Part Three: Paris
I don't remember when I started to toy with the idea of spending some time in Paris, but I knew full well that even a relatively short stay could evolve into a kind of permanence. In order to take soundings, I was to make a number of visits, and once again found myself in a tunnel under the English Channel, heading towards the Gare du Nord.
I emerged from the station, with my one small suitcase, that Wednesday in late September, and made my way to the modest hotel that served as my home-from-home when in the French capital.
The drizzle that fell from the leaden sky, and the squalls of wind that rattled the awnings under which tourists, clad in heavy coats, savored their coffee, did nothing to dampen my high spirits as, for all the weather's inclemency, I was happy to be back, walking down streets that, by now well-known to me, were suffused with a host of memories.
There, to my left, was my favorite bakery, from whose premises wafted the tang of freshly-made bread, and from which I would appear, clutching my baguette, that slender, crusty loaf whose quality has never been surpassed, as possessively as any native Frenchman.
And next to it stood the wine shop, from whose vast array of offerings cramming the shelves, I would pull down a decent Burgundy or Bordeaux, replacing the dead man of an empty bottle that I had consigned to oblivion under the bed.
And, crossing the road, the cheese shop where I would buy my Camembert or Brie, their melted, creamy pungency coursing down my throat in a torrent of delight.
And two doors down, the shop that sold soap made from honeysuckle, lavender, and rose, and so fragrant that, in my mind's eye, I strode not down a city street, but sauntered in some luxuriant garden.
And there, in the distance, the spot where I had met Claude, a policeman in his thirties, on holiday, visiting from the south of France and, after some self-conscious glances and a few awkward words, we had strolled to my hotel and there, in my room, we had lain on the bed for a whole afternoon of that cool late summer, covered by a single blanket.
I phoned him the next day, and for several days after, but his number, which I may not have taken down correctly, always rang out. I returned to the place where we had met, but I did not find him and, retracing my steps to the hotel, and encountering his absence, sought solace in my bid to render into English the cadences of a certain French poet. But, at a loss for the right words, and aching to be with the living, I headed to a local bar.
And yet, a slave to sentiment, I had reserved the same room, ready to overlook its cracked wash hand basin and creaking bed. But wrong in my conviction that I could lay Claude's ghost to rest, on opening the door, I felt the need to flee, once and for all, from such an unsettling scene.
No longer in thrall to his phantom, and having resolved to spend three months in Paris, I started to look for my own studio flat.
Phoning an agency, I was told that their shortest let was for six months, but that there was a church nearby, and that in its basement was a notice board, giving details of flats and rooms for rent.
Negotiating the stairs, I came across a man, in his late twenties, whose onyx-like eyes were at one with his sable hair.
I don't know why, but I sensed that he was from Latin America and, when I asked him, he said that his name was Javier, and that he hailed from Santiago de Chile, where he had worked as a member of the military police.
I told him that I lived in Argentina, but that I had come back to Europe, with a view to putting down new roots, and that I was looking for a flat to rent in Paris.
He said that he lived in a room near the Arc de Triomphe, but that there were bunk beds and that, for a small weekly amount, I was welcome to stay and, on knowing that I had to return to London for a while, he suggested that on October the 6th, at 4pm, we meet at the intersection of two main boulevards, and head together to his lodgings.
Unable to suppress the impulsive streak in my nature that had often cost me dear, I said "yes", but I very much doubted that he would keep his word.
And yet, he was there when, on the designated day, I turned up at the agreed venue earlier than we had arranged and, greeting me with a gesture akin to a military salute, Javier took my suitcase, insisting that he carry it for me to his room, a ten-minute walk away.
Although October, it was still the early autumn, but the wind was bitter enough and, having trampled on the brown leaves that, sodden with rain that had fallen in heavy showers, lay strewn on the grey pavement, it was a blessing to reach the eighteenth-century building that would surely provide both Javier and me with a shelter from the harsh elements.
The gusts that shook the only tree that stood in the courtyard made me all the more impatient to climb the interminable steps, that must have been more than two hundred in all, and reach the safe haven of Javier's door.
How could I have anticipated that, on entering, I would feel the same icy air, or that half an hour later, crouching before the clapped-out stove, I would scarcely be warmed by its feeble heat, and not to mention Javier, who sat shivering beside me?
Although only five in the afternoon, there was nothing for it but to reach for my suitcase, and take out the bottle of vodka that was guaranteed to thaw us and, when Javier came back with two paper cups, I poured copious amounts into each receptacle.
In the wan reflection cast by the unadorned light bulb hanging above us, I waxed lyrical that, after two years living in the New World, I had itched for Europe and, taking his cue from my confidences, and with the floodgates opening as he downed yet more liquor, he revealed that he had left Chile for France after not only his own parents and siblings, but also his former wife and her relatives, had accused him of having participated in a heinous crime.
Looking at me beseechingly, as he did all in his power to enlist my moral support, he went on to say that it had been unjust of those whom he had loved most to have severed all ties with him as, while he had played his part in a transnational force that cracked down on subversives, he had never been active in the hit squad that had traveled to Central America and, bursting into a prison cell, had riddled a political opponent with bullets.
It was true, after moving to France, where he had spent the first eight months in Avignon, that he was afflicted by nightmares in which men, dressed in military attire, and carrying heavy guns, marched into the room where he slept, and that he would awake, his heart pounding in unison with the sound of their tread, but that was pure coincidence, triggered by the all-consuming anxiety to which he was prey.
Frantic for a bolt-hole, he had turned to drugs, but how many would have had the strength to have phased out, as he did, the heroin to which he had become addicted?
In the cold light of day, which at seven on a Sunday morning was precisely that, he would, without a centime, scour the streets of the capital, his head held low, searching for a coin, a ring, a bracelet that had been lost by some reveler the night before, but then, such stooping was the homage that he was forced to pay to survival.
Why, I asked myself, as I lay on my mattress above his, was desire for me born so often of a boundless pity, in which I would gather up one apparent lost cause after another, in a constant recruitment of sorrow?
Over time, and against my better judgement, I had amassed my heap of hopeless loves, my very own rogues' gallery, and now it was Javier, with a wry smile and a well-aimed phrase, and perhaps more of a dark knave than my future black prince, who had ransacked my heart.
Shifting my fretful body from side to side, I yearned for him to awake, so as to discern that each of my labored displacements was a loaded message. And then perhaps, glorying in his perverse dominion, he would ask me to share his bed. But if not asleep, he did not move or speak.
The next morning, agitated, Javier told me that the previous evening he had not been able to doze off for a single moment, as his rent was long overdue, and the owner of the room had informed him that he must vacate the property forthwith.
Expressing his remorse for burdening me with such a problem, Javier confessed that he had wanted to divulge the news to me the night before but, given that I had only just arrived, he had not wanted to cast a pall over our heart-to-heart.
But time was of the essence because if he did not deposit the the sum of two thousand French francs that he owed by three in the afternoon, the real estate agency would send round some of its henchmen, and we would be thrown unceremoniously onto the street.
And so, was there any way, and he was so embarrassed to have to ask, that I could possibly be a kind enough kindred spirit to lend him the money that would save his skin, but only until the end of the day, as a friend who owed him the same amount, it was such a chain of debtors, would without fail repay him by ten in the evening, and then my most magnanimous loan would be returned.
I said that I found it strange that seven hours could make such a difference, that he could explain the facts to the owner, offer an apology, and pay the next morning.
He maintained, and vehemently, that my idea was wishful thinking, that I had no conception of the sort of people whom he was dealing with and that, if we were both evicted, there would be no way that we would be let back in, even if proving that we by now had cash.
Just an hour before he had gone to meet me, he had phoned these folk, known to knock down doors, manhandle tenants, and hurl possessions out of windows, pleading with them for a little more time, but all his begging had been in vain.
He was aware that he had told me that I could pay the rent weekly, and not monthly, and that he was sorry to be asking me for an additional amount, but if I could pull him back from the precipice, he would stop at nothing to make it up to me.
Giving Javier the sum of two thousand French francs, I said that he could deduct the amount for one week's rent but, considering that for some days I would not be able to organize a transfer from London, and bearing in mind that I had no extra money, not even for food, I would be counting on the loan being repaid before midnight.
Grabbing the small wad of banknotes that I extended to him, and assuring me that he would be back by eleven at the latest, to return the money to me, Javier rushed towards the door.
By eleven, he had not appeared but, mindful that he might have stayed on to indulge in late-night carousing with his friend, or that perhaps he was waiting for a bus that never came, or even that, feeling lucky, he had decided to walk all the way home, his nape as agile as a swan's drooping arc as he combed the concrete for some precious gemstone that glinted in the night, I did not feel unduly worried.
But, as the minutes raced remorselessly, and each far-fetched scenario that I conjured up failed to convince me, I willed myself to banish not only doubt, but also my pangs of hunger, and somehow managed to fall asleep.
Waking to a lurid daylight at nine in the morning, I felt no other presence and, looking around me, found that my instinct had served me well.
Where could Javier be and, given that I had no contact details, how could I begin to get hold of him?
Oppressed by such solitude in a dingy room, and noting that the jar of instant coffee was empty, and that not a slice of bread was to be found on the shelf, I decided to head to a café where, fortified with an espresso and croissant, I would be better able to gather my thoughts, but wait, I had forgotten, I had given all that I had to Javier, and now had not a single French franc to my name.
Soon enough, any relief that I felt at being in the open air was offset by my famished state that bulked larger with every step.
What was even worse, as I walked, nursing my shame, through the streets of Paris, I felt that every man, woman, and child, eating and drinking their fill in a profusion of bars and restaurants, had their eyes trained on me, in their contemptuous awareness that they had before them a starving, desperate animal.
Intent on putting to flight the knowing stares that assailed me from all sides, I made my way to the woods of Bois de Boulogne where, stumbling unobserved through the dense undergrowth, I would no longer be a perpetual object of scorn.
A man, who had been leaning against a tree, moved towards me and, smiling shyly, and telling me that he had forgotten to bring his mobile phone with him, asked if I happened to know the right time.
On hearing my stilted words, uttered in a heavy foreign accent, he enquired as to where I was from and, when I told him that I was British, he informed me that he was a New Yorker who for the last five years had been living in Paris, where he was now studying for a postgraduate degree in French Literature.
My face lighting up despite my hunger, I laughed as I said that life had its master plan, as I was a literary translator who had started to write his own stories.
I expressed my great love for the novels of Balzac, Flaubert, and Zola, and perhaps it was a recognition of a shared territory that generated trust, and that prompted this stranger to say that his name was Matthew, that he was spending the weekend by himself at his cousin's flat on the outskirts of Paris, and that he would feel honored if I were to accept his invitation to drive there together, and have lunch.
Heading north-west, in no time we had reached the suburb of Neuilly-sur-Seine and, having passed the facades of innumerable sprawling residences, we came to a halt outside an exclusive apartment block.
Crossing the lobby's marble floor, we took the lift, and entered a vast room that, with its gilded mirrors, tapestries, and chandeliers, evoked an indisputable air of opulence.
Telling me that he was going to the kitchen to rustle up a few small eats, Matthew suggested that I rest on the sofa and, sensing that he was shaking me gently, I soon registered that I had nodded off.
Opening my eyes, I felt the need to rub them as I beheld a table that, more laden than any that I had ever seen, was bedecked with one sumptuous dish after another: poached salmon, lobster, prawns, caviar, truffles, beef carpaccio, quails' eggs, tomatoes from the vine, roast aubergines, goulash, hummus, bruschetta, avocados, asparagus, matsutake mushrooms, lemon mayonnaise, extra virgin olive oil, modena balsamic vinegar, peaches, papaya, strawberries and whipped cream, roquefort, swiss chocolates, pralines, and all to be complemented with a Chateau Lafite Rothschild Bordeaux, a 1973 Montelena Chardonnay, and a Louis XIII Rémy de Martin cognac.
Adding that he was merely peckish, and that he would nibble only at a stick of celery, Matthew quipped that were I not to clear up every plate, he would be sorely offended.
After the banquet, we shared anecdotes about our lives, and Matthew said that I was welcome to stay for the rest of the day, and even to spend the night, with the only condition being that I sleep alone, and not in his bed.
He clarified that were I to be interested, he would not rule out the prospect of intimacy arising between us in the future as he, for his part, felt an attraction towards me, but the truth was that his libido was at an all-time low, following the break-up of his affair with an eminent French politician who had ditched his male lover for an unnamed ambassadress.
The thought of basking in such congenial company, and later lying in a four-poster bed, my head recumbent on feather pillows, was a tempting offer, but I was concerned about Javier, and even feared that he might have come to harm.
Explaining my predicament, Matthew assured me that I could count on him in any crisis and, giving me his number, said that he would drive me back to the room near the Arc de Triomphe.
After nine in the evening, a light rain falling, we passed the emblematic arch and, getting out of the car, I signaled to Matthew who, from the driver's seat, was waving me goodbye.
Bracing myself to climb the more than two hundred stairs to Javier's grubby lair, I waited by the main door of the building as I had no key and, when someone emerged, I explained that I was staying with a friend, and made my way in.
By now out of breath, I looked through the small glass panel in Javier's door that made it possible to see if there were any stirrings of life within and, noticing that the light was on, I knocked hesitantly at first, and then more insistently, until I could hear the sound of a latchkey turning in the lock.
Looking at me inquisitorially, Javier asked me where I had been, and when I replied that it was he who had failed to return the previous evening at eleven, when he said he would, he blurted out that his friend had fallen ill, that he had had to call for a doctor and, in any case, that he saw no reason why he should have to be accountable to me for his actions.
When I asked him for the money that I had lent him, so that I would be able to buy food, he said that my words made no sense as, just the day before, I had assured him that the amount, but a trifling sum for me, would not need to be repaid for a month or two.
And, given his precarious mental health, was it my plan to lay siege to his fragile peace, and who was I anyway, lurking in churches so as to sidle up to unsuspecting victims, worming my way into their trust, so as to corrupt them into unnatural acts with another man?
Fighting with myself to make a dignified exit, I did not look him in the eye as, flinging my few possessions into a suitcase, I headed for the door.
As I hurtled down the staircase, each step appeared to groan with the anguish of lives enacted down the centuries and, at my wits' end to rout those captors of my mind, it felt like a deliverance to enter the empty street.
I was fortunate to have met Matthew because when I phoned him to explain that something had gone wrong between me and Javier, and that I did not know what to do, he told me not to worry, and that in less than half an hour he would have returned to the building near the Arc de Triomphe, to drive me back to the safety of Neuilly-sur-Seine.
In the end, I decided not to stay in Paris, opting instead to return to the life I had left behind in Buenos Aires.
But before flying back to Argentina, I did make one last trip across the channel, staying in a small hotel near Sacré Coeur.
Matthew had gone back to New York but, as I sat having lunch in a characterful bistro, any nostalgia that I felt was tempered by the belief that he and I would meet again.
I had enjoyed my fish soup, mushroom omelette, and chocolate mousse, washed down with two glasses of aromatic white wine and, leaving the warm cocoon behind, I buttoned up my coat to shield myself from a raw winter’s afternoon.
I walked, not to my hotel, but towards the Arc de Triomphe, and then to a building familiar to me and, gaining access, I climbed the stairs.
For a long time, I stood outside Javier's room, but I heard only the faintest of sounds and, looking through the door's glass panel, saw nothing more than two nylon curtains, apologies for sails, flapping in the wind.
Madrid, London, Paris: Three Narratives
Part One: Madrid
Part Two: London
"The Power of Prose"