. Neither the apartment nor Paris. But both seemed inevitable, and he would often storm out with his belongings quickly balled together in his ever-present duffel bag. I would cry myself to sleep, and after awhile I resorted once again to benzodiazepines to take me out of my misery.

We made love less and less, which I took as a sign of our imminent dissolution. I went off the pill in a desperate effort to keep us together. Despite being only twenty-three and Carl four years my senior, I, perhaps innocently, imagined a baby would somehow alter the course of events. I didn’t think 21st-century relationships came with an escape clause. But of course they do.

Thursday, July 3, 2003

I spent a glorious afternoon on the balcony to the sound of Café del Mar, Volume Six. With my iPod as my only companion, I was miles away from civilisation and close enough to oblivion. I must have fallen asleep because I woke up sometime in the late afternoon with a raging headache. Luckily I had applied sunscreen before I went on a self-imposed barbeque, lending me a tan somewhere between a healthy glow and deep pink. I went back to my computer and, as hoped, there was an email from Carl.

See you at 8

/Carl

It was too short to warrant a reply and lent me mixed feelings about the impending rendez-vous. I decided to banish any negative thoughts and instead tried to tame my sunburnt face and body. I couldn’t decide what to wear, but as the evening was still warm, a sophisticated dark-blue Roland Mouret dress, a self-sponsored birthday present from years earlier, seemed appropriate for the occasion. Bruno Magli kitten heels and a touch of make-up and I was set to go. I tried to control my nerves by opening a cheap bottle of Champagne, and took a few sips in quick succession. The alcohol mixed with the heat and, soon enough, any lingering apprehensions were all but banished.

I arrived fashionably late, despite the heeded warning to my date. Carl was sitting at a corner table with a beer and yesterday’s edition of Le Monde. He looked up when he saw me approaching, folding the newspaper and placed it on an empty chair beside him. He stood up and gave me the customary pecks on each cheek. We sat down.

“You look lovely.” He smiled at me, and I couldn’t resist returning the courtesy with an expression of delight.

“Are you hungry? I took the liberty of going through the menu and the chef apparently recommends the roast ‘poulet de Bresse’ with a tart of Cévennes onions,
liquorice and foie gras. He also suggests the pan-seared scallops with sweet onions and cardamom as a starter. If you like shellfish, of course.”

“Yes, it sounds great. I’m starving actually. I had a late breakfast but no lunch. Got trapped on the balcony…as you can see.” I waved my hands in front of my face, unwittingly drawing attention to the calamity I’d suffered. Despite my actions, I was hoping he didn’t take notice as I’d done my best to camouflage the redness. But I was afraid it was to little avail.

“Great, let me get the waiter.” He simply said. I drew an inner sigh of relief.

We ordered our dinner with a bottle of Sancerre rouge, which was placed in a cooler next to our table.

One day after our first meeting, the spark was still there. Carl questioned me about my studies, background and family. I gave him the condensed version, starting with an honest disclosure of my age (twenty-three) and my family circumstances, including a brief mention of my mother’s earthly departure.

“I’m so sorry. What happened?” he asked.

“Well it’s a long story, but to cut it short, Maman was driving home one evening. From where, we never found out, as she had already left work in the afternoon not feeling well. It was around seven or so, and she was — we presume — taking a shortcut through the Bois de Boulogne. She had been drinking, which was rather unusual for her. Well not more than a glass or two of wine anyways. Ended up somehow in the opposite lane and hit a car. Both died. There was an inquest held, and the family of the young man who died sought damages. As you would, I suppose.”

I shrugged my shoulders and lifted my eyebrows in an attempt to embody the travesty of the French legal system.

“My father’s lawyer took care of things and, although I don’t know the exact details, I presume they came to some sort of an agreement. The whole thing quietly went away, but my dad was devastated. He literally became a recluse overnight, only to emerge six weeks later and throw himself into eighty-hour work weeks.” I stopped myself and took a gulp of wine.

“Wow, I really don’t know what to say. That’s tough. How old were you then?”

“Twenty-one. It was two years ago.”

“How is your father now?”

“He’s doing fine. The first year was the hardest, obviously. We were a close-knit family. But eventually things just settled somehow. I guess time does heal everything…well, if not all, then the essentials.” I smiled, but I’m not sure whether it came across as particularly sincere. Carl remained silent so I continued. “He’s not seeing anyone, as far as I know, and he keeps all the photos and memorabilia intact. It’s like the house has become a museum to her memory. But I think he needs this, so he doesn’t forget her.”

“Are you close to your dad?” He looked at me intensely whilst sipping his wine.

“Mmm, very. I was probably closer to Papa than Maman. I wish somehow it had been different, though. Sometimes I think I never really got to know her…” We were conveniently interrupted by the first course, and the waiter refilled our glasses. I took another gulp before attacking the food with great gusto.

We ended the evening at a quarter past midnight. Technically it was Friday, and both Carl and I had made a pact not to attend lessons the following morning. For us the weekend started now, and it was ours to make the most of. That we had a lot in common was evident. Our mutual passion for language, music, history and politics was like a pool of knowledge, which we both dipped into to put our best feet forward for these early conversations. A human mating dance where intellect presides over physical attributes.

We walked the busy streets of le Marais, the neighbourhood that had become my salvation after a stormy break-up with a broker several years earlier. My father contributed to my rent and it gave me a certain freedom few students could afford. We bought sorbet ice cream from an Italian vendor and moved in the direction of my apartment — knowingly or not.

I again invited Carl up for a nightcap. We both knew this step would seal a certain fate. Perhaps it would be but a short romance, or a three-month affair. What we didn’t know then was that it was to be the start of something far more significant with further-reaching consequences than either of us could have possibly foreseen. As I write these lines, calibrating what could have been with the knowledge I now have, I wonder if I would have done things differently, if I had known the future. But as pain has been a constant fuel in my life, I doubt the benefit of hindsight would have made a difference. I doubt it very much.

I woke up in the middle of the night. The alarm clock was leaking a faint green light over an otherwise pitch-black room. It was only minutes past 4 AM. I recalled the night, hour by hour, minute by minute. Was I moving too fast? Did I have too much to drink? I couldn’t even remember if we used protection. He was from Sweden, and I recall making a quick calculation concluding that Sweden was not a high-risk country for sexually transmitted deceases. As my eyes adjusted to the darkness I realized I was still wearing my contact lenses, now stuck to my retinas with a painful dryness, so I slowly got up and walked to the bathroom. My face was puffy and smeared with mascara. I did a quick wash before removing the lenses.

I tiptoed back to bed so as to not wake Carl. He stirred when I reached the bed, and stretched out his arms towards me, his left hand wandering over my skin. I took it as an invitation for nocturnal intimacy and let his body spoon mine. It was warm and comforting; he emitted a slightly musky smell. I fell back asleep.

The next morning, Carl was already in the kitchen putting the finishing touches on an improvised breakfast. He was standing barefoot in his jeans, making croissants with readymade dough from a tin that was most likely past its sell-by date. I wore his oversized white shirt. My red, curly hair shaped into a loose knot.

“Good morning, beautiful,” he said, flashing an almost unnaturally white set of teeth. I fired an abashed “good morning” back.

“Sit down, I’ve made you breakfast. I have to admit I’ve thrown in my complete arsenal of cooking skills.” He pointed to the table. “There are scrambled eggs, a fruit salad, yoghurt, toast and… hold on for a second…” He coated the croissants with an egg yolk and milk mix and slid them into the oven. “…croissants. Give or take five minutes.”

“It looks fantastic,” I complimented him as I started on a bit of scrambled egg.

He sat down after serving. It was a beautiful morning, but enjoying anything outside seemed a waste. I stretched my leg in Carl’s direction, tickling his crotch with my toes. I continued to play as we let the petit déjeuner silence us. Unsurprisingly, food gave way to amorous love making — not ferocious and thrusting this time, but slow yet with great intensity. We both came simultaneously. I cried. A release of crushing anger… bitterness… pain… passion — and love. Yes, I felt love, and if memory serves me right, it was also the time I proclaimed it.

Six and a half years later. It’s a dark winter evening and I’m standing at the crossing of Boulevard Saint-Germain and Rue Saint-Jacques. The traffic is dense with people escaping their offices for the warm and inviting but overcrowded restaurants and bistros so typical of Paris. Others are scurrying to more familiar destinations longing for their wives and lovers. My only focus is my home in the outskirts of Paris, where I live a sheltered life with my husband and our cat. We live not far from Bois de Boulogne in a house my father left me as a lasting legacy to our family’s success in the medical field.

Taxis are impossible to get hold of, and I’m number twenty-seven in the queue to speak to the operator. The metro is on strike, so I consider walking, but my Alaïa shoes are not made for a three-hour hike through snow. I might be able to catch a cab eventually, but the prospects are slim. I try my husband’s cell but he’s not picking up. My anger is welling up along with my tears. I barely manage to suppress both.

A short distance further is a man in a dark trench coat. He’s pulling car keys out of a battered brown briefcase as he walks towards a metallic blue Citroën, parked only metres away from where I stand. It’s a “now-or-never” moment, and I walk briskly towards him with quick shallow breaths and my heart thumping through my chest.

“Monsieur, excuse me,“ I start. In a fleeting glance I can see he’s tall and gangly. His face is gaunt with deep-set nasal folds running down from cheek to chin. He has large brown eyes and a prominent nose. I estimate his age to be somewhere over forty, but he could just as easily be a decade younger or older. As first impressions go, I am not sure whether it’s wiser to run away or take the risk of stepping into the stranger’s car. It’s a premature thought as he has yet to invite me, but as I hesitate to ask him he smiles at me, as if he knows this will sway my decision.

“I’ve been trying to get a taxi for the last twenty minutes but it’s absolutely futile. Would it be possible to catch a ride with you? I’ll pay, of course.” The last I add to sweeten the deal, but realize it might be misinterpreted as an offer for payment in kind.

“But of course,” he says in a dark, whisky-fuelled voice. He smiles again at me, dispelling my most immediate doubts. He opens the door for me and I step inside.

“Where are you going?”

“Rue de la Faisanderie.” He looks at me perplexed.

“It’s in the neighbourhood of Bois de Boulogne. 16th arrondissement.”

“Nice neighbourhood. A friend of mine lives in the 16th arrondissement. He works for the Dutch embassy.” He pauses. “It’s a rental though.”

He revs the engine, and lets the windscreen wipers do their work for a few seconds before he looks in the rear view mirror to determine if it’s safe to leave. For a moment there is an awkward silence. I ransack my mind for something useful to say. Anything that will fill the pregnant pause that has sucked the air out of the car and is now threatening to implode.

“Do you work in the area?” I finally ask as he cautiously makes his way down the snowy street.

“Well, yes and no. I live as well as work here,” the stranger replies, flicking his eyes between his mirrors and the intersection ahead.

“What do you do?” I ask, trying to sound both curious and interested in my rescuer.

“I’m a writer.”

The answer startles me, although perhaps I should have seen the clues. The nicotine-stained fingertips and a slight odour of stale whisky on his breath mixed with Fougère Royale by Houbigant give the distinct impression of an artist who is all too used to late-night writing with a bottle of single malt as his only friend.

“A writer, really?” I say, trying to buy myself some time. It’s not every day I happen upon a writer, despite belonging to a fairly artistic circle of friends. “What do you write?”

“Mainly fiction. I’m currently working on my third novel. It’s almost ready; we’re doing the final revisions with the editor.” He pauses. “She also has her office here.”

“I see,” I reply.

“So what are you doing here on this cold evening?” He looks at me with a smirk on his face as if trying to decipher whatever lie I am about to pronounce.

“I work here. My office is around the corner too. I’m a historic investigator.”

“Historic investigator?” He lingers on the words. “What does that entail?”

“We investigate myths and legends, do historical research, find long-lost texts and scriptures. It’s everything from private people who would like a historical, often family-related, mystery researched to museums and archaeological excavation projects. Lately we’ve been working on a TV production for the Mysteries of History. Perhaps you know of it?”

“Perhaps…it sounds familiar, but in all honesty I absolutely detest anything to do with mass media. I far prefer my quills and Pelletier ink.” He picks up a pack of Gauloises cigarettes, draws one out and is just about to light it when he realize his faux pas and offers me one. I accept and he lights it as we come to a standstill in the dense Paris traffic. We are miles away from my end destination and I franticly try to think of a new topic to break the silence that has once again settled upon us. But it doesn’t come, and for the rest of the ride we sit side by side without a word being spoken. My pencil skirt is clinging to my thighs and I try to find an elegant way to rest my legs in the narrow space in front of me. I note a run in my stocking and attempt to shield it by tugging at the skirt hem. He catches me and I find his eyes wandering over my legs. Despite his voyeuristic advances, I pretend not to take notice and look out the window ahead. The traffic permits little movement, but my benefactor zigzags through roads lesser known to get to our final destination.

An hour later, we finally reach it. A singular light is shining in one of the windows. Liliane, our housekeeper, must have left for the day. I scramble through my purse but can’t find any money to offer as compensation. There’s only a ten-euro note, which would be just short of an insult to offer. I ask the stranger if he minds waiting for me to fetch some money upstairs. He says it’s not necessary, but would be grateful if he could use my toilet. After his chivalric rescue I can’t really say no.

 

The stranger finds a parking spot across the street and locks the car. We walk up the broad, limestone steps to the entrance, the stranger behind me like a foreboding shadow.

Inside I point out the toilet whilst I put my beige calfskin gloves on the Louis XVI console table that stands in the hallway. On it sits a note, neatly folded with my name written on it. A few sentences tell of a work calamity at a call centre in Milano, warranting my husband’s abrupt departure. He will be gone for a few days, perhaps a week. I should expect a call later in the evening.

I put back the letter, and walk into the kitchen to open a bottle of wine, selecting a Hermitage La Chapelle. As I’m pouring a glass the stranger walks in. He looks better in the dim light emitting from above the oven than he did under the harsh street lamp. The deep lines now appear softer, giving him an almost youthful appearance.

“Would you like a glass?” I offer.

“I don’t want to impose on your hospitality,” he replies, distant and aloof.

“Well, consider it a payment in kind.” I quietly start as I remember my thoughts before getting into the car. He doesn’t seem to notice and accepts the offer.

“You have a beautiful house. Early 19th century?”

“Yes, from the Napoleonic era. I inherited it from my father when he passed away five years ago.”

“I’m sorry.”

“No need. I have great memories, and best of all is I get to cultivate them in my childhood residence.”

“Not bad, not bad indeed.” His intense stare makes me uneasy.

“Are you married?”

“Yes, but my husband is out of town. A corporate calamity. He works for an American computer company.”

“You are quite the bourgeoisie,” he teases with a hint of sarcasm disguised as irony.

I don’t reply but switch topics. “I don’t know if I got your name.”

“You didn’t.” His abruptness catches me off guard and it takes me a moment to determine my next move.

“Justine.” I stretch out my hand.

Enchanté. I’m Cyril.” He takes my hand graciously yet firmly.

“Cyril, enchantée.“ I raise my glass to toast.

I observe Cyril as we stand frozen in time without uttering a word. The silence doesn’t seem to bother him, although the contrary can be said for me.

“Are you always this quiet?” I finally ask.

“No, not always.” He pauses for a brief moment. “You have beautiful wrists. Very delicate.”

“Thank you. I’ve never received such a compliment before.” I laugh nervously. It’s a rather odd remark and once again the stranger, now with a name to his face, has deprived me of my fortitude.

“Of course you haven’t. Most men would have given you the obvious compliments. Your eyes, your smile, in some crude attempts to flatter you even your breasts. That’s all they will think of. In many ways men haven’t evolved much beyond the level of primates.”

“Quite candid analysis!”

“It comes with the territory.” He says before swiftly changing topic: “Can I smoke in here?”

My husband hates when I smoke. He quit two years ago and won’t allow me to soil the fragrant environment of our home that has been carefully built up through old antiques, flower arrangements and potpourri sachets discretely hidden in drawers, Qing dynasty urns and Sèvres vases.

“Please go ahead.” I get out the silver ashtray that we use for parties and soirées. He pulls out a Gauloises and offers me one. I take it gratefully and he lights it for me. I lean against the countertop, holding the cigarette with my right hand whilst supporting my elbow with my left. Classic femme fatale pose. I exhale the tobacco-rich smoke. In all honesty it’s too strong for me, but I’m eager to play the game.

He lights his own cigarette, and while doing so performs the art of making conversation with a burning device in his mouth. I think of Popeye the Sailor Man, and I have to struggle not to laugh.

“Do you have a library?”

“Yes we do, on the first floor.”

He exhales the smoke in my direction. “May I see it?”

I don’t answer but stub out the cigarette before I walk out of the kitchen. At the staircase I turn around. He is following me. Still the same portentous, overbearing shadow. I have yet to understand its meaning.

I run my hand along the polished oak bannister that takes us to the first floor. This is where our formal reception rooms can be found. We walk through the drawing room, which leads via a small passage with two sets of French doors to the library. I step aside and let the shadow pass me. I can no longer sense his breath on my neck, merely a faint whiff of his cologne. I breathe it in, letting it fill my lungs, titillating my olfactory senses.

 

He walks to the section where our antique books adorn hand-carved oak shelves. I notice a thin layer of dust and make a mental note to tell Liliane about it. Many volumes are medical ones, standing testament to a long family service in the name of Hippocrates. Other volumes cover the fields of anthropology and religion. They stem from an unmarried uncle of my grandfather’s who was somewhat of a notable explorer in his days. He is also the one responsible for our small but priceless collection of ancient Egyptian and Nubian artefacts.

Cyril walks along the walls, studying their gold-printed leather-bound content. He goes through our collection of classic literature, from Homer’s Iliad to Maupassant and Flaubert, hastily yet with an eye for detail, like he’s memorizing every single volume. However something stops him in his tracks. He is looking at what I call the dark-side literature. It is a small section, in the corner behind the open door, and therefore naturally shielded from the prying eye. How it ended up there, I have no idea. My father never knew either, but it is clear that someone carefully built and nurtured the collection spanning from the 16th to the 19th century. They are mostly rare editions covering witchcraft and heretical religious works. Some have even been a great source for me in my research. For example, the Malleus Maleficarum by Heinrich Kramer, Formicarius by Johannes Nider and of course the works of John Dee and Nostradamus. Further there is a book written by a Victorian physician, astronomer and self-taught parapsychologist going by the name of J.B. Sinnett. The work, comprising of two volumes, documents animal and human mutations and deviations in the first, and strange practices and rituals, paranormal phenomena and clairvoyance in the second. It’s a literary as well as photographic cabinet of curiosities, responsible for both having captured my childhood curiosity and fuelling my young nightmares in equal measures.

Although this appears to stir a certain interest in Cyril, it is the bottom two rows of works that, deservingly or not, receive his absolute attention. From “classics” such as Boccaccio’s Decameron and verses by John Wilmot (better known as the Earl of Rochester) to The Flogging Block by Rufus Rodworthy, annotated by Barebum Birchingly, and of course Diderot’s Les Bijoux Indiscrets, not to mention Marquis de Sade’s complete selection including Justine, or the Misfortunes of Virtue and 120 Days of Sodom.

In my youth, I would keep tabs on these books as, from time to time, they would disappear from the bookshelves, only to reappear in a slightly different spot days later. I was often the culprit of these hijacks and would hide the books under my mattress to keep them privy from prying family members.

Cyril takes out a book, The Lustful Turk, originally published by John Benjamin Brookes in the 1830s. He opens it to a random page and a small note, no more than ten by ten centimetres falls to the floor. A single line followed by a capital letter.

84 Rue Saint-Honoré

C.

He hands the note to me, not showing any interest in its history or why it has remained hidden in this book.

“Do you know it?” he asks.

“The note, you mean?”

“No, the book.” He sounds displeased with my answer.

“No, I can’t say I do. Otherwise I would have discovered the note, I’m sure.”

“You ought to read it. Something tells me you have a dark side.” He waits for a reply but I have nothing to say. Enough has already been said.

“I really ought to go. It was nice meeting you. I hope the next time you will have more luck finding a cab. And if not, you know where to find me.” He turns around and walks out of the library.

Bonne soirée.”

“Bonne soirée,” I return, but I can already hear him walking through the drawing room. Quick footsteps follow on the staircase, and then a thump as the door is closed. I hear nothing more. I’m alone. At least until Friday.

I met Carl in a café on Rue Vieille du Temple. It was called La Perle and was a favourite haunt of mine between the hours of 4 and 6 PM. Almost every day that spring, I would occupy table number three or, if not available, number five — either of which would act as my improvised study for the next few hours. Occasionally I would put my studies aside to watch the people walking by: shoppers in a hurry, tourists with maps in hand and my neighbours du jour, who more often than not were amorous couples holding hands whilst gazing into each other’s eyes. I would steal little glances until I was either invited for an impromptu flirtation or tossed a withering glance. The latter nearly always coming from women keen to hold their love interests on invisible, if not imaginary, leashes.

Spring turned into summer before Carl occupied table number four. I don’t recall noticing him walk in, but as I was looking up towards the waiter sometime after with the words “l’addition s’il vous plait” on my lips, I stopped myself. Instead I ordered another cappuccino and feigned an interest in medieval battle techniques while stealing a glance at the man to my right. Carl was, like me, devouring his study material voraciously, and if he had noticed me, or his interest had been piqued, he was hiding it well. I left it at that, as I was not a girl to come on to a stranger.

Perhaps you would like a description of him, especially given what is to come in our subsequent encounter and the aftermath thereof. I am most happy to oblige. His hair was a sandy brown mussed into a wavy disarray. His eyes, I would later discover, were a honey-flecked olive green, not dissimilar to my own. He was tall for a Parisian, a few centimetres short of 190, with a lean and athletic figure. I imagined he played a sport like cricket or water polo. I later discovered it was merely down to good genes and improvised tennis tournaments, but at the time my imagination had already coloured in a whole new social heritage for my unsuspecting neighbour. He was casually dressed, wearing dark jeans, cream-coloured sneakers and a light blue cotton shirt. I could detect the hint of a white T-shirt peeking out from behind the collar opening.

Yes, I found him handsome. But I didn’t make a move. Back then I was far too demure for such a forward approach, although this would change in later years. I used to say my father taught me science and my mother taught me the art of impeccable manners. The latter I lived by like a mantra. My two vices were, and still are with a few exceptions, drinking and smoking. I rarely drink hard liquor, but generally finish a bottle of wine every two days. I smoke at a similar rate, which comes down to about three packs of Marlboro Lights Menthol per week. I’ve thought about stopping, but frankly I find it too enticing. The seductive drag followed by the reluctant release of translucent curls of smoke is the one femme fatale stratagem I have come to master — although others may not agree that my repertoire is so limited.

So I picked up a cigarette, to sooth my nerves I told myself, but more likely as an excuse to spring into my siren role. As I filled my lungs with menthol-flavoured tobacco, I trained my eyes on the stranger across from me. As if he could feel my intentions, he broke off his reading and returned my gaze. First with a blank, slightly aloof look, then breaking into a smile. I returned the favour. He picked up a cigarette, as if he felt a sudden compulsion to join me in my bad habit, and went in search of his lighter. He patted the outside pockets of the corduroy jacket he’d left casually hanging across the next chair, but with no luck. Searching inside the jacket only yielded the same outcome. He gave an expression of comic confusion, an invitation to approach. I obliged. I lit his cigarette, a Philip Morris. He asked, in slightly accented French, if I would care to join him at his table. Unsurprisingly, I said yes.

We conversed there until the stroke of midnight, sharing two bottles of Chablis (it was a sweltering summer evening less than two weeks short of Bastille Day) and ordering the whole menu of starters, which we shared as tapas. Carl was an exchange student from Sweden. He was finalising his studies in French and would be returning to Stockholm in the autumn. As the hours escaped us, we covered a wide spectrum of topics from the impeding war in Iraq to British colonial history and the art of strategic management by Hoshin planning. Never too shallow nor too deep, nor boring or tedious, I felt my world connected to his despite geographical borders and social barriers. In hindsight, I believe it might have been what they call love at first sight.

Carl walked me home to my apartment on Rue du Trésor in le Marais. I offered a nightcap, but he declined. He had an early exam and needed the few hours of sleep only a familiar and empty apartment could give. So we parted with a peck on the cheek and the exchange of mobile numbers and email addresses. The evening had left me feeling elated and full of expectations, rendering me unable to sleep. Eventually I resorted to my faithful benzodiazepines, prescribed to me to battle an on-and-off relationship with insomnia. I drifted away to a deep, dreamless slumber and woke up at eleven the next morning only to realise that I had forgotten to turn my alarm on.

Deciding against afternoon classes, I instead fired up the computer, an old Packard Bell, and made myself coffee and toast. As was my habit, I hit the Outlook icon to check my mail first off. Spam mingled with a lonely email from my father. After sending off a quick reply, I noticed a new message had appeared; it was from Carl. It was casual, yet there was a promising underlying hint of interest. He asked if I was available for dinner that night. I read it once, then a second time, before deciding I had enough information to reply.

Bonjour Carl,

Do you believe in coincidences?

I stared at my first line, fully knowing this was a terribly clichéd way to start off any response. I backspaced it until only the salutation remained.

What a nice surprise to find your email. I had half hoped for it as I’m indeed sitting here with my breakfast working away on an overflowing inbox.

(This was a lie but would indicate I was a busy woman.)

I actually overslept and, seeing as it’s close to midday, I’ve decided to pull a sickie and abstain from lessons. The weather is glorious and as I’m fortunate to have a little balcony overlooking the courtyard, I was planning to catch a bit of sun in the company of my MP3 player. Other than that I have no plans whatsoever and would love to take you up on a rendez-vous this evening. I know a little bistro on 25 Rue Beautreillis called Vin des Pyrenees. How does 8 pm sound to you? Don’t be late as I hate waiting.  J

I contemplated the last line, not sure if it was too pretentious — or worse, obnoxious — but decided against culling it. I’d always wished I had attitude in measures, and a little faux assertiveness couldn’t go wrong, I argued. I clicked Send and within seconds the mail had been translated into binary code and transmitted through a myriad of wired and wireless connections, now waiting somewhere in his inbox to be pieced back together.

Reminiscence of Childhood

When I was seven and we had just moved into the house my grandfather had left us, I immediately sensed that the post-Napoleonic edifice looming across from our new home hid strange secrets. It was one of those old, grand houses — a little derelict but habitable enough, with grey net curtains obscuring every window. I soon discovered that the house had somewhat of a reputation with the local children who roamed the streets between the last school bell and suppertime.

It was a safe neighbourhood with little threat or menace that could endanger the carefully constructed community that had become the epitome of Parisian bourgeoisie. So we children took matters in our own hands, creating a pseudo-world of rogue streets and villainous back alleys, menacing buildings and fabricated tales, which we attached to any neighbour we believed deserved our wrath and indignation.

And so the old house across the street took centre stage in our fantasies. 33 Rue de la Faisanderie was inhabited by a Monsieur and Madame de Robillard. The story went that Monsieur had been married once before and his wife and daughter had disappeared under mysterious circumstances. My father, who knew the rumours well, having grown up with similar fantasies as I now entertained, assured me that his first family had emigrated to Canada and were safe and sound. Yet we children were loath to accept such a harmless explanation when the alternative was so deliciously despicable.

 

I recall being about nine when I joined the Puma Detective Club. I think it was named for those trendy sneakers that we all used to wear back then. Its raison d’être was simple: we would be the neighbourhood watch, solving any crime large or small perpetrated on our streets. The problem was that there weren’t many crimes to solve, so we soon turned our attention to the mysterious Monsieur de Robillard. We knew that he had remarried since the departure of his last family, but this was also all we knew as no one had ever seen Madame de Robillard. I once again turned to my father for information. He told me Madame de Robillard had a neurological disease (or ‘a brain disease’, as he explained it back then), which meant that she could no longer walk, and was confined to the prison of a wheelchair. But I believed (as did my friends from the Puma Detective Club) that the wheelchair wasn’t her only confinement.

My parents agreed over one of our many gregarious dinners that it indeed was a little strange, but some people have strange habits — and as long as they didn’t break the law, they were none of our business. The final message was to leave them in peace. This message was, needless to say, entirely ignored.

Pierre, Gregory, Celine and I set out to uncover the truth behind the decaying façade of 33 Rue de la Faisanderie. Our first step was to set up surveillance of the house. It was summer, and our holiday gave us both glorious weather and the time to stake out the house from early morning until evening, when Paul, Pierre’s older brother, would take the graveyard shift running until a late 10 PM. In the end his efforts would prove of little value apart from one observation, which we shall come to later.

Weeks went by and our only discovery was that Monsieur de Robillard went out once a week, for exactly one hour, during which time he conducted his grocery shopping, played the lotto, and bought seven cigars by the brand Ashton. This was confirmed by the cigar-shop owner, who became very curious about our inquiry. We swore him to secrecy after buying a gold-plated zippo lighter under the pretence that it was a birthday present for an uncle. It cost us all an arm and a leg, but in return the cigar seller continued to answer our questions as he made an elaborate wrapping with a plastic flower adorning the top. It looked rather cheap, but the cigar-shop owner seemed mighty proud of his work, positioning it on the counter with a smile that hinted at achievement. This didn’t stop our questions, though, as we hurled them at our unwitting victim:

How long had De Robillard been a customer?

Did he buy anything else?

Had his wife ever accompanied him?

Had he ever come in the company of anyone else?

Did he ever talk about anything?

The answer to all of these questions, with one exception (De Robillard had been a customer for seven years, during which time he never changed his brand of cigar), was ‘No’. We left with the impression that De Robillard was at least prone to being a meticulous and fastidious man. This also meant he was an opponent to be reckoned with.

Despite our last assumption, we snooped around without much discretion. Gregory discovered a cracked basement window that, with a bit of luck, could be opened from the inside. So it was decided that Celine, who was the smallest of us all, would slip into the house whilst De Robillard went for his Tuesday walk. But when it came time, Celine objected wildly. The one next in line was I, but I would need to lose at least three kilos to accomplish the feat. This postponed the whole operation for exactly a month, during which my mother couldn’t understand why her nine year old suddenly wouldn’t eat rice puddings and crème caramel.

In the meantime there were a few significant sightings. As we spied on the house from my attic room, we caught the occasional movement behind the sheer net curtains. And on one occasion it was lifted from underneath, as if by a child or a dwarf…or possibly someone bound to a wheelchair. We were intrigued rather than assured by this development, as the story took on immense proportions in the minds of us children.

Then, through an event that later repeated several times, we seemed to establish some sort of communication with whoever was on the other side. In the evening a lamp would go on and off three times, to which we responded in the exact same fashion. We weren’t very well versed in Morse code, but generally took it as a cry for help.

Although I was still carving away muscle and fat from my already bony frame in order to break into the house, we decided we couldn’t wait any longer with our mission that by now had acquired the code name ‘Blue Light’.

Paul, the older brother of Pierre, was chosen to ring the bell while De Robillard was out. The rest of us (with the exception of Pierre, who was shadowing the suspect) stood behind a big black van that was parked across the street. Paul rang and knocked several times, even reverting to the improvised Morse code we were by now sufficient in, but there was no reply. He listened intently through the letterbox, but could only hear a whooshing sound coming from the stale air. All he could see was old furniture, gothic by the look of it, and an old armour that stood in a corner. For a moment he thought he heard someone’s faint whisper, but it could have just as easily been the wind. After a good fifteen minutes, we gave up and withdrew to my attic room. The windows across the street stood silent, any movement lost to the distance between us.

From then on, there would be no Morse code communication. All the curtains were still and, two days later, I woke up to find all the shutters had been closed and the cellar window boarded up. In our eyes, this meant that the fate of the woman trapped inside, and consequently that of Operation Blue Light, had been sealed.

We never saw De Robillard again, and eventually the Puma Detective Club fizzled out. There was little crime to monitor and, as we entered into the long-awaited phase of adolescence, our priorities underwent a significant shift.

It wasn’t until the long-abandoned house was put up for sale years later that there would be an epilogue to the story. The new owner, a wealthy property developer, had entirely different taste than that of his predecessor and decided to gut the house for a complete refurbishment. I am not sure of the complete ins and outs, as it all transpired during a family vacation to the Caribbean, but supposedly the body of ‘Madame de Robillard’ was found doubled up in a large suitcase, which had been hidden underneath some floorboards in the cellar. The details that subsequently emerged were sketchy at best, but it seemed Monsieur de Robillard had been married once, and still was at his timely death at seventy-eight at his new coastal residence close to Antibes in southern France. His wife and daughter were said to have left to Canada and postcards from them were found, which after further investigation appeared to have been sent by a nephew of De Robillard. No traces were found of his first wife and child, and they were eventually declared dead.

So was ‘Madame de Robillard’, who was in fact a Sophie du Motier, a distant descendant of the enigmatic and equally emblematic Marquis de Lafayette. A woman of means but poor health, she had seemingly been duped by De Robillard, who had funded his retirement on the French Rivera from her substantial wealth.

Both gratified and horrified to find that we’d been right all along those years ago, I suppose this revelation was the entry point to my dark interest in the criminal mind. I devoured literature about Jack the Ripper and his American contemporaries such as Dr Thomas Neill Cream, Dr H.H. Holmes and the Bloody Bender Family. I kept this interest to myself, though, hiding the books under my bed for fear of alarming my family over my often morbid and seemingly twisted curiosity.

So when, in 1996, the Paris Reaper made his entrée into Paris history, leaving a bloody trail in his wake, I was not only well versed in amateur criminology but had an appetite for the case’s every detail. Innocent as my curiosity was then, the murders and their aftermath later came to play a significant role in my life. But even back then the case had twisted the perceptions of my vulnerable sixteen-year-old mind.

As headless corpses were piling up in Paris, in such great quantity as had not been seen since the French Revolution, suspicion and rumours were rife. The police made a half-hearted attempt to keep the situation under control, but to the public everyone was a suspect. Or at least everyone who was white, male and able-bodied. My father fit this description to a T. And worse, he was a doctor who, as they always say in these cases, had “intimate knowledge of the human anatomy”. As the Terror continued (it was so called after the Terror instilled by Danton and Robespierre during the Revolution years), my father’s behaviour became more and more erratic. I would find him in his study in the middle of the night, scrutinising articles about the crimes and making hasty notes in his diary. Although I only witnessed this in 1998, the last year before the murders stopped, it made such a great impression that I started to wonder of his own possible involvement. As we would brush past each other in the corridors, an inexplicable dread would come over me. I would take to locking the bathroom door whilst brushing my teeth in case someone would sneak up from behind. During that period I also stopped showering with a shower curtain, allowing instead the water to flood the bathroom tiles. These paranoid suspicions still taint the memories of my father, as the association to Psycho’s Norman Bates continues to hold a firm grip on my sanity…