Gauloises Blue by Ruth Lacey 

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I.

Even now, Zoë can remember all the prices in the Melbourne milk bar that her parents owned. Paddle Pops were seven cents. Sunny Boys were three. Violet Crumbles and Smith’s Crinkle Cut chips both sold for five, the same price as the bus fare to her high school. In those days, two dollars a week could get you anything you wanted.

But Zoë didn’t want those things. She didn’t want suede patchwork hot pants like the other girls or white knee-high vinyl boots and boob tubes. At a very early age, she understood the words Pierre Cardin and Yves Saint-Laurent, and she only wanted things they made. While other girls were knitting scarves and crocheting bikinis, Zoë was working to save up money to buy things with French names on their labels. She believed that the only way out of the suburbs was to not be Greek – and not try to be Australian, either. When she heard her mother call people “mate,” she cringed.

*

It’s forty in the shade, and on the tram into Carlton to meet with her therapist, Zoë sweats all through her Nina Ricci shirt. She pulls her unruly hair back into a bun, stretching out the kinks into the kind of severity that only makes her eyes and mouth look bigger than they already are and her nose look like it was copied from a Greek statue. All the French clothes in the world will never make her look anything like she wishes she did.

An older woman boards the tram at St. Kilda Beach; she looks a bit like Zoë’s mother, overweight and weighed down by packages. Zoë stands up to give her a seat.

“Thanks, love,” she says, sitting down, and then, “Haven’t I seen you somewhere?”

Zoë feels again like someone’s winded her. Like she did that morning when the sound of the newspaper landing on the doorstep woke her and she realized it hadn’t been a nightmare. She peeled the plastic wrapping off the rolled-up paper and opened it, just to be sure. Minister’s Media Adviser Caught on Tape read the headline.

“I know where I’ve seen you, now,” the woman is saying over the rhythmic sound of the tram on its tracks. Zoë wishes she’d worn sunglasses. This isn’t some good looking guy who saw the video online and is going to flirt with her – she can handle that well enough. This is a woman who reminds her of her mother, who will do exactly what her mother did: make her feel ashamed.

“I know,” the woman persists. “You live in my building, don’t you? Yeah, that’s it. You play music all the time.”

“I’m terribly sorry about that,” Zoë says. Since losing her job, she’s had too much time at home during the day. “I hope I’m not disturbing you.”

“No, love, I like it. Especially the Latin stuff. Young people these days have such bad taste in music.”

Zoë’s in her early forties, but she’s pretty sure the woman just called her young.

 

II.

Michael’s on his way to pick up his twelve-year-old daughter for her first therapist’s appointment when he sees the car. He wasn’t planning on stopping, but the heat wave’s snarled up traffic on Acland Street and there’s a free parking spot. It’s a yellow Citroën 2CV, Deux Chevaux, ’63 model he reckons from the features: smooth bonnet, round lights, wheels only a little wider than a bicycle’s.

He gets out of his car and hopes that no one notices when he lets his hand caress the bonnet of the 2CV.

The thing is, Michael’s never been a car freak, just gone along with what he could afford. These days he drives a Volvo for the safety features. He and Janette chose it together, then upgraded last year with his promotion at the law firm. But it’s still a tank. The right choice, of course, like the house in Brighton flanked by garden, not an inner-city semi named for some dead king of England. What it lacks in charm is made up for by functionality and good wiring.

The first time he saw a 2CV he was a kid. It was a matchbox car he’d picked out for his fifth birthday with Grandpa Saul in a windy shop next to St. Kilda Beach. Everything was covered with a layer of salt, and Grandpa wiped the boxes with his sleeve so Michael could see through the plastic.

The first car Michael picked up was a Volkswagen, and Grandpa took it from his hand and put it back. “Morrie, what you got these for?” he called out to the shopkeeper, who shrugged. “Farshtinkener German car,” he spat. “Hitler’s design.”

Michael walked along the edge of shelves and took another one; it looked like it was moving through the plastic. “This one?” he asked, and Grandpa took it from him gently, turned it over in his hand. “André Citroën, Jewish boy,” he said and put it on the counter for Morrie to wrap in a brown paper bag.

He takes a last look at the 2CV, then feels in his pocket for a business card and leans it on the roll-back canvas roof, stretched tight enough to write on. “If you ever want to sell this car, call me,” he writes, and leaves it under the windscreen wiper.

*

The therapist’s office is in Carlton, opposite the university and next door to a small Italian café with tables on the sidewalk. The first thing Michael notices when he walks in is how it’s painted in shades of blue and green, with wind chimes in the doorway so that when people come in you get annoyed and then the colour scheme is meant to calm you.

“Daddy, I don’t understand why we have to be here,” his daughter Melanie says when they sit down. “I told you I don’t need therapy. If I need therapy for wanting to win all the time then so do you.”

“Honey, this is about you holding your breath and fainting all over the place when you don’t win. Imagine if I did that in the courtroom? It’s no way to live.”

The smell of coffee wafts into the waiting room from the café next door, and Michael has a sudden craving. He leaves Melanie on the leather sofa to wait her turn; when he opens the door it smashes the wind chimes, but he doesn’t see anyone cringe. On his way back in he carefully unfastens them from their hook in the ceiling and leaves them under a pile of Men’s Health magazines.

“They were annoying me too,” says the woman sitting next to Melanie. It’s a deep brown voice with no hard edges. Sometimes you can tell everything about a person just from how they sound; their looks are only confirmation.

Michael glances across at the woman to check out his theory, but he forgets it instantly. First off, she’s got her hair pulled back. Most women cover up their faces with hair, but she has swept it up in what appears to him to be an act of courage. And yet, it reveals everything about her, making her seem vulnerable.

He is so disoriented that he offers her his coffee; she smiles and thanks him. “I’ll go grab another one,” he says, and Melanie says, “Get something for me, Dad.”

Michael comes back with a drink in each hand, but Melanie’s not on sofa where he left her.

“You can go in, sir,” a voice from behind the front desk says, so he doesn’t get to linger.

The woman he gave the coffee to gets up to open the door for him and he’s suddenly conscious about his chin. He has a kind of fallen chin – otherwise he’s quite handsome – but the sight of a beautiful woman always reminds him.

He goes inside the therapist’s room and hands the hot chocolate to Melanie and then thinks it would be rude to drink in front of the therapist so he offers his double espresso. She’s blond and thin and looks too young to be a therapist.

“No thanks, I don’t do caffeine,” she says, and then: “I’m Gloria. I’ll call you when we’re done.” Firm but nice, like your favourite schoolteacher. Janette chose her, although she made it seem like a joint decision.

In the waiting room, he sits next to the woman and introduces himself. She says her name is Zoë, and he asks her what this therapy is all about.

“It’s a mind-body thing. She works on pressure points and meridians and chats to you, basically.”

He wants to ask Zoë what she’s here for but supposes it’s inappropriate, so he tells her about Melanie instead, and how she holds her breath when things don’t go her way.

“And what about you?” she asks.

“I don’t need a therapist,” he answers, and she just laughs and takes her magazine and keeps on reading.

“Zoë who?” he asks. He knows it’s probably out of place, but he wants to keep her attention. She looks up.

“Papadopoulos.”

“I know your name. Where would I know it from?”

“The papers,” she says, and looks back to her glossy pages.

*

Michael brings his daughter to the therapist each Thursday and he sees her changing. Janette says she can take her sometimes, but he argues with her. “You know I like to do things start to finish,” he says. Every time he walks in the door of the therapist’s, his heart beats faster hoping that Zoë will be there.

Zoë. He says her name like it’s a mantra, only without the surname – it’s a bit of a mouthful. He looks her up and finds a sex scandal in state government and reads all the details: the minister of something’s media adviser, closed-circuit cameras in Parliament House, hunky security guard, leaked online. He watches the video, although it’s pretty grainy. He waits for Thursdays.

Melanie is getting better, hasn’t held her breath at all for weeks. Michael’s getting worse, as if their lives are inversely proportional: like skinny people whose partners put on all the weight they lose. He’s bored and stressed-out at work; trying to get his name on the doorplate – Blake, Jones, Williams and Goldstein – doesn’t seem worth all those twelve-hour days. At home he’s distracted. He feels like he’s struggling against himself: the part that wants the Volvo and the one that wants the 2CV.

It’s true the Citroën is no classic beauty. It’s not a Maserati or a white MG. But the hood rolls back and you can feel the wind and see the stares. Deux Chevaux. He says its full name in the French original. He’s not sure why, but he feels as if it has more meaning.

 

III.

Zoë wakes up after dreaming of Paris, again, and then changes the day of her appointment with Gloria so she won’t have to sit next to that guy with the daughter who holds her breath. It isn’t that she doesn’t like him; he’s nice enough. She doesn’t even mind about the chin, the way it unexpectedly falls away when it seems like it’s about to go somewhere.

It’s how he looks at her. She knows that look well. He doesn’t want to chat and be her friend.

In this morning’s version of her Paris dream, Zoë is racing to catch a plane. It’s late, and public transport to Orly is slow and hard to understand. Eventually, she changes her ticket to a later flight and starts to swim.

She has never swum to Paris before in any of her dreams. She is not really a swimmer. At school carnivals Zoë was the one up on the high benches smoking a cigarette with her girlfriends and looking with disdain at all those sunburnt girls in Speedos.

She’s tried to figure out the Paris thing, to trace it back to where it started. The year she turned twelve, she decided when she grew up she would change her name to Françoise. “Papadopoulos?” they’d ask her when she handed in the forms. “Just Françoise. Like Madonna and Colette,” she’d say. At eighteen, though, she changed her mind. In Australia everyone but her seemed to dislike the French.

It obviously has not always been that way. At home when she was young they had a big Life picture book of France. “Everyone loves his own country best,” it said in the introduction, “but there are few civilised men who, asked to choose a second country, would not choose France.”

These days, people don’t understand the French thing. Even Gloria doesn’t really get it. “What about New York? Or London? Ever dreamed about them?” she keeps asking.

Now Zoë is forty-three, the same age Miss Jean Brodie was in her prime. In high school, Zoë and three other girls were chosen by their history teacher to audition for the play. Her teacher belonged to an amateur theatre group, and she was a kind of Miss Brodie herself, cultivating a following of girls who would be hip and political like she was.

Zoë can’t remember now which character she played. Was it Rose, who was famous for sex, or Sandy, who saw everything? Miss Brodie, of course, ended up alone, betrayed, and a supporter of Mussolini, who got those Italians so organized. She can’t recall what happened to the girls in the story – something disappointing and tragic.

Zoë doesn’t look her age. Her face has hardly any wrinkles, and she dyes her hair back to its original colour; on the packet it’s called mocha chocolate.

She will probably never have a child. Sometimes when she catches a reflection of herself she feels sad, as if her body has not served its true purpose.

It is definitely not her prime.

 

IV.

It’s Melanie’s next appointment with the therapist; Janette is meant to drop her off to meet him. Michael drives there straight from work without turning on his phone to check for messages.

“Your wife called,” the receptionist says when he comes in, and he resists the urge to say ‘She’s not my wife; we never married,’ like he used to when they were younger and trying to retain the myth that they’d rebelled.

“Melanie can’t make it today. Perhaps you’d like to take her appointment instead – I’ll have to charge you anyway. Zoë isn’t coming either,” she adds, “so you might as well,” and he wonders what she’s noticed, and if she’s the kind of woman who would let something slip to Janette.

Michael goes into the therapist’s room. He can’t remember her name.

“Melanie won’t be here today,” he says, “I’m here instead.”

The therapist is in her thirties, Michael guesses. He’s not averse to being touched by her. Right now he’s not averse to being touched by anyone, except a man. But it still makes him nervous: taking off his suit jacket and tie and shoes, lying on the table. She turns the lights down low and puts on music, whales swishing or dolphins, perhaps.

“Would you prefer something classical?” she asks.

“No, that’s OK.”

Her touch is light but he feels strangely safe beneath her hands and not aroused at all. He lets his eyes close. His mind goes blank and she starts talking, asking him simple questions he can answer in a word or two.

“Now,” she says, “I want you to imagine a place. Where you feel comfortable and safe. Relaxed.”

He tries to think but nothing comes to mind.

“Your house, a favourite beach, somewhere you went to as a child,” she suggests.

He tries to picture something but he can’t.

“What, nothing at all?” she asks.

“No.”

“You’ll have to work on that.”

*

That night Michael has a vivid dream, the first he’s had for years that he remembers. He’s walking along Acland Street and sees the Citroën 2CV. He checks the front door; it’s unlocked, and he looks around to see if anybody’s watching. Next to Café Scheherazade he sees his Grandpa Saul, sitting on a wooden bench. “Go on, Michael,” he says. “Get in.”

The next day at work he gets a phone call.

“G’day, is that Michael?” the man’s voice says.

“Yeah.”

“Look, mate, a few weeks ago I found this note with your number on my car. The little yellow job. The 2CV. I want to sell her. You still interested?”

Michael doesn’t hesitate or ask any of the questions that he knows he should.

“It’s a ‘63, right?”

“Yup.”

“With rego papers, everything? It’s running?”

“Sure, mate; she’s a beauty.”

“OK then, bring her over,” Michael says, and puts the phone down, but he can still hear through the speaker.

“You should have heard that dickhead on the phone,” the guy is saying. “Bloody yuppie. Didn’t even ask about the wipers.”

The windscreen wipers on Michael’s newly purchased 2CV are synchronised to the speedometer. He’d forgotten that detail of the ‘63 model. When the car speeds up or slows down, they do too. He becomes attuned to what the car is asking for. When it rains hard, he drives it fast so he can see.

It’s a bit like having a baby. You want it to get up and walk already or stop crying when you need to go somewhere. But the 2CV cannot go over fifty K’s an hour. The roll-back canvas roof has got a leak. He takes it to a Citroën specialist across the city, part of a whole world of French car enthusiasts with names like ‘aussiefrogs.’ The guy looks under the car, shaking his head and no doubt calculating how much he’ll rip him off for. Michael doesn’t care. When he picks the 2CV up later in the week it looks the same to him and drives the same as well, only they’ve fixed the leak.

 

V.

Zoë gets to Gloria’s in perfect time for her appointment on Friday afternoon. She walks right into the office and puts her bag down, takes her shoes off, and removes her watch and earrings.

“Contact lenses,” Gloria says. “Take them out.”

“Nice to see you too.”

Gloria is very straightforward for her profession. She doesn’t ask God to use her as a vessel for his powers or talk about karma. It’s one of the reasons Zoë likes coming here so much.

“Look for clues around you,” she tells Zoë when she’s on the massage table, eyes closed and in her hands.

“Are you giving me homework?” Zoë manages to ask her through her drug-like state. Gloria’s treatments are better than drugs, although more expensive.

“Looking for clues around you isn’t difficult. It’s just another way of seeing,” Gloria says gently. She never seems to take anything personally or get offended by her clients’ tone of voice. “It’s just heightened awareness.”

“What kind of things do you mean?”

“Like if there’s a coincidence. Or you feel like something’s going to happen and it does. The more tuned in you get, the more things you’ll see.”

*

On her way home in the tram, Zoë starts really looking at things, despite her skepticism. After all, she’s paying for advice. Between the university and Spencer Street, two of the people sitting opposite her move seats within a minute of sitting down; she must have looked at them a little too intently.

When she gets off at her tram stop on Barkly Street, she’s still looking at everything as if it’s new: the café on the corner, spilling out onto the pavement – it smells of spanakopita and moussaka like the kind her mother makes, mixed in with strong coffee and petrol fumes. Further along is the National Theatre with its big sign lit up in art-deco lettering along the side. A little way along there is a yellow car – a Beetle, maybe, but with bug-eyes sticking out – and then an old man crossing the street so slowly he looks drunk. The car is barely moving.

Then it hits him, and the whole scene suddenly speeds up. Zoë is running across the street to where the man is lying in between the white stripes of the zebra crossing. Someone runs out of the theatre building, too, and the driver has got out of his yellow bug-car.

“Zoë?” he says to her.

She cannot remember his name.

“We shouldn’t move him,” says the person from the theatre, a pretty twenty-something redhead all dressed in black, but the drunk man gets up by himself. “Let’s take him into the theatre,” the pretty girl says and the three of them help him across the road and in though the ornate double doors.  The girl, it turns out, works in the box office, and they crowd into her office and sit the man down in a big leather chair. The room has art-deco patterns moulded in the ceiling, and a window to the lobby with its sweeping staircase. It feels like they’ve walked into another age.

“You all right?” they ask him one after the other, making him check that all his limbs are functioning.

“Yeah, look I’m fine,” he tells them.

Zoë turns to the driver. “And what the fuck were you doing?” Michael, that’s right. That’s his name.

“I think I was looking at you,” he says.

The drunk man laughs and so does the pretty girl.

“Hey, you guys want some free tickets to Cats?” she asks them.

“No thanks,” says the drunk man.

“That’s a musical, isn’t it?” says Zoë.

“Yeah.”

“I hate musicals.”

“What about cinema?” The girl seems intent on giving them something. “Some old obscure French films are playing on the weekend.” She pulls out a program and Zoë looks it over. “Saturday, 6 p.m. Les Gauloises Bleues. 1968. Cannes Festival,” she reads aloud. “I love old French movies,” she smiles, and the pretty girl takes two tickets for Saturday evening and hands them to Michael and Zoë.

“I guess I’ll see you then,” Michael says to her as they get up to leave.

*

A young man goes into a shop in Paris to buy a packet of the title cigarettes, reads the by-line of the movie. There he meets a pretty shop girl with whom he falls in love and eventually marries. It was a foolish choice…

Zoë is sitting in the café on the corner, eating a plate of moussaka that’s better than anything her mother ever made. She calls over the waiter and asks for an espresso and a packet of Winfield Blues.

The movie is not even in black and white, Zoë realises, and never won a prize. She turns the film festival program over, and in the corner there’s a photo of the ChampsÉlysées. Below it is a travel agency advertising cheap flights to Paris. She tears out the ad and puts in it her wallet.

In her early sessions she talked to Gloria about what Paris might mean, despite the clear temptation to take it literally and just get on a plane. She had the money from her severance pay. It was twenty years since her last trip to Europe, and most of her time there was spent with relatives in Greece. She did remember Paris, though: the way it felt to see the Place de la Concorde appear, grand and imposing out of the winding streets. Notre-Dame along the Seine. Saint-Germain, where she first went to a real café, the kind where everything was bathed in gold and light. She practiced her high school French and people smiled at her and helped her find her way around. Even the street signs had style, and she had photographed an entrance to the Metro.

“Maybe,” she said to Gloria, “I should go there.”

“Why? The dreams are clearly not about Paris. It’s the symbolic place you’re struggling to get to before you can get on with your life. Paris represents something you need to do.”

Yeah yeah yeah, thought Zoë.

“But maybe I should go there anyway,” she said.

 

VI.

On Saturday evening, the night of the movie, Michael decides to avoid all of the half-truths he planned on telling Janette and just slip out. She’s in the kitchen ordering Chinese over the phone and both of her sisters are over, so he won’t be missed. He sticks his head in through the kitchen door to tell them he’ll be out for a bit.

“Oh great, can you pick up the takeaway, then?” Janette asks when he waves to her from the door.

“No, I won’t be back for dinner.”

“Why not?”

“I should be back by nine.”

“Where are you going?”

“To meet someone,” he answers, trying desperately to sound breezy and not to actually lie.

“Who?”

Why doesn’t he just tell Janette the story? It’s innocent enough – except he didn’t tell her yesterday when he got the tickets, and he’s never mentioned Zoë.

“It’s business,” he says finally, defeated.

“OK, be back by nine,” she says, waving him away.

Michael doesn’t think he’s ever lied to Janette until today. But even if this thing with Zoë doesn’t become anything illicit – he so likes that word, the way it sounds – then at least he can feel like it is. He might steal something, if the urge is left untended. Or worse, although he can’t think what that might be.

*

Michael walks into the foyer of the theatre, a throwback to another age. The stairway is wide and sweeps up to a gallery. The high ceiling has coloured, geometric shapes carved into it and lights to match.

“Art deco. Nineteen-twenties,” the woman next to him says. Michael looks up at her and smiles: the woman from the accident with the drunk bloke. “Georgina,” she says.

“Michael.”

“Yeah, I remember. Where’s your date, then?”

It’s 6:08 and Zoë hasn’t showed. He looks at Georgina again; she’s young, he thinks. Twenty-something. Dressed in black with orange hair she’s tied up in itself, somehow, so that the ringlets loosen down. Truth is, he didn’t notice her with Zoë there.

“I wouldn’t worry about missing the movie. It had bad reviews,” she tells him. “Anyway, you don’t look the type to enjoy reading subtitles.”

“I was kind of dreading it.”

He looks at his watch again. It’s ten past six and Georgina is still standing next to him in the foyer. “Hey, are you hungry?” he asks. “I know this great place just near here. But you must know the street.”

“No, I don’t,” she says, and he wonders if she means it or if she just wants him to take control. He doesn’t care which one it is.

“Just hang on one sec,” he says, and he takes a business card out of his wallet, writes “Zoë” on the back, and asks Georgina for sticky tape. He bites off a piece with his teeth and tapes the card onto the front door. If Zoë does turn up, he wants her to know that he was there.

They walk out of the theatre and cross the road beside the café with the too-thin people sitting in uncomfortable chairs outside.

“It’s kind of daggy where we’re going,” Michael says. “The first restaurant on this street. My grandfather used to take me here when I was a kid. It also had the first espresso machine in Melbourne. At least that’s what they always say.”

Michael figures he can withstand not being cool at this point in his life. Scheherazade is not the kind of place where he took girls when he was younger; it was full of old Polish Jews most of the time. But he has cravings for home-cooked food he can’t get anywhere else, not since his grandparents died.

 

VII.

Zoë’s running late, unsure if she wants Michael to be there or not. But she is somehow unable not to turn up at all. All the signs seem to be telling her that she should go.

She walks along Acland Street from the Esplanade end and stops outside Scheherazade for a moment because the smell is so good. It has a memory attached to it: something with fried onions and her first summer in high school.

She looks inside through the glass shopfront and sees Michael sitting at one of the round tables. Next to him is the girl with the red hair from the box office. Zoë smiles, glad that she decided to be late, but jealous that she’s been replaced so easily. Any woman seemed to do, and maybe that’s what she had been.

Then she remembers. It was a summer holiday road trip and her family stopped in Newcastle for hamburgers at the Parthenon Milk Bar. Inside the Parthenon, the booths were covered with red vinyl and after lunch she went to the counter to choose from the chocolates piled up in pyramids behind the glass. Caramel flowed out of them, and cherry liqueur, and Zoë dripped the filling all over her holiday clothes but nobody cared. She went outside to clean her shirt and there was a red sports car with real leather seats idling behind her parents’ beat-up van.

A tall dark man was at the wheel; he looked across at her and said, “Bonjour, mademoiselle. Your hair. She is lovely.”

“She?”

“But yes,” he said. “Objects can be just like people, n’est-ce pas?” And then he took a cigarette out of a blue packet and broke it in two. “Do you smoke?” he asked, offering one half while he lit the other.

Zoë is about to make a move from the shopfront, when a newspaper article sticky-taped inside the window catches her attention. It’s the story of how the café got its name – after a Paris nightclub where the owners met and began a romance after Second World War.

She looks up from the window and along the street. Right in her line of vision is a travel agency.

The universe is screaming at her.

glasses

Ruth Lacey

Ruth Lacey is a writer and visual artist. She grew up in Sydney, earned an Arts-Law degree from the University of Melbourne, and holds an MPhil in Creative Writing from the University of Glamorgan (now South Wales). Her short fiction has appeared in Litro Magazine, Fish Anthology, Carve Magazine, Overland, Verbsap, and other journals. She hasn’t won any competitions, but she’s been shortlisted for a few, including the 2020 Bridport Prize and 2017 Commonwealth Short Story Prize. Ruth lives in a small kibbutz with a lovely view of Lake Kinneret.

You can discover more about Ruth at www.ruthlacey.net

Feature artwork by Ruth Lacey.

pencil


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