by Robert Steward Paris, France 2001“I like your clothes,” I said, before taking a sip of my café au lait.
“Thank you, Robert.” My landlady touched her headscarf. “I make them myself.”
Her silk floral caftan hung loosely over her large frame. It was burgundy, with purple spots, gold suns, azure swirls, lilac flowers and hints of mustard and antique rose; it was all held together with a silver brooch, set in the middle of her chest. She had a pale round face, puffy cheeks and a double chin; two large eyebrows hovered over brown eyes and black rimmed glasses, and her burgundy lipstick matched her nail varnish and flowery earrings. She looked bohemian, like an artist.
Behind her, stood café Zebra, with its French windows, black and white striped awning and blackboard, displaying the plat du jour. It was getting dark now, and the old-fashioned streetlamps lit up one by one, accompanying the neon lights of the boutiques, bistros and bars.
“So Robert, how are things at your school?” she asked.
She had a quiet, refined voice with a slight Spanish accent.
“Fine, thanks,” I said.
There was an awkward silence. I didn’t know what else to say.
A waiter weaved past with a tray of coffees.
“And the apartment?” she asked. “Is everything okay?”
“Yes, everything’s fine, thanks.”
“I hope the smell of paint has gone,” she added.
“Oh yes, I hardly notice it now.”
“Good,” she said. “Good.”
I took another sip of coffee and remembered something from our first meeting.
“So, you lived in Barcelona, then?” I asked.
“Yes,” she replied.
“In what part?”
“Oh, in Gràcia,” she replied absently.
“Oh, so did I!” my voice rose, as if now we had something special in common.
Suddenly, it all came back to me; the bars in Plaça del Sol, the smell of the Gràcia food market, the sound of children playing outside my apartment.
“Do you know Plaça de John Lennon?” I asked.
She pursed her lips and frowned.
“Yes, I think so,” she replied vaguely and studied the back of her hand.
“So, were you born there?”
“No, actually, I’m from Bolivia.”
“Really? So when did you move to Barcelona?”
“About ten years ago. Before that, I lived in Argentina.”
“So, you’ve travelled a lot, then?”
“Well Robert, we had to leave Bolivia for political reasons,” she said in a low voice.
Her expression remained fixed at the memory.
“Oh,” I said, a little unsure of what to say next. “So, what made you come to Paris?”
“I’ve always wanted to come here,” she said, adjusting her headscarf. “It has everything: art galleries, museums, classical music, theatre–every night of the week.”
I nodded approvingly. Paris wasn’t just a city, it was an education, in art, cuisine, culture; it was an education in life.
“And I just love art.” She sighed, playing with her brooch. “I can spend hours and hours just wandering around an art gallery. Only last week I was looking at a painting in the Louvre and found myself completely absorbed by it. There was a half-naked woman holding the French flag in one hand and a rifle in the other, and the people from the revolution following behind; I must’ve been standing in front of it for over twenty minutes.”
“Yes, it was so vibrant, so fiery that I even started to cry.”
“And then a museum guard approached me and asked if I was okay. I must say, it was all a little embarrassing.” She smiled.
“No,” I said softly, shaking my head.
“Finally, I just had to sit down–I was so… so overawed by it all.”
The word eccentric didn’t come close to describing her; neither did the words odd, peculiar or unusual. But I liked her; she was fragile, sincere; she had a fascinating charm about her.
I sipped my coffee. She sipped hers too, with her finger and thumb pinching the cup handle, her other fingers in the air. When she put her cup down she rubbed her shoulders. It was starting to get a bit chilly.
“By the way, I’ve got the rent for you here,” I said, reaching into my jacket pocket.
She lifted her hand.
“Wait,” she said.
Her face became serious, her eyes watchful.
She took an envelope out of her burgundy handbag.
“Here,” she said softly but firmly. “I’d like you to put the money in this envelope.”
She slid it across the table and looked away.
I took the envelope.
“No, not here,” she whispered.
I looked around, slightly confused.
“Go into the toilet.” She nodded towards the café.
“Shhh!” She put a finger to her mouth.
“Oh, okay then.” I found myself whispering.
I got up and went into the café. It was full of people eating, drinking, smoking. The bar was L-shaped with two red dome lights hanging from the ceiling. One corner of the bar was filled with wine bottles and spirits, and in the middle sat a silver coffee machine with La Marzocco written on the front. Behind it stood a barista, making some coffee. He was bald with a hooked nose and handlebar moustache. He wore a white shirt and jacket with a black bow tie. He seemed like a caricature of himself.
“Où sont les toilettes?” I asked.
“Là-bas,” he indicated with a wave of his hand.
Past the bar, the café looked cosier, with wallpapered walls, brown leather armchairs and felt covered chairs. On the wall hung a picture of a black cat, called Tournée du Chat Noir. It was one of my favourites.
The toilet was down a winding staircase, the cubicle small and dimly lit. I took out the French bank notes from my pocket, counted them out and put them in the envelope. It felt like I was doing something sinister, like doing a drugs deal or selling stolen goods.
If anyone could see me now, I thought, looking into the mirror.
I couldn’t help but laugh.
I put the envelope into my jacket pocket and unlatched the door.
The café looked smaller now, the atmosphere more intense. I started to feel self-conscious; maybe my landlady’s paranoia was becoming contagious. Eyes looked up at me from everywhere, the barista from behind the coffee machine, the waiter from behind his tray of drinks, the customers from behind their tables. It was as if they all knew. I tried to avoid their glances as I went outside and sat down.
“Ah, there you are,” my landlady whispered. “Have you done it?”
“Yes,” I replied.
“Okay.” She looked over her shoulder. “Give it to me under the table.”
I took the envelope out of my pocket and passed it to her under the table. She looked around again and put the envelope into her handbag.
“Wait here,” she said out of the corner of her mouth and walked into the café.
I sat at the table and waited.
I wonder if I’ll have to do this every time, I thought.
A waiter walked past.
“Er, l’addition s’il vous plaît,” I said, catching his eye.
I waved my hand as if writing a cheque.
“Tout de suite,” he replied, and walked into the café.
I looked at the other people sitting outside. Two women sat crossed legged at a table; they seemed to be gossiping about something. At another table a man sat alone, reading a book, and at another, a woman also sat alone, smoking.
Paris was a good place to be alone.
I stared into the distance in a pensive mood. I felt relieved to have my own apartment; no more living out of a suitcase, no more flea-ridden pensions in Gare du Nord, no more embarrassing phone calls enquiring about flats to rent. Now, I had my own place, my own bed, my own kitchen, my own bathroom, my own–
“Robert?” my landlady said, breaking me out of my spell.
“Everything okay?” I asked, scratching my head.
“Yes,” she replied, and sat down.
She adjusted her headscarf. She touched her ear, wrinkled her nose and finally settled down to playing with her brooch.
She seemed more serene now, happy to sit in silence.
“It’s a nice evening, isn’t it?” I said finally, looking out onto the cobblestone street.
“Yes, it is,” she said.
She moved her head as if she was looking at a picture.
“Oh Robert, what a wonderful tree!” she exclaimed.
I looked over my shoulder. The leaves were starting to turn yellow; in the lamp light they looked almost golden.
“Oh yes,” I said, turning back to her. “It’s beautiful, isn’t it?”
“I never noticed it before.” Her eyes glistened and her lips turned upwards into a gentle smile. “It’s so small, so fragile, so… so joli.”# About the Author:Robert Steward teaches English as a foreign language and lives in London. He is currently writing a collection of short stories, some of which have appeared in Scrittura, The Creative Truth, The Ink Pantry, Winamop, The Foliate Oak Literary and Communicators League magazine. You can find them at: twitter.com/theroadtonaples