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Paris For One (Quick Reads), Page 2

Jojo Moyes

  Sorry babe. Not going to get there. Have a great trip.

  Chapter Three

  Fabien sits on the rooftop, pulls his woollen hat further down over his eyes and lights another cigarette. It is the spot he always used to smoke when there was a chance that Sandrine would come back. She hadn’t liked the smell, and if he smoked inside she used to screw up her nose and say that the studio apartment smelt disgusting.

  It is a narrow ledge, but big enough for a tall man and a mug of coffee and 332 pages of handwritten manuscript. In summer he sometimes naps out here, and waves to the teenage twins across the square. They sit on their own flat roof to listen to music and smoke, away from the gaze of their parents.

  Central Paris is full of such spaces. If you don’t have a garden, or a tiny balcony, you find your outside space where you can.

  Fabien picks up his pencil and starts crossing out words. He has been editing this manuscript for six months and now the lines of writing are thick with pencil marks. Every time he reads his novel he sees more faults.

  The characters are flat, their voices fake. Philippe, his friend, says he has to get a move on, get it typed and give it to the agent who is interested. But every time he looks at it, he sees more reasons why he cannot show anyone his book.

  It is not ready.

  Sandrine said he didn’t want to hand it over because, until he did, he could still tell himself he had hope. It was one of the less cruel things she had said.

  He checks his watch, knowing he has only an hour before he has to start his shift. And then he hears his mobile phone ringing. Damn! It is inside. He curses himself for forgetting to tuck it into his pocket before coming out on to the roof. He balances his mug on the pile of pages, to stop them blowing away, and turns to climb back in through the window.

  Afterwards, he is not sure quite what happened. His right foot slips on the desk that he uses to climb back in and his left foot shoots backwards as he tries to stop himself falling. And his foot – his great clumsy foot, as Sandrine would call it – kicks the mug and the pages off the ledge. He turns in time to hear the mug smash on the cobbles below, and to watch 332 white pages fly out into the darkening skies.

  He watches his pages catch the wind and, like white doves, float into the streets of Paris.

  Chapter Four

  Nell has spent an hour lying on the bed and she still cannot work out what to do. Pete is not coming to Paris. He is actually not coming. She has come all the way to the capital of France, with new underwear and painted red toenails, and Pete has stood her up.

  For the first ten minutes she had stared at the message – its cheery ‘have a great trip’ – and waited for more. But, no, he really was not coming.

  She lies on the bed, her phone still in her hand, staring at the wall. She realizes some part of her had always known this might happen. She peers at the phone, flicks the screen on and off, just to make sure she is not dreaming.

  But she knows. She probably knew it last night, when he didn’t respond to her calls. She might even have known it last week when all her ideas for what they might do in Paris were met with ‘Yeah, whatever’, or ‘I don’t know’.

  It was not just that Pete was an unreliable boyfriend – in fact, he often disappeared without telling her where he was going. If she was honest with herself, he hadn’t actually invited her.

  They had been talking about places they had been and she had admitted that she had never been to Paris, and he’d said, vaguely, ‘Really? Oh, it’s awesome. You’d love it.’

  It was the only truly impulsive thing she’d ever done in her life. Two nights later, she had been looking at the website and seen the Eurostar special offer. Her finger had hovered over the book button on her computer and, before she knew what she was doing, she had bought two return tickets. She had presented him with them, glowing half with embarrassment, half with pleasure, the next night when they had gone back to his place.

  ‘You did what?’ He had been drunk, she remembered now, and he had blinked slowly, as if in disbelief. ‘You bought me a ticket to Paris?’

  ‘Us,’ she had said, as he fumbled with the buttons of her dress. ‘A weekend in Paris. I thought it would be … fun.’

  ‘You bought me a ticket to Paris!’ He had shaken his head, his hair flopping over one eye. And then he said, ‘Sure, babe. Why not? Nice one.’ She couldn’t remember what else he’d said, as they’d collapsed onto his bed.

  Now she will have to go back to the station, and back to England and tell Magda, Trish and Sue that they were right. That Pete was exactly who they said he was. That she had been a fool and wasted her money. She had blown out the Girls’ Trip to Brighton for nothing.

  She screws her eyes shut, until she is sure that she will not cry, then pushes herself upright. She looks at her suitcase. She wonders where to find a taxi, and whether her ticket can be changed. What if she gets to the station and they will not let her on the train? She wonders whether to ask the receptionist downstairs if she will ring Eurostar for her, but she is afraid of the woman’s icy gaze. She has no idea what to do.

  Her phone beeps again. She snatches it up, her heart suddenly racing. He is coming after all! It will be all right! But it is Magda.

  Having fun, you filthy mare?

  She blinks at it, and suddenly feels horribly homesick. She wishes she was there, in Magda’s hotel room, a plastic cup of cheap fizz on the bathroom sink as they fight for mirror space to put on their make-up. England is an hour behind. They will still be getting ready, their suitcases spilling new outfits onto the carpet, the music turned up loud enough to cause complaints.

  She thinks, briefly, that she has never felt so lonely in her life.

  All great, thanks. Have fun!

  She types slowly and presses SEND, waiting for the whooshing sound that tells her it has flown across the English Channel. And then she turns off her phone so that she will not have to lie any more.

  Nell examines the Eurostar timetable, pulls her notebook from her bag and writes a list, working out her options. It is a quarter to nine. Even if she makes it back to the station, she is unlikely to get a train that will take her back to England early enough for her to get home. She will have to stay here tonight.

  In the harsh light of the bathroom mirror, she looks tired and fed up. She looks exactly like the kind of girl who has just travelled all the way to Paris to be stood up by her boyfriend. She rests her hands on the sink, takes a long, shaky breath, and tries to think clearly.

  She will find something to eat, get some sleep, and then she will feel better. Tomorrow she will catch the early train home. It is not what she had hoped, but it is a plan, and Nell always feels better with a plan.

  She shuts the door, locks it and goes downstairs. She tries to look carefree and confident, like a woman who often finds herself alone in strange cities.

  ‘Do you know anywhere nice I could get a bite to eat?’ she asks the receptionist.

  The woman looks at her. ‘You want a restaurant?’

  ‘Or café. Anything. Somewhere I could walk to. Oh, and – um – if the other lady comes back, will you tell her I’ll be staying this evening?’

  The Frenchwoman raises an eyebrow a fraction, and Nell imagines her thinking: So your boyfriend never turned up, mousy English girl? That’s no surprise. ‘There is Café des Bastides,’ she says, handing over a small tourist map. ‘You turn right outside, and it’s two streets down on the left. It’s very nice. Fine to …’ she pauses ‘… eat alone.’

  ‘Thank you.’ Nell, her cheeks flaming, grabs the map, slides it into her handbag, and walks briskly from the hotel lobby.

  The café is busy, but Nell finds a small table and chair in a corner by the window and slides in. There is a steamy fug on the inside of the windows, and around her people chat in French. She feels self-conscious, as if she is wearing a sign that says, PITY ME. I HAVE NOBODY TO EAT WITH. She gazes up at the blackboard, saying the words in her head several times before she has to
speak them aloud.

  ‘Bonsoir.’ The waiter, who has a shaven head and a long white apron, puts a jug of water in front of her. ‘Qu’est-ce –’

  ‘Je voudrais le steak frites s’il vous plaît,’ she says in a rush. Her meal – steak and chips – is expensive, but it is the only thing she thinks she can pronounce without sounding silly.

  The waiter gives a small nod and glances behind him, as if distracted. ‘The steak? And to drink, Mam’selle?’ he says, in perfect English. ‘Some wine?’

  She was going to have Coke. But she whispers, ‘Yes, please.’

  ‘Bon,’ he says. In minutes he is back with a basket of bread and a jug of wine. He puts them down as if it is normal for a woman to be sitting there on a Friday evening by herself, and then he is gone.

  Nell doesn’t think she has ever seen a woman sitting alone in a restaurant, apart from that time when she went on a sales trip to Corby and that woman sat alone with her book by the Ladies and ate two desserts instead of a main course. Where she lives, girls eat out in groups, mostly curry at the end of a long night’s drinking. Older women might go alone to bingo, or to a family event. But women don’t just go out and eat alone.

  But, as she looks around her now and chews a piece of crusty French bread, she sees that she is not the only single diner. There is a woman on the other side of the window, a jug of red wine on her table, smoking a cigarette as she watches the people of Paris bustle by. There is a man in the corner reading his paper, spooning forkfuls of something into his mouth. Another woman, long hair, a gap in her teeth, is chatting to a waiter, her collar high around her neck. Nobody is paying them any attention. Nell relaxes a little, unwinding her scarf.

  The wine is good. She takes a sip and feels the tension of the day start to ooze away. She has another sip. The steak arrives, seared brown and steaming, but when she cuts into it, it is bloody inside. She wonders whether to send it back, but she doesn’t want to make a fuss, especially not in French.

  Besides, it tastes good. The chips are crisp and golden and hot, and the green salad is delicious. She eats it all, surprising herself with her appetite. The waiter, when he returns, smiles at her evident pleasure. ‘Is good, uh?’

  ‘Delicious,’ she says. ‘Thank – er, merci.’ He nods, and refills her glass. As she reaches for it, she manages to knock half of the red wine onto the waiter’s apron and shoes, leaving deep red stains.

  ‘I’m so sorry!’ Her hands fly to her mouth.

  He sighs wearily, as he mops at himself. ‘Really. It’s of no matter.’

  ‘I’m sorry. Oh, I –’

  ‘Really. No matter.’

  He gives her a vague smile, and disappears.

  She feels her cheeks burning red and pulls her notebook from her bag, to give herself something to do. She flicks quickly past her list for sightseeing in Paris, and stares at an empty page until she is sure nobody is looking.

  Live in the moment, she writes on the clean page, and underlines it twice. It is something she once saw in a magazine. And maybe don’t spill stuff.

  She looks up at the clock. It is nine forty-five. Only about 39,600 more moments, and then she can get back on the train and pretend this trip never happened.

  The Frenchwoman is still behind the reception desk when Nell returns to the hotel. Of course she is. She slides the key across the counter towards Nell. ‘The other lady is not back yet,’ the woman says. She pronounces it ze uzzer. ‘If she returns before I finish I will let her know you are in the room.’

  Nell mutters a thank-you and heads upstairs.

  She runs a shower and steps under it, trying to wash away the disappointment of the day. Finally, at half past ten, she climbs into bed and reads one of the French magazines from the bedside table. She doesn’t understand most of the words, but she hasn’t brought a book. She hadn’t expected to spend any time reading.

  Finally, at eleven, she turns off the light and lies in the dark, listening to the sound of mopeds whizzing down the narrow streets, and to the chatter of happy French people making their way home. She feels as if she has been locked out of a giant party.

  Her eyes fill with tears, and she wonders whether to call the girls and tell them what has happened. But she is not ready for their sympathy. She does not let herself think about Pete, and that she has been dumped. She tries not to imagine her mother’s face when she has to tell her the truth about her romantic weekend away.

  And then the door opens. The light flicks on.

  ‘I don’t believe it.’ The American woman stands there, her face flushed with drink, a large purple scarf draped around her shoulders.

  ‘I thought you would be gone.’

  ‘So did I,’ said Nell, pulling the covers over her head. ‘Would you mind turning down the light please?’

  ‘They never said you were still here.’

  ‘Well, I am.’

  She hears the clunk of a handbag on the table, the rattle of hangers in the wardrobe. ‘I do not feel comfortable spending the night with somebody I don’t know in the room.’

  ‘Believe me, you were not my first choice for tonight’s sleeping companion either.’

  Nell stays under the covers while the woman fusses about and goes in and out of the bathroom. She hears her scrubbing her teeth, gargling, the flush of a loo through walls that are far too thin. She tries to imagine she is somewhere else. In Brighton, maybe, with one of the girls, drunkenly making her way to bed.

  ‘I might as well tell you, I am not happy,’ the woman says.

  ‘Well, sleep somewhere else,’ snaps Nell. ‘Because I have just as much right to this room as you. More, if you think about the dates on our bookings.’

  ‘There’s no need to be snappy,’ said the woman.

  ‘Well, there’s no need to make me feel worse than I already bloody do.’

  ‘Honey, it’s not my fault your boyfriend didn’t turn up.’

  ‘And it’s not my fault the hotel double booked us.’

  There is a long silence. Nell wonders, briefly, if the woman is about to say something friendly. It is daft, after all, two women fighting in such a small space. We are in the same boat, she thinks. She tries to think of something friendly to say.

  And then the woman’s voice cuts across the dark: ‘Well, just so as you know, I’m putting my valuables in the safe. And I am trained in self-defence.’

  ‘And my name is Queen Elizabeth the Second,’ Nell mutters. She raises her eyes to heaven in the dark, and waits for the click that tells her the light has gone out.

  Even though she is exhausted and a bit sad, Nell can’t get to sleep. She tries to relax, to calm her thoughts, but around midnight, a voice in her mind says: Nope. No sleep for you, lady.

  Instead, her brain spins and churns like a washing machine, throwing up black thoughts like so much dirty laundry. Had she been too keen? Was she not cool enough? Was it because of her list of French art galleries, with their pros and cons (length of journey time versus possible queue)?

  Was she just too boring for any man to love?

  The night stretches and sags. She lies in the dark, trying to block her ears against the sound of the stranger snoring in the next bed. She tries stretching, yawning, changing her position. She tries deep breathing, relaxing bits of her body, and imagining her darker thoughts locked in a box and herself throwing away the key.

  At around three in the morning, she accepts she will probably be awake until dawn. She gets up and pads over to the window, pulling the curtain a few inches away from the glass.

  The rooftops glow under the street-lamps. A light drizzle falls silently onto the pavement. A couple, their heads close, make their way slowly home, murmuring to each other.

  This should have been so wonderful, she thinks.

  The American woman’s snoring is louder. She snorts, sounding like someone choking. Nell reaches into her suitcase for ear plugs (she had brought two pairs, just in case) and climbs back into bed. I will be home in a little over eight h
ours, she thinks, and with that comforting thought, she finally drifts off to sleep.

  Chapter Five

  At the café, Fabien sits by the kitchen hatch, watching as Emil scrubs at the huge steel pans. He is sipping a large coffee, and his shoulders slump. The clock says a quarter to one.

  ‘You’ll write another one. It will be better,’ says Emil.

  ‘I put everything I had into that book. And now it’s all gone.’

  ‘Come on. You say you are a writer. You must have more than one book in your head. If not, you will be a very hungry writer. And maybe next time, do it on a computer, yes? Then you can just print out another copy.’

  Fabien had found 183 pages of the 300-plus that had blown away. Some of them were blurred with dirt and rain-water, stamped with footprints. Others had disappeared into the Paris evening. As he walked the streets around his home he had seen the odd page, flying into the air, or sodden in a gutter, ignored by passers-by. Seeing his words out there, his innermost thoughts, made him feel as if he were standing in the street stark naked.

  ‘I’m such a fool, Emil. Sandrine told me so many times not to take my work out on the roof …’

  ‘Oh, no. Not a Sandrine story. Please!’ Emil empties the sink of greasy water and refills it. ‘I need some brandy if we are going to have a Sandrine story.’

  ‘What am I going to do?’

  ‘What your great hero, the writer Samuel Beckett, tells you to do: “Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”’

  Emil looks up, his brown skin glistening with sweat and steam. ‘And I’m not just talking about the book. You need to get out there again. Meet some women. Drink a little, dance a little … Find some material for another book!’

  ‘I don’t know. I’m not really in the mood.’

  ‘Then put yourself in the mood!’ Emil is like a radiator, always making you feel warmer. ‘At least you have a reason to get out of that apartment now, uh? Go and live a little. Think about something else.’