2013 STORGY SHORT STORY COMPETITION SHORTLIST
E. P. Henderson
“I am going to have an affair.”
Helen speaks the words into the mirror, softly, so that Brian doesn’t hear. The mirror seems to approve. It pouts on the word “going”. She likes that. She tries the French, to see if it sounds sexier.
“Je viendrai avoir une affaire.”
It’s probably bad French, but still …une. Ooh. Just one. Only a little affair. More of a last fling, really, before the wedding. Certainly not a one-night stand, unless a one-night stand can last fifteen years. An affair of the heart, really: une affaire du coeur. She thinks about Parisian rooftops gilded by evening sunlight: d’orée par le soleil. She hears the bedroom door creak as Brian stumps towards the bathroom, and she squirts toothpaste onto her brush, starts scrubbing away. He idles impatiently on the squeaky floorboards outside. When she emerges, guiltily, he checks a non-existent watch and raises an eyebrow.
“Sorry,” she says. As she closes the bedroom door behind her, she drops the green towelling dressing-gown she’s been swaddled in, and stretches luxuriantly towards the ceiling.
“Une affaire,” she whispers to herself, and grins.
The last time she was in Paris it had been for pleasure, not business, with her unsuitable gap-year boyfriend. They’d met in Goa and travelled back together, up through Russia and Turkey, taking in the sights, reading one another bits of classic novels they found too boring to manage on their own. Terry was his name, which was unsuitable for a start. He was American, and a sportsman, which was even worse – he’d rowed for his college, or state, or something, and had told her this over bonfire beers during a full-moon festival, expecting her to be impressed. But he read War and Peace in funny voices, and they laughed together in their own foreign language – sometimes, if they were lucky, in their own carriage – and curled up and drowsed on the endless trains.
She’d often daydreamed of tracing their route back down the continent, from the Eurostar terminal at St Pancras to Brussels and Paris, then south through France and Italy by many small odd trains, to Madrid; and further, deeper, out of the safety of Europe into the familiar strangeness of Asia. The Orient Express had always fascinated her: the name reverberates in her head with romance and murder. She’d tried to get Brian to come with her, when they were first together; but he’d refused. Perhaps it had been too soon. After seven years, of course, it was too late. Brian didn’t really do romantic journeys.
“What’s the point?” he’d asked, shrugging. “It’s much quicker to fly.”
She and Terry had been on the last dregs of their money when they’d finally fetched up in Paris, fifteen years ago. They’d had just enough to rent a room for two in a picturesque little youth-hostel in the shadow of the Sacré-Coeur. It was late when they dragged themselves in from the Gare du Nord, exhausted and lubricious with sweat and Métro-grime. The only room available was on the fourth floor. All she heard down the corridor when he swung their door open was Terry’s booming sportsman’s laugh.
“C’mere, Hels,” he said, “Look what they’ve given us!”
She stumbled up and ducked under his pointing arm. He let it fall weighty on her shoulder. The room was devoid of furniture and fittings, except for a porcelain washstand in the corner, a tiny desk and chair, and a rickety metal-framed bunk-bed.
“Guess it’s the floor tonight, huh?”
And it had been. They’d showered in turn, gone out for a cheap dinner, then picked up some non-vintage champagne from a corner-shop and took it back to the hostel. The only glasses were thin disposable plastic ones from the water-cooler. They chatted to a Canadian girl and her German boyfriend, over on a University break, and gave them a glass each. Nevertheless, when they swayed upstairs to their attic room, they were both a little drunk.
Terry pulled the mattress off each bed onto the floor and billowed the thin bedsheet over this makeshift lovenest like a tablecloth. She collapsed onto it as soon as the sheet settled, bouncing and giggling. He dived down next to her, shirt already half off.
The next morning, a Monday, they were woken at seven by the pungent morning sunshine and the shrieks of schoolchildren. They’d forgotten to close the shutters.
He’d stayed on in Paris and they’d kept in touch, on and off; holiday rendezvous, sometimes as two halves of a pair of couples, sometimes, nostalgically, tête-à-tête. He made flying visits to London, and she stopped off on her way somewhere else: Venice, Lille, Rome, Seville, Athens, always just passing through. In Paris, he was Thierry and she was Hélène: a private joke which had survived between them, in one context only, like an endangered plant. Sometimes they slept together in his eaves studio, then his tall-windowed apartment, then the chic little house that was still too big for him: sometimes they did not. But she always felt at home in Paris, with him.
He eventually became a translator: what else? He did magazine articles, and the subtitles for version-originale films. He still rowed every Sunday on the Seine. He’d found himself a woman, a Frenchwoman, a high-class chiropodist, all eau-de-toilette and cashmere and manners so charming they were almost offensive. Agnès, Anne-yes, like Thierry, so much better in French. And Helen had found Brian, who was exactly the same in any language, and perhaps that was why she’d liked him.
But then, six months ago, Terry and Agnès had split up, pretty messily, according to him. And then work wanted her to visit the French office to welcome the staff and make sure the set-up was going well. They offered to send the new trainee with her to translate, but she insisted that she’d find her own, thinking of Terry. No need to impose on his spare room this time: work would pay for the hotel, and dinner, and drinks. Everything else worth having in Paris, the weather, the walks, the museums, and Terry himself, would be gratuit.
Ten years ago they had clambered the steep flat steps from their youth-hostel up towards the white spire of Sacré-Coeur, panting, sweating in the hot night, resting frequently. Whenever she tried to sit down and rest he yanked her upright by brute force, till she dangled from his arm like a puppet. He pushed her on and she complained enjoyably. It was ten at night by the time they reached the church at the top. They’d thought it would be closed, but the cobbles in front were thronged with people and the cathedral itself lit up like a department-store. They wandered in, feeling inappropriate in shorts and t-shirts, and split at the nave, to explore.
Between the massive, smooth stone pillars, tall as redwoods, she caught his long pale figure, silhouetted over a pyramid of tea-lights which burned, for fifty centimes each, in memory of the dead. She watched him light one and place it solemnly into the black iron bracket. It made her feel estranged from him, suddenly chilly. He’d never mentioned being Catholic, or even religious. Perhaps it was just what one did. She dropped in a handful of change and lit three and, since she did not believe in prayer, made a wish on each. Then she saw him, across the twilit belly of the church, looking around for her, and quickly moved away.
This time they meet somewhere their student selves could never have afforded: an elegant bar-restaurant near the Jardin Luxembourg called Le Fumeur. He suggests it. The Smoker: typical. She remembers his Gauloises Blondes, originally an affectation, now a habit.
It’s raining passionately when she emerges from the Métro, and she half-stumbles, half-splashes to the restaurant in her suede summer heels, a newspaper sheltering her head. In the doorway she shakes herself like a dog, combs her short brown hair with her fingertips, wipes the panda mascara from beneath her eyes and looks around for him. They kiss three times, in the French fashion, and draw back to examine one another. She’s glad of the mess, the rain: it takes the strange edge off meeting again. How long has it been? Four years? Five? He is, now, effortlessly French. He’s grown into himself, a foreign plant gone native. She knows that however chic and sleek she is (or was, before she got rained on), she’s still a tourist. It doesn’t matter, of course. It never did.
It’s a dark, polished place: the waiters are just attentive enough, the barmen handsome, and the gleaming walnut bar (so the menu says) was imported from a Chicago speakeasy in 1934. They drink cocktails with American names and order steak-frites. Blue-rare for her, well-done for him: one of his few remaining Americanisms. They talk about work, and films, and books. She asks him if he ever finished reading War and Peace. He asks her if she ever went on the Orient Express. The answer, in both cases, is no.
When she walks self-consciously past the tables of serious, middle-aged men on her way to the Ladies’, she knows she is a little drunk. Her reflection in the long mirrors is elegant, beautiful, like a French film-star’s.
“Je voudrais une affaire,” she whispers to it, and laughs.
When he suggests coffee, she puts her hand over his (the ring of paler skin on her engagement finger gleaming in the candlelight) and proposes champagne instead.
“All right,” he says, puzzled and pleased, taking a beat, reassessing, “champagne.” Lust flares and billows inside her as the waiter delivers the dripping bucket.
“So,” Terry says, lifting his glass. “What are we celebrating, apart from your promotion?”
She drops her eyes and looks back up into his, black and gold in the candlelight.
“You first,” she says.
“Well, I guess I can think of something.”
She smiles encouragingly.
“Agnès and I – well, she called me today. She wants to come back. We’re gonna give it another try. Great, huh?” He raises his champagne triumphantly. His grinning teeth glitter like glass.
She smiles even harder, unable to press her lips back together, nodding like a backseat dog. She lifts her flute and clinks.
It’s like a book you realise only at the end you have read before, she thinks on the train home. Of course they weren’t going to sleep together. Of course he’d got back with Agnès. Of course she would be cheated of her final fling, dumped in favour of an Estée Lauder chiropodist. She tears her brioche with unnecessary force. A fucking chiropodist.
She finds her engagement diamond in her makeup-bag and fits it back on at Dover, as they emerge into the wet English light. She’s told Brian to meet her at the station: he’ll certainly notice if it’s missing. He likes her to flash it around: as he always jokes, it cost him enough. She hardly looks out of the window as the train glides into St Pancras. Duty Free, a pair of shoplets scooped out of a wall, had passed back in Paris: she hasn’t even that to look forward to. She steps off the train into hard afternoon brightness and shopping noise, into a great airy bubble of a place she feels she’s never seen before, a long, gleaming tunnel to nowhere. There’s no sign of Brian. Ugly English voices surround her, pasty English people push past her, stamping their clumsy paths to somewhere they don’t want to be and are already late for.
The money is wrong. The language is wrong. Even the accents are all wrong. Helen flees to the public toilets, which flush incomprehensibly and smell foreign. She only has Eurocents for the attendant, who rolls her eyes and sighs. Helen’s face in the mirror is strange and unattractive. The ring on her finger looks like a fake. The middle-aged anglaise next to her flinches and edges away when she hears Helen mutter to herself.
Helen takes no notice. She watches her lips in the mirror, moving wrong, speaking in broken English.
“I want to go home,” she says, “I want to go home.”
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