It was hot. So hot that when I cycled to work through the city, the heat bounced off the cars and made me dizzy. So hot that I lay naked on top of my bed sheets with the windows flung open, smoking cigarettes and looking out at the rooftops. My feet tanned in stripes through my sandals. Dirt from the streets made its way through my soles and stuck to the bottoms of my feet.
I was living in Paris. I had spent the first two months sleeping in an attic room without a shower, where cockroaches crawled under my pillow and an old lady banged on my door in the middle of the night, and pissed in a puddle on our shared bathroom floor. The toilet didn’t flush properly and she would run screaming down the corridor if I left a piece of tissue floating in it. She used to stack wooden ladders outside of my room, so that every time I wanted to leave the building I had to clamber between the rungs. I washed at the swimming pool down the road, or with a pan full of cold water at my sink. I survived by kidding myself that all of this was romantic. I hated Hemingway and Miller and the self-conscious ex-pat legacy they had written onto the city, but at the same time I was trapped somewhere within it.
With the arrival of spring and an array of cherry blossoms, I moved into a new sunny studio, paneled in wood like a log cabin. An actor with a moped and a leather jacket with pockets full of weed and melodrama that I was seeing for a short time named it, ‘Le Chalet Dans Les Montagnes’, which in a way, it was. I made coffee every morning in a silver perculator and drank it looking down onto Rue Oberkampf from my window, nestled among grey slate peaks. Most days I went running around Parc des Buttes-Chaumont and the sunlight made rainbows in the sprinklers. I worked as a nanny and cycled around the city with a bag full of bubbles and colouring books, dried flowers crushed between the pages. I made new friends and we drank beers and shared cigarettes under red lights on streetside cafes. My pale skin turned a golden brown and I grew into a particular kind of happiness.
One Sunday evening, I cycled to the library to take out some books. Like most places in Paris on a Sunday, the library was closed. It was situated on a street adjacent to the Eiffel Tower, and I had some books with me so decided to sit in the grass on the Champ de Mars for a while and do some writing. I spread out my notebooks and listened to some girls on a blanket next to me having a conversation. They slipped effortlessly between French and English, and I longed for the day when I would be able to feel whole in both languages, the way they did.
A boy with bare feet and a MacBook tucked under his arm wandered through the grass and sat down a short distance away. I glanced at him out of the corner of my eye, admiring his dark curls and the ease with which he seemed to exist in his own body. I vaguely wondered what he was typing.
I slipped on my sandals and stood up to leave, planning on cycling back to my chalet for an evening of reading and lentils. The boy came over to me and started speaking in accented English.
‘Are you a writer?’ He asked.
‘Sort of,’ I replied, chastising myself in my head for sounding so unconvincing. He smiled.
‘I’m a sort of writer, too.’ We chatted for a little while as we walked through the park. He told me that his name was Jacques, and that he was a painter. He said that he was particularly interested in the exhibiting of notebooks as an artistic medium, and that he had recently devised a performance piece where he read from his own journals.
‘My studio is just around the corner,’ he said. ‘I can show it to you, if you like.’
‘Okay.’ I said, and followed him along the street.
We walked through a traditional Parisian courtyard and up two flights of stairs to his atelier. There was a tractor tyre propped up outside in the corridor, and a rectangular piece of wood painted red. There was a single mattress in the corner and endless piles of books. Photocopies of his notebooks were tacked to the walls and several wet paintings were hung around the room. He had cleared a large space by the window for painting, and had covered a section of the floor in masking tape. He lit some incense, turned on his radio, gave me a glass of water and we sat on the floor.
We talked about poetry and art and he showed me his notebooks, which were neat and ordered. I showed him mine, which were torn and covered in doodles. Every time he wanted to illustrate a point he was making, he jumped up and rummaged in one of the stacks of books until he found what he was looking for, and flipped through it until he found a quote, and read it to me in French.
My skin was clammy beneath my too-big vintage dress. I had stopped wearing bras in the sticky summer heat. I stood at the window and looked out onto Rue du Champ de Mars, at all the people passing by, unaware of us up there above them. Jacques moved over to me and twisted the hot rope of my hair up away from my neck. We kissed hungrily and within moments we were both naked. We had sex for hours on his mattress, pausing to share our ideas and our lives. He grunted a lot like a small bear. Sweat ran down our bodies. It got dark outside as we lay quietly and listened to the radio. I convinced myself that it was raining outside.
I left his studio at midnight and he walked me to my bike.
‘Ah, yes,’ he said seriously, as I skipped down his stairs.
‘You have the face of an artist.’ I cycled home along the river without wearing any knickers, laughing out loud at the absurdity of it all.
I visited the studio a few more times after that. The heat persisted and we shared cold beers sitting on the floor, thinking about things and kissing. In the mornings he made coffee in a mug emblazoned with the words ‘I Heart Spreadsheets’. He told me that he used to work in finance, and gave it all up to be an artist. He was self-educated, and his books were marked with post-it notes and pencil drawings. He had torn the covers from paperbacks and stuck them up in his kitchenette, but the mug was the part I liked the best. He had an account at the boulangerie downstairs, and would go out in the mornings to pick up hot croissants and pain au chocolat.
He showed me his latest project on his computer, which was to take abandoned buildings around France and paint them in block primary colours.
‘Let me show you the first one I did.’ He said, retrieving a picture from a file on his computer. It was Serge Gainsbourg’s old house, which was usually covered in graffiti. Jacques had gone out in the middle of the night and painted the whole thing black. I swallowed. A few months prior to my meeting with Jacques, my ex-boyfriend had come to Paris and we had spent the weekend together, drunk on each other in the strange pink confusion that often comes with heartbreak. He loved Gainsbourg, and often went to visit the empty house when he was in Paris. He was disappointed when we got there.
‘Oh,’ he said. ‘Its usually more colourful than this.’ I took a photo of him standing outside of it anyway, with my disposable camera. Months later, I got the pictures developed and felt validated by such serendipity.
One evening, Jacques and I were having sex when the condom split. This had happened to me many times before and I wasn’t too worried, but Jacques was.
‘We need to go to a pharmacy right away.’ He said. His anxiety made my nerves jangle, so we got up and made our way into the muggy night. The only pharmacy that was open all night was at the back of a book shop on Le Champs Elysses. I felt small and vulnerable under the bright lights. My bleached hair seemed too-white against my sun-tanned skin. Jacques flicked through stray books as we made our way to the counter at the back of the shop. He bought a cookie for himself and a miniature bottle of water for me.
‘It’s okay,’ he said, ‘this is material.’ I groaned inwardly.
We crossed back over the river, and I pointed out the crane positioned in front of the Eiffel Tower, like a smaller and less attractive sibling.
‘La même chose.’ I murmured.
‘You can speak French.’ He noted.
‘Yes.’ I admitted. ‘I just get nervous, sometimes.’
I left Paris a couple of weeks later, and never saw Jacques again. I went to stay with my mum for a month to focus on my writing. She had recently moved to Bishop Auckland, a small town in County Durham. Her new house was spacious, and after months of sleeping on a fold-out bed and brushing my teeth in the shower, I felt like I had room to breathe. The high street in the town looked sad and tired, but after the grandeur of Paris, the despondency seemed grounding. My mum looked after me and bought me some new clothes and took me for a haircut. What had seemed fitting in France seemed garish and out of place here, among the pawn shops and the pubs.
My period was late, and I began to feel a little bit worried. I invented a scenario in my head in which I had Jacques’ baby and my child lived a fatherless existence, aware only that they were a product of an absent artist and a hot summer in Paris.
I walked to Asda and bought a pregnancy test. I didn’t want to do it at my mum’s house, in case she saw the empty packaging in the bin. I didn’t have any money in my bank account and the pregnancy test tipped me over the end of my £2000 overdraft limit. I sighed.
I went into the customer toilets and opened the box with jittering hands. Someone had left a pair of muddy Ugg boots by the sanitary bin. Old ladies and young children clattered around outside of the door. I sat on the toilet seat with my knickers around my knees, waiting for the blue line to appear. I thought of coffee on rooftops, of beers by the canal and cycling along the Seine with the sun on my skin.
Someone banged on the door.
‘Can you hurry up, pet?’ came a voice.
I looked down at the little window. One line. Not pregnant.
I blew out a long breath in relief and put the test into the bin. I collected my belongings and looked at my face in the mirror, pale under the fluorescent toilet lights. I pictured Jacques painting in his studio as I made my way back along the high street. A group of teenage boys in tracksuits bristled as I passed them.
‘I’d fuck her, if she wasn’t wearing a curtain!’ one of them shouted when I was a safe distance away. I remembered the small crane in front of the Eiffel Tower, and wondered if it was still there.
‘La même chose.’ I said to myself under my breath. I called into the newsagents on the corner of my mum’s street and bought a pint of milk, so that we could have a cup of tea together when she got home from work.