Rouen Cathedral, Façade by Claude Monet (1872–74)

In summer, we ride out of the city. To Reims, to eat crêpes beneath the barbarous heights of the cathedral, counting the kings who were crowned there. To Normandy, where waves lap placidly over bloodier histories. To the languid beauty of the Marne.

In summer, there are mornings when Chris looks up from his Libération and coffee, surveys the street, finds in it some invisible sign, and says “Let’s go to Fontainebleau,” or “Let’s go to Rouen.” These are mornings where I give myself up completely, standing and abandoning my coffee, walking suddenly out of the café like I will never come back.

It is not this sort of morning when Mike arrives from London. It is a morning after the night before; too much Pernod and I in a mad rage as the sun comes up over Oberkampf; and some other woman, whose face I can’t remember. Trees reaching outwards like nerves. The canal skittering with visions the whole walk home. This morning, we lie down quiet with our hands on each other, as though this will find and mend the broken things from the night before.

Mike arrives unexpectedly in the middle of the morning, getting us both out of bed. Mike is Chris’s brother, and I have never heard of him. Mike is Chris’s brother, and the first I hear of him he is standing under our window in Paris wanting a coffee and a conversation.

It is too late now for questions.

It is too late for questions, so I slip down the staircase in Chris’s wake into the hot light of the street below, where Mike stands like a Magritte in the sunshine and we hop across the rue de la Goutte d’Or in last night’s T-shirts and bare legs. Indoors, the hallway is dim and still, like a museum cabinet. Outside is bright and new.

“Morning,” says Mike, as though it is just another morning. He turns his face, which is another version of Chris’s face, to mine, and reveals nothing. For a moment, I think of his bones, which lie under his skin like stones; then put the thought away. Not today. Today is an ordinary day in Paris and nobody has died. It is an ordinary morning in Paris, and Chris’s brother has arrived and would like a coffee and a conversation. Or at least that is what I suppose.

Here is what I saw when I stepped out of the doorway: my own brother, leaving the hospital, his arms empty of the flowers he carried when he walked in. My own brother, whose face is like a history of our father’s face, standing by the hospital with no flowers in sight. This is a thing which stopped happening years ago, my brother outside the hospital with an armful of nothing and his big, stupid shoes flapping over the pavement edge. It is a thing which stopped happening years ago, but happens again now, for a moment, as Chris opens the big heavy door to our apartment block and steps into the sunlight where his own brother waits empty-handed on the pavement.

On the pavement, Chris stands in front of me as though I am not there. He says, “Hello Michael,” and there is the fracture of a pause; then the two men shake hands, like brothers do. I think of their history, the years stretched like a nerve between them, spreading tiny fault lines through the air of the present. What blows in then is distant and cold, and I think of Veronika Voss, which we watched last week on rue Christine, where there is a Fassbinder retrospective: the way you are always looking through a pane of streaming glass. The way the rain catches the bright studio light, turning opaque and glittering and white. The way it is nothing like rain in the real world at all. This is what I am thinking as I decide to lean forwards and kiss Mike, inserting my arm between them and pressing my cheek hard on his cheek. Chris lets this happen for a moment, then grips my shoulder and pulls me to one side.

“Anna,” he says, using his warning voice. Its tones are tense and low. Mike looks at us, one face to the other, then back again, calculating something intangible, and turns his eyes away. “Beautiful city,” he says, nodding over his shoulder. I look at him, incredulous. I want to say, not this bit. Not Barbès-Rochechouart and the back of the Gare du Nord. This isn’t our Paris; we just live here. Our Paris is romantic, a twilit prospect from the Pont des Arts, the Île de la Cité dipped in the yellow lights that flock across the Seine.

But I say, “Oh, yes,” and turn my face away.

“It’s better closer to the river,” says Chris; then, “Why have you come here, Mike?”

They do not move. I watch as something lifts its head between them, a thing invisible to me as I am to them, and Mike says, quietly, “Chris, I’m here to see you.”

The cathedral, which I have seen in triplicate on a museum wall but never in the world itself, is tall and barbed. Things might hook on its flutings. For a moment, I get the feeling that I have been here already; but it was another cathedral in another city.”

The trouble with Chris is nothing big. The trouble with Chris is nothing small either; frustrations that send me reeling from the kitchen in a rage just lift from him like vapour. The broken boiler. The gas won’t light. The coffee run out. The trouble with Chris is something hidden, something discreet; it is a look he gives me over a beer late at night. It is a look he gives as he opens his fingers like branches, and I never want to touch them less.

“Let’s go somewhere,” says Chris, “It’s summer; Paris is like a tomb.”

So we go inside to pick up our helmets and put on our daytime clothes and head for the Périphérique.

***

Now, we are heading somewhere. Now we are riding on a long straight road and there is only one destination. The Romans built this road; they used it for their postal service. The Romans sent letters about textiles and battles and marriages and fine points of scholarship along this long straight road like it was a telegraph wire, or a nerve.

Paris is a tomb and we are getting out of this city.

In the back of my mind there is a point about my father. There is another journey, to Avignon, maybe, or Prague, and I am in the car with my father. I am eight years old, or maybe nine. This is a guess, or perhaps an invention. Beyond my window, different distances pass by at different speeds and the governing shapes of the landscape form and reform. Roads divide ahead like branches. There is a travelling coma in the air and nobody speaks and time vanishes beneath the wheels of the machine.

Now, there is me and Chris on Chris’s motorbike. Chris’s motorbike was made in Germany, assembled in Saxony from Chinese parts. Mike’s was made in Japan. Chris and Mike and I were made in the UK, where nothing is made now but money. This is where my dreams still happen, the indifferent weather and wet green landscapes and the long concrete building where I went to school. And now I am adrift on the skim and dream of speed in a different country, with my hands on the back of Chris’s body, who is like a piece of home and like another country altogether.

When we arrive, I am cold to my bones. It is a hot, French, summer morning, and I am as cold as I have ever been standing on the sunny pavement in Rouen. Chris wraps his arms around me, the way he always does, and opens his jacket so I can get inside. “You need some proper gear,” says Mike, glancing over, as he removes his helmet and jacket and stores them under the back seat of his own bike.

“Gear’s expensive,” Chris replies, and we walk along the pavement towards the Gros Horloge and Joan of Arc and all the half-timbered buildings we have seen in Lonely Planet. I hang back to look in windows, at displays of macaroons and hairy cheeses, letting the men walk alongside each other. I glance at them along shop fronts, considering what they might say to each other. From behind, Mike’s walk is an imitation of Chris’s walk, and when I look up for a moment I am not sure which is which.

The cathedral, which I have seen in triplicate on a museum wall but never in the world itself, is tall and barbed. Things might hook on its flutings. For a moment, I get the feeling that I have been here already; I get a memory of a day in the past with my brother and my father. Images collide, trying to meet each other. But it was another cathedral in another city.

I think I would like to live in Rouen; I think I would like a life assembled from the images that pass me in these streets: faces, windows, open eyes. I think I would like to live in Rouen, a flat, clean life, innocuous and insubstantial as a dream.

“All right?” says Chris, by which he means what is your complaint?

I have a complaint. I have a complaint that my father is dead, can you help me? I have a complaint that I am withered and grey and no weather can touch me. I have a complaint that he has been alive all these years in a bedsit in Walthamstow, eating tinned beans and claiming benefits.

“Yes,” I say, and take Chris’s hand. He goes one better and wraps his arm around me, all the way around, and kisses my temple and says, “Shall we get an ice cream?”

So the beautiful thing is this: Chris buying ice cream. Chris on the foreign streets of Rouen looking for an ice cream. We have travelled this far, and now we are buying ice cream together.

I want to say a thing which is half-formed, many-headed and hideous. It drips and ripples in my head like mercury. In the streets there is a song playing, and beneath it there is a long howl, and snow vanishing in blackness.”

And now I want to say something to Chris about my father. I want to say my father is dead and I do not miss him. I want to say he is alive and happy in a house in Brittany, drinking Muscadet or Merlot and raising a toast to his new children. He is living a life he has tilted into French frictionlessly, where words resolve themselves to a blur of heat and atmosphere, and adjectives I can’t separate from verbs.

I want to say a thing which cannot be heard.

I want to say a thing which is half-formed, many-headed and hideous. It drips and ripples in my head like mercury. In the streets there is a song playing, and beneath it there is a long howl, and snow vanishing in blackness. Even on a boiling day in a town which looks like it couldn’t exist without the sunlight, snow is vanishing in blankness. I am listening to the busker, and he looks to me like a Texan I met in my first week in Paris, down by the river drinking wine. He played the violin and spoke French imperfectly and kissed me in a doorway before walking home to Montmartre, which would take an hour. I ran my hands across his back and looked beyond his shoulder into darkness, imagining my touch running through his body, nerve to nerve.

Instead I say, “That woman last night.”

Chris freezes where he is. His face looks carved in stone. He says: “What?”

A pause.

Chris says, “What, Anna?” His voice is raised. And I start to cry, like I always do.

I want to say something that will slash at Chris; I want some words that will make a mark on his flesh. But they vanish to their dark purposes inside him as usual, like fish into a pond.

He does not move.

I say “I love you,” because there is nothing else to say. And the words fall as rain would fall, making hard things softer and distinct things blurred.

Chris relaxes but does not speak. Mike is not around. In the square, trees brush against each other while something broken-apart and tender is touching all of my nerves. On a medieval wall, a white bird sits. It has stolen a southern fried chicken nugget from the carton of some teenagers who are eating then kissing, then eating again.

It is a hot, arsenic morning in Rouen, and I wish I were living in the pages of a book. I wish I were living in the flat black words, and when they got too much or the world rushed in, I could close the halves of the book like a clam and vanish. I wish there were a dimension in which I disappeared.

And now Chris comes and puts his arms around me; now we will be close with each other and tell some jokes. Now we will talk about the quality of the coffee and whether it’s too early to have a beer and why all Russians have video cameras in their cars, and find some emergency ice cream and let things be.

***

Now there are days which seem to meld with those days. There are days which contain them, where dream and coincidence conspire to bring to mind a violin, an ice cream, and a motorbike on a Roman road. And there are childhood days, which prise open history and the present, inserting their odd textures and hallucinations like public transport tickets discovered between the pages of books.

So when I think my historical thoughts about Rouen and Paris and the road between, they are thoughts which emerge into my present hours half-formed, broken open with edges that will not quite seal. They are always lost and unlost.

There are days I extend my glance along the branches of the trees outside and want to vanish from their tips out of the world. Not today. Today, I have been reading a long book; I am making dinner for my family, who will be home. I am thinking of Chris, whose years are no longer my years, loving somebody, maybe; or buying the Guardian and driving his daughters to ballet lessons on a Saturday morning.

Nadia Hughes was born in 1987 in London, grew up in Sheffield and read English at Cambridge, where she had poems published in The Mays. She now lives in London.

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