The Notre Dame bells awoke me at nine, such a complete relief from being disturbed at around 8am every morning, except one day, always a Sunday, by the loud demolition work in London (a local sorting office being gutted near my home only the listed outside to be preserved whist the interior is caved in, requiring hour after hour of loud machine damage day after day)... I tried to count but wondered if I had missed the first few peels. I lay there perhaps for an hour after that, writing, and reflecting on how this experience of being woken by the sonorous, timeless sound of the bells, must be carried with me, within me, so when the demolition work starts off every morning I shall have the memory of an alternative, and some hope of resilience in the face of the urban nightmare of building destruction.
The night before, I had slept without a single disturbance. No adolescent buzzing at the intercom, keys forgotten, or takeaway food delivery summoned by one of the children or anything else by way of rupture to the quietude. No gangs of friends or child awaking in the night and clattering around the galley kitchen leaving that kind of disorder you view with that ambiguous, 'well, at least they can cook, they just need to learn to clear away now,' kind of feeling as you set about restoring the place to its former state. Anyway, I had not slept so soundly as that for many years.
That morning I wrote for about an hour. And once I had written the entry (each one is headed with the time of day unless I did not know what time it was, in which case I had to guess) I dressed, brushed my teeth with the Colgate I had remembered to bring, teeth brushing, the one thing I do with vigilance and frequency, ate nothing and wandered around to the bookstore, creaking up the narrow stairs and playing the piano for a while, a few pieces from an Associated Board Grade Three collection on the top of the piano with a slew of other music... I shuffled through, then hesitantly played a rather nostalgic rendition of a Grade Three piece I remember playing as a child at my father's house, when when the lid had not been locked, that is, with the little well hidden key (mentioning no names in case of reprisal but it was not my father who did this), my frequent arpeggio practice perhaps tiresome, I wasn't sure as the piano-locking was never explained. I turned round then on the stool, and met 'Sandy', presently based in Hungary, her son in China with his father whilst she teaches and travels in Europe.
'Did you live here?' she asked. 'Yes, I stayed on this bench here, where I am sitting now,' I said. 'It's lovely to be here again, in a place once my home.'
The map-sketch of the walk to Montparnasse
Outside the bookstore
Until that point and I had consumed nothing, so decided to order three 'tranches' of toast with some salmon fumé near the Musée de Cluny with some parsley sprinkled on and then coffee and croissant at a café called Le Sun Café on Rue de la Sorbonne, glad for this one euro offering. I then made my way, stopping briefly in the Place de la Sorbonne...
At the café beside the bookstore drinking home-made lemonade with my French friend (from the ride-share) she asks me about the book I was writing and I said, 'The book is called Forty-eight Hours in Paris, and I happen to be forty-eight and I am writing a diary entry every hour and trying to recall something that happened for every year of my life as I wander round and memories of the past are triggered...' She leafs through. We talk for around two hours then decide to leave. 'Shall we go?' we say, and then we cross the bridges to Le Marais. Numbers and formula, structuring devices and constraints seem secure and grounding, and I rely on them I think to curtail the anxiety of too much choice, although later I often abandon the criteria which were the starting point.
She left me to continue alone without confidante then except for my diary, as she disappeared into the Metro station.
I enter a church, the Church of St Gervais, not religious yet taken up with reflections on my Catholic stage, I won't (for purposes of concision) dwell upon here. How strange, anyway, to leave the Church so far behind me and avoid attending mass as if taking the eucharist is the sin instead of not, and yet feel almost nostalgic for the aesthetics and the liturgy and the refuge from the outside world. In the church there is a statue, Notre Dame de Bonne Déliverance, apparently found in a house at 22, Rue de Roi de Sicile, on the night of Pentecost, 1528, the head of the madonna and the infant damaged by a 'fanatic Huguenot', says a booklet on the church history, Francis I arranging a procession to bring her to St Gervais for restoration and display. That day I became almost obsessive about historical details, however random and apparently irrelevant, a distraction of a kind, and every distraction is a wanted tangent away from myself, and away from the unfinished memoir that lies unfinished still in London, that third of a million words across three volumes, not yet properly ordered or checked... away, crucially from the self I no longer liked, had never liked all that much, and could forget about with a constant flux of new historical facts to somehow wonder at and patch together. It seemed a meaningless kind of activity, like a jigsaw of a kind, but then different as there was no picture on a lid I was following and this was about a collage of the random, and a path back, in a way, through different stages, but then out through all these doors, forward as they swung back behind me leaving me not turning back, but continuing as if on some pre-laid out trail.
Notre Dame de la Bonne Déliverance
After the church, the street is a blast of light again. I don't know where I am heading and have no plans, but dive soon into a vintage clothes store on the corner of Rue de Roi de Siçile, the door open onto rows of stacked felt trilbies, and racks of knee length ball gowns, voluminous taffeta skirts and little bodices, shoes with pointed winkle-picker toes like my mother wore as a girl. In Paris, one of my rituals has become vintage clothes shopping, it does not really matter where, the arrondissement is irrelevant and it is more about change, this habit I think originating in the purchase of a green dress for ten francs, on one of my early trips to Paris form a stall at the Port St Ouen flea market, worn for my poetry reading at Shakespeare and Company bookstore. Another Paris ritual - seeing films and Paris is the place where I first saw Wings of Desire and The Unbearable Lightness of Being. Often I reflect on that title. Is it our unbearable lightness, and the flightiness of our minds that creates such intense desire to pin it down?
At the vintage shop, I purchase three tops from the '3 euros' an item box. My entire summer wardrobe has cost me quite little this year, partly thanks to these finds, (the only other two purchases from Urban Outfitters in London, one of those items a black vest top which laces down the front), last worn on a visit to a friend's house with black shorts and hold-up stockings with bows on the front, having become tired of the many weeks at home, writing, hour after hour and almost without reprieve of any kind, generating a third of a million words, but still to be edited, the afternoon chez lui (under the pretext I would help with the spring cleaning) all entirely perfect, I felt, in contrast to the months as recluse, except that the next week we were, once again, estranged, another derailment (so it seemed) of carriage from track, which somehow, at the time, shattered everything, flagging up bringing me down for a while as if from a height suddenly to ground level. Perhaps these early derailments will serve to make a later reunion all the more poignant, or maybe I just needed time alone, as if something lay still incomplete. As if I had some mechanism in me still had to repair perhaps, and had to work out how to fix it, before it was going to work out... always some theory that it will work, that it can work if somehow I change myself. My mistakes and never his. My apology. My attitude doubt a barely disguised grovelling whenever I feel I need comfort. Though I have resisted for months at a stretch. I have tried.
Anyway, in the shop I am at least distracted by the racks of clothes and this idea of re-invention and I feel like I did at nineteen or twenty back in York Vintage with the rows of dresses and the boxes of old jewellery, items to rifle through whilst you compose another self, like a piece of music which has not a note on the stage and you are starting from a tabula rasa. And I think those early trips to clothes stores set a precedent in a sense. I like the yellow silk blouse. Hadn't Baudelaire worn a daffodil? And daffodils are yellow, so does not the blouse then tenuously connect me to Baudelaire? Does it matter? If, on our heads we are Baudelaire reincarnated, who is to steal that 'madness'? It is benign and harms no one but perhaps ourselves... And, there are times where almost any tangent is on the good scale and not the negative, that leads you beyond the walls of a myopic, self-hating state, so in Paris I just followed any random idea of non-sequitur because I have two days to do as I please. The red dress, had to be left, as it didn't fit.
I continue, passing number 22, where the madonna statue had been find, to give some rough sense of direction before venturing further into the unknown streets north east of the Beaubourg, vaguely planning some future novel and scouting for locations where it would one day be filmed, and addresses where the characters would live. The memoir in fact is starting to feel like it is finished, and like I was stepping out of it like a dress that was falling about me to the floor... Perhaps when I pick it up again it will feel different, and I will remake it in a slightly different way, like an outfit could be reassembled in a different way, but still has the same essential components.
A window in Rue de Roi de Sicile
A side street in Le Marais
A bronze statue in Place George-Cain
Fated to being on my own, taking off then towards the Beaubourg but shooting past it to Boulevard Sebastopol, I am lost then and start to drift around unsure of how to get back to the bookstore-hotel-'jardin' opposite the hotel that is the base that is home for those days. Back at Isle de la Cité after the trip around le Marais, I rush over the bridges as I wanted to go to the cinema. I start to feel obsessed then with getting there on time to see La Tortue Rouge, which I had noticed advertised, and which I thought meant Red Torture... for a kind of of veiling of my unrelenting and all too visible solitude for a kind of veiling of my unrelenting and all too visible solitude and sorrow in the velvet lined interior and escape for a while, the dusty velour and the timeless interior, the blending and fading into a background where no one can see me at all... Unable to find the cinema, I double-back to Polly Magoo. I bought a glass of wine, attempting to overcome my paranoia about being so visibly alone when no one else was. No lone writers anywhere that I had seen.
On Pont de Marie, I pause on the edge of a kerbstone, alongside a few others, a slight and conspicuous gap that perhaps will be filled up to join me to the rest of the crowd, to listen to a string quartet (playing I love Paris in the Spring...) thinking, how cute in that Paris kitsch way you can tire of within a day - I need some adventure to happen, I want to wander in the oceanic cloud of the night, forget everything and just somehow escape, even if only for a night...
On my way then to Ile Saint Louis.
One of my favourite places so far in the world; I would go there, to the place where we had drunk wine, George Moore, the poet, and philosopher professor from New York, singing with his guitar and a bottle of dark red wine passed round like our own version of dogma-free communion. My mind was spiralling away, and I decided to take some notes, but then I looked down to my side thinking that the diary was there, and found that it had gone! I must have abandoned the journal somewhere earlier on, at a guess already twenty thousand words scribbled roughly down. a summary of thoughts and events and conversations that had unfolded since the trip to Hampstead Heath and I felt so lost without it, because it seemed like it was all I had, the only minor achievement to my name, although probably it counted for nothing to the random person who perhaps had picked it up and had no value to anyone but me. It was, in fact, a muddled piece of work in terms of lay out and legibility, but to me it seemed a kind of life-line, a traversing from one state of mind to another. I had started it the day I went swimming on the Heath a week before, that scissor blade slash through the silk-surface of the waves, the decisive moment when I stopped crying about how depressed I had become since being unwell with anaemia, but not only that. Anxious and unhappy without the book, my state of mind suddenly on the edge of bewildered, I retraced my steps, calling in at little stores where I had briefly been to buy bread, camembert and fruit, thinking back to the last stage I had written, surely at Polly Magoo?...
I turn then onto Rue de Petit Pont, entered, ascending swiftly upstairs. The diary! Oh my God, what a relief! On the counter upstairs where I had left it when I went to the bathroom. I had felt divest of a child, devastated, like a part of me had gone, but at the same time, I did not feel that surprised that it was there. She'll return, they must have thought. I gathered up the diary and the loose sheets and bookmarks and postcards within, and left the bar as it was by then growing late and I had lots of ground that I wanted to cover on my walks around Paris and a bar in mind where I wanted to write.
On leaving the bar, the twilight sky darkening from the colour of blue to blue-black Quink ink, the like the ink in my mother's ink bottles when I was a girl - I wandered the Quai de la Tournelle, swimmers stripping down to boxers and diving into the Seine, getting out and shaking off droplets of sparkly water like puppies, and dancing and madly cavorting on the river bank, two male swimmers like capsules of exploding delight as they French kissed and danced on he bank, guitars playing into the sultry night, warm then as a velvet cloak, the warmth as if seeping in and melting down all hostility and angst as I wandered on to Ile St Louis.
I had intended to walk northwards to Rue de Oberkampf, and spend the night in Café Charbon (open until five), whiling away the hours on writing and drinking coffee, then swapping to a bakery that opened at 5am and served coffee and croissants, seeing daybreak, and in this way also saving on a night's hotel fee, just checking in if I really had to, as the hotels seemed far from full. It did not seem a crazy plan, but just a common sense way to save some money. The night before I had slept for ages, after all, at least nine hours, I would not need sleep as necessity until the car-ride home, and by now I know (far more than before) how to conduct wakefulness and sleep to my advantage. Moreover, I had not wanted to deplete reserves at home in London, and felt my sojourn was self-indulgent enough without the luxury of two nights in a hotel. Somehow I would get by in all night bar, with the diary as a kind of retreat/defence and accessory to my writer persona which served me well at times as an identity. Is the critical at least surprised gaze that we sense at times coursing over us, as we wish that the night time belonged to women as it seems to belong to men, imaginary? Is it our own paranoia perhaps? Or are we judged as defenceless and therefore unsuited to night-time wanderings and bars?
I did not make it to the café.
I spent most of the night with a French man, Michel on Isle St Louis. His opening words, 'Be careful you don't vomit,' when he saw me look with horror as a rat scuttled right by my foot there on the rain-sluiced riverbank footpath that led along the south side towards the Western tip. Why should it matter? I wondered, as it will be washed away in the rain... I felt a little disconcerted then on seeing the man in front of my path the dark, darkness of the night river to my left and a wall to my right. Had I not realised by now to think ahead? The River Seine lay to my left, my only escape. Ahead of me, a random stranger, clearly twice as strong as me, in my path...
Fortuitously, I liked the man, and once our eyes met and he spoke I could see at once that the man was benign and not a threat in any way. I was out with my cousin, he said, in French. Do you want some wine? And we shared the remains of a bottle of sweet pink Muscat on a stone bench. I felt quite drawn to the fact he worked for the French railway, that he rose early and went to the gym and he was young and had proper French kind of work and was not just a student drifter of the kind I had met before who somehow just 'drift' and remain nostalgic for other pasts, wishing they could replicate how it once was, or fixating on the lives of dead writers, constantly discussing the past as if there are not writers presently in Paris, as if they cannot be those writers because they just don't have those kind of lives...
'So you go to the gym as well?' I asked. 'Yes,' he said. 'You want to see?' and he pulled off his t-shirt and it fell to the ground onto last years' threadbare leaves showing the kind of body that only regular weights and protein shakes and press-ups can create, not that I have a body-type that is my preference. I am open-minded and feel that this is fair, as no man should be under pressure to have the body type that today's fashion houses tried to make fashionable, no man or woman should feel enslaved to a stereotype. At the same time I liked that sense of his pure visceral strength... We established then our age. He said thirty-six and I said forty-two. He then admitted twenty-six and so I came out as my age, and the gap then widened but this did not matter. I liked the chance to practise French, discussing Jacques Brel and Françoise Hardy, as we wandered, off the island for a while, then back to my hotel as I wanted to retrieve a jacket, but finding the hotel was completely locked up. Perhaps there were no other residents and the owners had gone home or gone to sleep, although they had said I could ring anytime.
The fact of the locked, inaccessible hotel, placed me a little further into the company of Michel, but I considered him a protective kind of angel in fact, and expected he would walk me over to the Café Charbon. Anyway, we whiled the hours away talking in Polly Magoo, and then back over on Ile Saint Louis, the mute waves of grey and black and the moon like a yacht sail up above, the silence between the songs that rippled across the Seine from the other bank until four o'clock in the morning, the night like a passage into a liminal borderland state, edges between items and place, between the ground level, or the treetops or the river and the sky somehow dissolved, blurred into a bluish shimmer under the starlight falling through laces of leaves.
What is it about the night-time outdoors? Finally freed from that anguish of our sense of separation, self somehow disguised in the all forgiving night finding us, somehow in the darker, more remote places, merged into it, aloneness masked beneath the rustle of foliage and bird-life in the moonlight, we see/perceive with all senses, eyes resting as sound and smell is stirred into hyperactivity, the world suddenly, in the dimmed light becoming multi-sensory in a way that daylight denies through illuminating visual side of experience which somehow becomes dominant then, unlike at night when we feel, in the dark, intuitive and as if the link between item and perception has shifted and become blurred. To have that sense of the ground wavering and to leave grip of the quotidian I think is a way to cast off the self, to break it apart. And I wonder if I wanted to reverse the terrors of that night in the hospital by somehow bidding for freedom when I had the chance, for I only had two days it could hardly be put on hold.
Michel appeared attracted to me and was attractive to me, so then we were, at the time like magnetic surfaces, his arms like strong wings on the stone bench, as the sun rose casting petals of confetti light into the waves, but I rebuffed this young man's invitations to go to his apartment as why set up some attachment with a man I was unlikely to see ever again? Although at that point I had begin considering what it would be like if we were married, as my mind does tend to race ahead like that and I have to try to keep it in check. Anyway, when eventually I saw the sun rise and the sky faint to pale grey and then blue, this was actually like a kind of cold bath in terms of ending the secluded magic of the night before and I said I would have to continue on. No time to get to the Café Charbon and no regrets about that, as did I really want to sit awkwardly in a corner seat, pretending my jacket was an invisibility cloak and no one could really see me, the glass of wine into which I stared alone, like a pond reflecting Narcisse gazing into dark waves. And I had not seen any other lone writers in cafés.
Sometimes I wonder what I would have done if the person ahead of me had not been Michel but a murderer who had attacked me and pushed me in the Seine. Or he could have come for me and caused me to leap into the river as my one escape. I failed to factor in any fear or measure any risk on the run up to the riverbank only hit with it once I was almost at the stone bench where we used to gather in the past, propelled, I think, by nostalgia and a wish to relive the past. to somehow reclaim what I had seemed lost for so long.
VIIAfter parting from J.M at first light, I walked up to Parc Belleville and back to the hotel via Pere Lachaise and Bastille. The diary charts the walks (between sunrise at 6:30 and around 11am, but I don't have photos of that time because the cell-phone had crashed, just the notes, and the sketches of houses and apartments and bars frequented by a cast of characters somehow appearing like friends to me, as if perhaps I knew them, or was on of them, and perhaps fiction fills in the gaps and we learn to invent to somehow make sense of solitude. After Pere Llachaise - barely time to reflect on that vast Momento Mori, as a passerby called it, a man fresh back he said from Constantinople as he perched on the edge of a grave to read poetry (there is always someone like this I think in Pere Lachaise), I returned to the hotel, and I collected my things, and bade farewell to the owner of the hotel, and when I descended the metro this really was when that Paris bubble had to burst and I left that dream for reality. At Porte de Neuilly I met another driver, Jean Paul, climbed into his BMW and set out for home.
London bound and those two days as a Paris Runaway were over.
Sois sage, ô ma Douleur, et tiens-toi plus tranquille.
Tu réclamais le Soir; il descend; le voici:
Une atmosphère obscure enveloppe la ville,
Aux uns portant la paix, aux autres le souci.
Pendant que des mortels la multitude vile,
Sous le fouet du Plaisir, ce bourreau sans merci,
Va cueillir des remords dans la fête servile,
Ma Douleur, donne-moi la main; viens par ici,
Loin d'eux. Vois se pencher les défuntes Années,
Sur les balcons du ciel, en robes surannées;
Surgir du fond des eaux le Regret souriant;
Le soleil moribond s'endormir sous une arche,
Et, comme un long linceul traînant à l'Orient,
Entends, ma chère, entends la douce Nuit qui marche.
— Charles Baudelaire
The Scandal of the Flaneuse
How scandalous, if at all, is it to be a night-wanderer by night? And should we need to carry diaries in order to feel less like we look as if we could be a prostitute, when a man can just wander with a cigarette or wine bottle because the night somehow is theres, it is assumer that it belongs to them and no suspicions are aroused if they are out alone. Should we make it safer by being confidently 'out'? Or remain safe at home and in our hotel rooms? What if the story we are writing requires that we cover that distance, that location at that time, even if we don't quite know why?
My limit would perhaps be a war-zone. I would not walk into war-zone late at night by myself because this would carry a risk factor slightly too much tipped towards danger. Does the fact that one of my children is almost twenty and two are adults change my attitude? Possibly. When they were little they were in my arms and I was within their vicinity as if some invisible glue held us together. They are growing up and I cannot sacrifice my every freedom without the sense of self-imprisonment, which can lead to depression (in my case) and which would definitely jeopardise my abilities to run my life as a mother.
Not that I wish to cultivate an addiction to borderline 'danger'. To do so could be rather like treating lat night-time wandering as a drug - the drug of the unknown - the adrenalin perhaps of stranger-danger - of areas that permit little to no escape. I don't intend to go on that route again, the walkways adjacent to the riverbank and with high wall to the other side could lead to entrapment and it is just something to bear in mind. Yes, it should be safe, yes, we want freedom to roam, but I just feel that some areas are more hazardous than others. The Isle St Louis 'adventure' was (I think) about nostalgia and a reversal in a sense for events of the past (that I don't want to get into here...) It was a 'one-off' but I would not want to be without that night, and sometimes we cannot resist that sense of compulsion that seems to decide for us, as if a story is pre-written and you just have to find it, live it out, and write it all down.
Fear is a great oppressor. Although to some it would seem that fear keeps us safe. We have to decide I suppose on how much of it was want... what dose of it will give us the protection but the liberty we require?
The envy behind the objection
Overnight I started thinking, why? Why do they mind me being free? Is it envy?
Yes, I think it perhaps is. So let them be envious about my fearlessness and I shall go forth!
It happens to almost every writer that some particular story seems outer-willed and effortless -
it is as though one were a secretary translating the words of a voice from a cloud.
Truman Capote -
Other Voices - Other Rooms