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Since arriving in Paris, I had taken to long and sulking walks along the left bank of the Seine, from Trocadéro to Concorde and back. I liked the sturdiness of the cobbled path moulded to the lilting curves of the Seine, and the fact that I was always alone there. Therapy would have been more conventional, but isolation in times of crisis has always brought me a masochistic satisfaction.
The story begins with a journey; a kilogram of fromage blanc crossing the distance from my hands to the supermarket floor. It was my new local. The bucket smashed wide and obligingly open, coating my shoes and those of the man standing next to me. A distracting helix of hair fell across his forehead as he looked down at his feet, and then back to me in disbelief.
“I’m so sorry! Let me clean it up.”
The beautiful yoghurt-coated man shouted something in French to the cashier and there was a panic-inducing unfamiliarity in his words and gesticulations. People turned to look. A disquieted muttering arose. I picked out the word ”touriste” among the man’s fountain of angry inflections, and decided the best course of action was to leave the shop and never return.
Later that day I walked further along the Seine than usual, propelled by hatred. I hated the yoghurt manufacturer because their cartons were flimsy. That man, because I’d have liked to shout at a stranger for ruining my shoes, and it happened the wrong way round. My ex-boyfriend Adam, because he consumed my consciousness like a parasite. Most of all, I hated myself because I had become pathetic and incapable since he left, and I didn’t know how to move on.
I was drawn out of the reverie by a throaty, beer-drinking sort of voice.
“Bonjour! Vous voulez un café, Madame?’’ It said.
He was a cartoonish man with hedge-like eyebrows and a round peaked cap jammed onto his head that seemed to squash him from the top down, like an empty can. There was a coffee cart; a metal chassis housing a jumble of coffee-making paraphernalia stuck inexplicably to the back of a bicycle.
Before I could decline his offer, he said something of which I caught nothing but the cheeriness of the tone, and I accepted the hot cardboard cup pressed into my hand. There came an alarming toothless grin and a cupped palm thrust forward. I dropped a coin into the hand, thanked him, though I wasn’t sure what for, and hurried off, indignant, disarmed, and mentally underlining “can’t speak French“ as another cause for self-hatred.
Days slid by. Parisians seemed unimpressed or irritated by my presence in their city, and I revelled in it. That my social ejection was self-imposed was irrelevant; the past was bleak, the present desolate, and I was free to pity myself. I ate sporadically, declined calls from my mother, and went full days speaking only to myself. It had been two months since Adam left and eight years since we met, and I had decided to be who I was without him.
One afternoon a week or so after the yoghurt incident I found myself back at the river, embroiled in my habitual disdain for the world. Officially, I blamed the stress of my unreasonable freelance illustration clients, although an astute observer might have noted a lack of personal care and human interaction as a factor. Over the past two months, disregard for the components of functional life had become part of my routine.
I had forgotten about the coffee man.
“Bonjour!” He cried as I rounded the bend in which he nestled.
I kept my eyes on the paving stones while he nevertheless busied himself with the coffee cart. I nearly got away.
“Madame! Your coffee!”
I stopped, resigned, just beyond the bike. “Café Gustave“ read the metal exterior, which judging by the paintwork was the handiwork of Gustave himself. He said something unintelligible and stood up, his plentiful gut waging war on the buckle of a threadbare belt.
I sighed. “Sorry, I’m in a rush,” I tried in French, and went to walk on.
“But where are you going?”
Enthusiasm compensated for the non-sequiturs of the ensuing exchange. Once Gustave discovered that I was English and short of an explanation for my purported rush, I was not permitted to leave until I had borne witness to his “accent anglais.“ He took me obligingly by the shoulders and stationed me in front of the cart, and I watched in dazed amazement as he took a deep breath, doffed his cap, shouted “good morning!” and continued in breathy-sounding French that I took to be a celebration rather than a mockery of the English accent.
“Then, I do Chinois!“ He declared in English.
I felt, for the first time in a long time, that my attention was valued. The feeling kept me rooted, and disintegrated my patient bafflement into shameless participation. He egged me on – my impression of a French accent was rewarded with cries of glee and chubby-handed applause. After ten minutes or so, I found myself seized by an urge to claw back some dignity. Fixing my mouth into a precarious line, I told him firmly, “I really should be off now.” But the upturned moon of Gustave’s face gazed imploringly into mine and, after a pause, gave a burbling mimicry of what he’d heard – “abebushubegofnow” – which sent us both back over the precipice. When I finally wiped the moistness from my eyes and continued my walk I gave him two euros for my coffee, and there was a comforting solid feeling in my stomach.
I buried myself for a few days in the offbeat rhythm of my work. I went out once to a restaurant and had pâtes à la truffe under the amber heat lamps of the terrasse. I practised my order over and over in my head and then spoke in English when the waiter came to my table. I tried to pick out words from the other diners’ murmured exchanges as I ate, understanding nothing.
The next time I went to the river, Gustave was perched like a merry frog behind the coffee cart. After my failed attempt to communicate a preference for milky coffee, he took it upon himself to fix what he obviously considered a grave lack of knowledge. When I left, the singular concept of coffee had resolved into a complex system of nomenclature: espresso, déca, noisette, allongé, café crème. Gustave noted them with diagrams on a scrap of paper.
“Keep safe,” he said solemnly.
Armed with this new information I ordered a café crème from the place beneath my apartment window, and felt a warm glow of something like satisfaction at the exchange. It was extinguished when I caught sight of the curly-haired man from the supermarket incident across the street. I hid my face behind the rim of my cup. When he had passed, I fixed my eyes on the newspaper abandoned on the rickety round table. My mind wandered, wondering how one says in French: “I’m so sorry about your shoes, but let me sort it out. Come with me and I’ll buy you a new pair.“
Months went by. Gustave’s scrap of paper became a notebook, its scribbled and fop-eared pages a diary of the dipping of my toes into Paris. Learning French was a project; a marker of time passed, a parameter of progress away from a life I no longer wanted. He sometimes asked me about my life, distant though it seemed from the bank of the river. He told me I worked too much, and I replied that he didn’t work enough. Sometimes I slid a self-conscious new phrase into my clunky dialogue. New expressions, especially slang, flumped awkwardly out of my mouth the first time.
“Bravo, ma fille,” he would say with an approving smile.
By the first gnawing of frost at the edges of the river, I ordered at restaurants without a script, and strangers’ dinner-time conversations were resolving from a clatter of syllables into familiar phrases that I had magpied for my notebook. The more French I learned, the more important and the less insane Gustave became. He filled the gap I had felt when I arrived in Paris beneath my cloak of misery. He had a hooting, guffawing laugh especially for when I fumbled a pronunciation. I was having problems with the two French sounds in tu and vous. No matter how many times Gustave repeated them, I heard a muffled “oo“ that refused to become two separate noises. He had picked up some of my frustrated English inflections.
“Bloodiell,” he cackled, copying me.
“Bloody hell. With a ‘h’.”
His effort to exhale into the H became a chuckle and then a wheeze, and it had an infectious quality, the way his fat little cheeks would puff up and his eyes would crinkle into crescents, and I would often end up doubled over on my fold-up stool with the giggles, my empty cardboard cup hanging limply from one hand.
The insularity of our place by the river had a magical quality. We were two small people watching the slow cut and roll of a great body of water, the constraints of adult conversation superfluous. One sunlit morning I told him haltingly about Adam, and how I came to Paris to get away. As I spoke, the words felt less heavy than I expected. The facts were still ugly, but their relevance to my life was diminished. I perceived for the first time the chasm that had opened between myself and the person he left.
“Why are you still thinking about it?” Gustave said. “Don’t you have a new life by now?”
“Not really,” I replied.
“But your friends?”
“I’ve got you,” I said, and saw how small I had kept my world, how controlled.
“I must be lucky.” He smiled, not to me but to himself, and seemed weary. He didn’t speak for a while after that, lost in thought.
The next time I went to see him, he was gone. I searched for a month, and then gave up.
Four years later
We were walking across Pont des Arts as we sometimes did on Sundays. We were interrupting each other in our amicable way with plans for a dinner the following weekend when my mother would arrive from England to meet her first grandchild. Théo was carrying her in his favourite position facing out against his chest, “so she can look around,“ though I’d told him her eyes couldn’t see that far yet. We stopped near the end of bridge for the view. A perfect curl fell across Théo’s forehead as he crooked his neck to murmur in French into her tiny ear and point out the buildings across the river.
The next moment was chance, or fate. I looked absently down from the bridge at the cobbled path of the bank, and there he was. Théo must have felt me stiffen at the pang to my heart.
“Someone I knew. When I moved here.”
“Before or after our first date?” He was joking, unaware, and I smiled at the memory. It had been to a shoe shop at the end of my road. Our road, as I had discovered soon after. I had never spoken to Théo about Gustave. In certain lights my memories of that time had started to look more like dreams.
Then Gustave looked up and saw me. A wave of surprise passed across his face, and then a slow smile softened the familiar leather of his features.
“Do you want to go down?” Théo asked.
I didn’t. Those crinkled crescents were full of pride, healing a wound of resentment I still felt for what I had mistaken as abandonment. Standing on that bridge, I understood his strange wisdom, and the gift he had given in pushing me away from the river and into the rest of the world.