Stalker
As the golden autumn leaves tumbled along the cobbled ground near the stone walls, which
meandered up the hill towards the rose pink café on the corner, Warren noticed how Montmartre
appeared less busy than it had done just a few days ago. He liked it this way. The sky a more
concentrated grey and the crowds all but dispersed from the notorious district. He was able to
absorb it now—its quiet, alluring charm—he could breathe better too, without all the noise. Black
birds carved ovals across the chimney-plotted landscape, which slopped and bevelled with an
organic composition, like a beautiful, misshapen fruit; it felt good, to be able to walk through such a
fine part of Paris without the usual hoorah of tourism.
As he turned a corner, descending a narrow street, the moisture in the air suddenly sprinkled
fresh specks of rain across the dark trees and the roads ahead. Rain possessed such a freedom,
Warren thought. It was everywhere, not confound to a body like humans and animals. It was liberty
incarnate; bursting from nowhere and out into every corner and crevice of the old world. And it
could follow anything or anyone it liked. Although desire was probably not something with which
rain concerned itself. It had better things to do. Like paint Paris in its wash of archaic colour, as it
skittered across rooftops and pavements; washing down turfed-out gullies and boulevards. Rain
cleared things; cleared the air, the streets, the buildings, the restless knots and entanglements of a
life. Even the homeless avoided it, opting for resident enclosures and empty porches, rather than the
customary roll of cardboard under rows of streetlamps.
He liked to go walking in the popular districts, when they were just quiet enough for their
real, romantic charms to start brightly festooning into existence. It was humdrum enough for that
mysterious moody colour to come hovering over the night lights, and across the waiter fixing the
table in the café under the blue, early evening sky. The time when the rain had swept away the
pastiche, and when the cold had kept the narrow avenues clear enough to walk by without a knock
from the shoulder of a stranger.
As he strode up the hill, foot by foot, with the smell of smoke and alcohol stirring through
the oily, embalmed air, he thought about the first time he had come here. He was young; very young
then—still in school. He thought about how he’d scaled the steps up to the Sacre Coeur and a man
had chained a beaded bracelet around his wrist. How he’d panicked. ‘He wants money—give him
some euros,’ his friend Luke had said at the time; Warren’s French being under par, was unable to
speak. The man had gripped on to the string of the bracelet. ‘Pour Vouz. Cinq Euro,’ the man had
repeated, following Warren, with a calm yet menacing determination. The swirl of foreignness
around him, the thick alien tongue in the heat of the solstice, striking him as blunt and harsh.
Warren, his head meekly bowed, finally offered the man a scrap of coinage, and the man had
released his grip.
That seemed like so long ago now. And although it really wasn’t very long ago at all, his
perception of Paris had almost entirely altered. Back then, it had quite firmly terrified him. Now, as
his face had deepened, and an understanding had shaped around experience, he’d earned an
appreciation for its heavy, oneiric smells, developed a strong affection for its ritual, its food and
wine, and its rickety, appealing balance between bohemianism and aristocracy. Although he was not
much of a part of its social life, he could admire it now from a distance. He dreamed of it too,
romanticized it; hoping, one day, he too might be a silhouette, in its shining, elusive window.
When he reached the summit of the district, Warren noticed a small, empty café in the
square. Was it open? There didn’t seem to be anyone around. His carves ached from walking up the
steep hill and the chairs were out, so he decided to sit down to catch his breath. He looked out onto
the patio: pigeons grazed at morsels; a few strangers passed over the curve of the square and out
into the foggy distance. There were no berets or chalk faces in sight; nobody’s relative was being
distorted into a caricature, which brought an unusual and serene peace to the environment. Warren
listened to the rain drift and sputter down the gutter spouts and skim across the paving stones, and
almost, for a moment, lost where he was.
“Tu vu quelque chose?”
Warren turned and saw a young lady leaning on a beam in a black apron. Her arms were
folded and she struck a cheerful demeanour.
“Vouz avez la menu?”
“I’ll get you a menu,” she smiled when she detected his accent.
The smile was an affectionately mocking one, since Warren’s French was too English
sounding to be taken seriously. Warren hadn’t gathered this, however—all he saw was a classic,
pretty face; and, perhaps, most especially, blunt, ruby lips, which being so striking in the wetness of
the landscape appeared to stain the air—even as she turned nonchalantly on the beam to whisk
herself back into the kitchen—like a smudge; a stamped rose on the impeccable scene, stuck in the
visual portage of Warren’s guileless, dumbfounded mind.
The young lady returned and Warren glanced at the menu.
“I’ll get a coffee—un allonger?” Warren said, a half question, causing the young lady to curl
the side of her lip again. “And the onion soup.”
“Well, alright!” Her face was bright now, twinkling with a novelistic enjoyment of his earnest
character.
She scribbled down his order on a small pad, and to Warren’s surprise, she remained leaning
on the beam. The young lady asked him how long he’d been in Paris, and he told her of the aunt he
was staying with for the autumn season. It became apparent to Warren that the young lady
harnessed an unusual sense of comfort around him. She began to complain, thrashing her arms into
the air, staring at the rain-soaked square melodramatically, as she groused about tiny rooms and
extortionate rents; torrential summers and stuffy tourist traffic in a snail-shell of a city.
“It’s expensive—there’re a lot of people here. And… it’s small,” he said, trying to think of
what to say next. And then there was that smile again, which reassured Warren. After all, a smile
could almost only mean she liked him. This, to his mind, was affirmed by what she said next: “Don’t
worry. You’re not one of the tourists I hate. At least not yet!” Was she blushing? He wasn’t sure; the
reflected pools of rain often exposed uncommon colours in things this time of evening. “Donc. I’ll
go and place your order.”
When the young lady returned, she placed a steaming bowl of onion soup, then one hot
coffee, in front of Warren, and introduced herself as Chloe.
She leant on the beam and lit a cigarette, the smoke mingling into the dank air, before
wafting under a canopy and out into the open.
“So have you been learning French very long?”
“Well, actually, yes—you could say that I have.”
Chloe’s lips pursed into a smile.
She let him continue, not feeling the same gravity in the pause to which Warren had become
unusually sensitized: “I mean… if you count the lessons at school, and the preparation I did for this
trip—that’s a long time! Although it probably doesn’t seem like it!”
“French is hard—you’ll get there,” Chloe said. She breathed smoke into the air, bored by her
own response.
“Yeah… I’m not sure if I will actually.”
Chloe unearthed a cackle, instinctively putting her white cloth to her mouth to smother it.
“So, you are staying with your aunt? You are close with her?” Chloe asked, feigning interest.
“I am—but she’s a funny character. A bit of a religious fanatic you could say…”
“Ah, we have had a lot of those here. Not all of them good.” Chloe’s complexion suddenly
became cold. Colour withdrew from her cheeks, causing Warren to lose the small slice of confidence
he had uncharacteristically forged.
“No, I suppose…”
“Excuse me, I have to check on something,” Chloe said, flicking her cigarette into a puddle
and rushing to the kitchen. For a moment, Warren thought he’d really blown it; that he’d offended
her with his stupid, insensitive remarks. He was, after all, fairly new to the culture. The French,
surely, were different to the English. To be so different, and yet separated by such a slim channel of
water… Warren’s foggy bleak thoughts dispelled, however, when Chloe returned. This time, with a
brighter smile on her face. Perhaps he hadn’t offended her. With her arms folded, and her gait leant
on the beam, she stared out into the misty rain and began to talk of her life; her voice different now,
her tone more sombre, yet truer, as though she were reining in to some inner focus—it seemed then
that Chloe were as close to him as any other important person in her world; as if she trusted him.
“My parents are English. They were bohemian, so when Thatcher came into power, they
moved here without a second’s thought.”
Warren savoured the drawn out, atypical phonetics of Chloe’s phrasing. The way ‘here’, was
delivered to sound like ‘ear’, for example; how the pronunciation of Thatcher came out as a rough,
textualized ‘err’ at the end of that name.
“They cut off everybody and started this new life,” Chloe said.
“It was that easy, huh?”
“Much easier then, actually—believe it or not. We think ourselves freer now with the
internet and such things, when in fact they slow us down; keep us tied together with people we don’t
really care about…”
“Is that weird for you?”
“How do you mean?”
“Like, you know, living here. You know, having parents from England… you seem so
ingrained, sort of, in the whole…”
She smiled, and Warren noticed her teeth were a stained, tobacco smoker’s yellow, that her
hands were not as clean as he had first perceived, that the black varnish of her nails were chipped; all
of which had the strange effect of relaxing him around her a little more than before.
“Well, yes. But I’ve been here since I was a baby, so… and anyway, you don’t have to be
here very long before you start to feel Parisian. Look at you right now, for instance, with your cup of
coffee, your French, your onion soup!” Her eyes brightened. “You see, it doesn’t take long at all!”
Chloe pulled out another cigarette, lit the end and took a deep drag.
“Besides, my parents… they made a rule when they moved here. Never speak English.
Never look back. So that’s why…”
“Why…”
“… My English is quite bad, yes… hup!” She shrugged her shoulders and tapped some ash
into the air, which blew the flakes into nothing.
“No, it’s not necessarily that… it’s just…”
“I should let you eat… bon appetite, my friend!” She smiled and her eyes seemed to glimmer
like a pair of beautiful dark stones.
Warren did not take that ‘friend’ lightly. Did she refer to every customer as her ‘friend’? He
doubted it very much. He, therefore, must have been special to her; must have felt the connection
he had felt—Warren was sure of it. ‘Friend’ could have all kinds of connotations, especially in
France, and in Paris!—well… who knows what she may have been subtly, but surely, signalling.
Warren turned his head and admired her angular, waify frame; her dark complexion; the way
her scruffy hair hung down from her shoulders, as she set a table in the back. He noticed the ridged
line of her nose. Her misshapen nose and large brown eyes made him think of a renaissance portrait;
the dark background, the unusually intimate gaze of the subject. So familiar and penetrating; and yet
so, incomprehensibly, far away.
The next day, Warren decided he would crawl up the hill again to the same café in the hope of
finding Chloe. The weather had cleared and the district was busier now. People jammed through
trails of Montmartre and caught themselves in the nets of melodramatic painters and mime artists,
which made the area seem lacking in its truer mysteries living beneath the façade. It had lost its
oneiric quality and the walk seemed to Warren sobering rather than romantic or dreamy, as it had
done only yesterday. It almost appeared to him as a different place, the atmosphere was so changed.
But he knew that it wasn’t. A cold breeze blew across his face and refreshed him. In the shop of
local paintings with the yellow walls, he watched an elder lady pridefully hang up a small framed
piece out the front—a Van Gogh style mustard landscape with a thick blue sky—and Warren
thought to himself that things weren’t so bad. He walked the long way, through narrower avenues,
around the backs of flats and bistros, where men in grey one piece suits moved furniture along
ramps from a building, and odorous heaps of steam pummelled out from the open windows.
Warren’s hair was still wet from the shower and he felt the morning sun through the pale trees on
the other side of the road beginning to dry the roots as he walked. The quieter way had led him
straight to a bustling metro station, where suddenly he was sifting through crowds and feeling that
familiar yet unusual collective loneliness, as he felt the fabric of stranger’s clothes brush past him,
until finally he reached the café at the top of the hill.
He approached and then paused outside the café. He noticed Chloe serving coffees and
putting bill trays on tables. The place was busier now—and the café seemed to overflow from the
rafters on to the cobbled street with an older, financial type. Chloe, in turn, noticed Warren, but—
contrary to how he’d imagined on his way up the hill—she did not smile, or wave; nor, indeed, did
she present any indication to him that she at all knew of who he was, which was a bizarre and
troubling disposition to with which to be greeted. A greeting which, by degrees, was true, of
course—they did not really know each other—and so he sat down at one of the empty brown tables,
like any ordinary customer, and looked out sadly at the detail of the winding district beneath the
rising sun. He waited; a little longer than he’d expected for Chloe to come over. When finally she
appeared, hovering over his rickety, street-side table, Warren found the initial feel of stoicism that
had formed—at having not been acknowledged in the way he expected—had stiffened; hardened
into a firmer barrier, which, not wanting to appear sinister—or sensitive—he tried to shake off, but
was unsuccessful by the time she approached.
“Hey,” Warren found himself saying, a little deeper in the throat, and a touch more severe
than intended.
“Bonjour!” Chloe exclaimed, lightly and with an air of affirmed distance.
One thing was clear: she’d retained some of her brightness. The colour in her cheeks, the soft
transient glow in her eyes, as though even during the waking day a portion of her were lounging on
the couch of a dream. Still, something was off; something not quite there that had been. Warren
wanted to find a way to get it back; to destroy the wedge that time had driven between them. Just
then, he noticed how she held the notepad high, how the pen in her hand sat readily on the page;
how the voices of the crowds seemed to shake the day turbulently forwards. He anxiously looked at
the menu and tried to translate before quickly giving up.
“What would you like, sir?” Chloe smiled—and although there was life in it, the smile was
not the same as the day before.
“I’ll get the… yeah… I’ll just get the same as yesterday, thanks.”
“And what was that?”
He couldn’t help but frown. “Uh, the onion soup… the… the coffee?”
“And that is all?”
“Yes. I… I think that’s all.” His eyelid involuntarily trembled. “For now.”
“D’accord,” Chloe took the menu with an impossible graciousness, and before Warren could
think of what to say she was gone.
But something else, too, had disappeared: the spirit of yesterday; its sense of possibility, its
magic. Now the dry sunny weather blew things along, and the customers yammered away about their
problems as usual, drawing shapes in the air with their hands; and so it seemed something important
was lost. It was like their perceptions of one another had recalibrated. The awkward, fuzzy energy
between them now stifled Warren with a sense of betrayal. And although there was anger, this was
mostly aimed at himself: for having allowed room in the midst of a mere passing day, for the
glimmer of intimacy and trust, to have spread its wings and come stooping down into the next
morning. But days are so different, Warren, thought. If a day changes, if the weather and energy of a
city changes, if the planets move from one position to another, why do we presume a person stays
the same? The sky was just an idea. But things—feelings—they were constantly in flux.
When Chloe returned to Warren’s table she surprised him.
“What are you doing today?” She asked, as she set the onion soup and the coffee in front of
him. When he didn’t answer immediately, she folded her arms. She was smiling and he felt a familiar
tingle in his stomach beginning to stir like a cocktail of hormones. As he looked at her smile, her
dark eyes, it seemed they were sharing in something almost akin to what had been shared before; as
though just for a moment, the doors of yesterday had opened, and all its faint, lightheaded promises
lay once again ajar.
He’d almost forgotten she had asked him a question.
“I… actually, I might have to go and revise at one of the libraries. I’m trying to get into this
university for Art History.”
Chloe didn’t say anything back; but rather simply held her smile; comfortable in the ring of
silence fattening between them.
“Then my aunt wants to see some opera. She’s crazy my aunt. She loves that kind of thing.”
“Oh, Opera’s not crazy,” Chloe said softly.
“No, it’s not,” Warren replied, feeling a sharp pang of stupidity.
“Well, enjoy your day—and the opera!” She said, lifting her eyebrows.
Warren watched her glide over to another table and hand out menus to new customers. He
could just about make out the quick startle of her soft voice mingling with the birds in the pale trees
on the other side of the road, and watched at how the customers moved and startled as they spoke;
and the world itself seemed to move and startle.
Warren wasn’t sure why he climbed the steps to the Sacre-Couer the next day, only that he seemed
to be pulled there by some invisible lustre of gravity. As he marched each step in a half-daze,
nobody bothered him. Not the lost tourists with their maps and phones; not the accordion players
with their blazed smiles; nor the men parked at each turn, hanging colourful wristbands from their
hands. He let himself be carried to the church, as though no other route could have been picked that
morning.
When he pushed the heavy door open, and let it glide back in place, a pious silence washed
over him. People seemed almost to tiptoe around the interior, gently meandering around statues and
paintings of saints and the famous theological scenes. There was a chill in the air, and a distinct
musky Damascus smell, stirring off the dark marble and the ancient construction of the building.
The weather was slanted, mystical and grey through the stained glass, and he felt once again a
strange spark of possibility.
That was when he saw her: Chloe, knelt beneath a painting of Mary and Jesus. The darkness
of the oily shadows in the background caused the faces of the figures to appear stark and eerie. The
way the curvature of the bones, in the expression of the Jesus figure, was sallow; how the eyes of
Mary were bloodshot with an apocalyptic fear. Chloe put some coins in the donation box and lit a
candle with a match, sitting back reverently on the bench, her thighs somehow effusing sublime
energies. The fire cast a red glow across her face and for the first time Warren saw in her a different
temperament. He knew that it was just a collection of forces—the atmosphere, the lighting, the
silence—but from where he stood she looked almost holy; as though she belonged there, as though
it were impossible to distinguish her from the oily canvases upon which she set her eyes and prayed.
Warren didn’t want to disturb Chloe, so he sat on one of the chairs diagonally behind her, a
few yards away, where he could still make out the solemn expressions at the side of her face; the
movements of her delicate, spidery hands. Was he doing anything wrong? He didn’t feel like he was;
their crossing was, after all, coincidental. Or fatalistic, depending on how one saw the world.
There were a few things he could have done then: he could have left, of course; or else
disturb the ritual in which she was clearly wholesomely engaged, and which was obviously deeply
important to her, even as he sensed a detachment within her motions of that ritual. Neither of those
options seemed right somehow. It was only proper, then, to wait, and watch. Of course it was.
A few seconds went by in stillness and silence.
Then Warren observed closely, as Chloe’s hand arose, followed by a sweeping movement
which he couldn’t discern. Perhaps she was making the cross symbol above her chest. But no, it
appeared then that she was pulling a note from somewhere. Suddenly, he had a sense, like an
electrical tingle running down his spine, that he should remove himself from the situation; that—as
she placed the note somewhere on the shrine and a faint tear rolled jaggedly across her cheek—what
he was watching was simply too private. He shifted his weight as if about to leave; he imagined
himself walking away, past the candles, the Baroque canvases, and out the door into the cool,
chaotic throb of Montmartre. And yet he couldn’t. It was like some insurmountable weight of
gravity had kept him there, bound to his chair; bound to the sight of Chloe. And so he watched. He
waited. And he saw what she was about to do next, like a witness to a holy parable.

Chris Viner is a writer based in Los Angeles. He is the author of Lemniscate (nominated for a Pushcart Award). His work appears in Colorado Review, Critical Read, Culture Trip, The Festival Review, The London Magazine, and Woven Tale Press, among others. He holds degrees from Goldsmiths, University of London and St Anne’s College, University of Oxford, where he was a recipient of the Pasby Prize for his writing. He is poetry editor at Twin Bill magazine.

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