On the Rue Froidevaux

Paris, 1937

His mother sent them steaks through the post. Great hunks of ribeye which gave their churlish postman another excuse to complain. No self-respecting Frenchman, he scolded as he readjusted his képi, would let his mother send meat; and Hendrik, out of breath from his rush down four flights of stairs, tended to agree.

She had tried money first, a more convenient dispatch which slipped easily into the postbox on which their names were written in Angèle’s careful, looping hand. Her instructions were clear: they were to use it to eat. But food seemed prosaic; when they cashed the cheque, they spent it instead on balcony tickets to Faust at the Théatre Montparnasse, on Rue de la Gaieté.

‘She really wants us to eat,’ laughed Angèle now, as she peeled off the paper and examined the steak, distrusting its iridescence. She ran a finger across it, brought it up to her nose.

Hendrik raised his eyes affectionately to heaven.

‘She means well,’ he smiled. He picked up his satchel and came to kiss his wife, still in awe that he could, that fulfilment should feel so easy. Angèle’s hands flapped, like cherry blossom in wind, as she tried not to stain his jacket.

‘I better cook it tonight, darling,’ she said lightly, so fond of that word, as she rinsed her hands at the sink. ‘I’ll get a candle. Will you pick up some wine?’

Most nights they ate out, hungry for bustle and the soft evening air. Food itself seemed unimportant. At La Soupe Merveilleuse, on Boulevard de Montparnasse, five francs could get them soupe jardinière, dubious pale bowls of broth and peelings. There was a novelty, still, in the cramming of legs beneath a rickety table, the splintering of shared bread in Angèle’s hands, the pride which bloomed on Hendrik’s cheek as he ordered a demi of house wine. ‘Et pour mon épouse…’ he would say, though he had no call to, and his accent, slipping between vowels, would carry her away.

Everything felt new, in those late summer days. Even the dust, suspended in the sunlight of their attic rooms on the Rue Froidevaux, seemed to be dancing for them, and the plaintive mew of the cat on the roof scratched at their hearts as if there had never been a cat who was hungry. The Hemingways had lived two floors down when they were newly-weds, their landlady told them with a conspiratorial nod as she squeezed them into the tiny mansarde for a viewing. But the Hemingways meant little to them, just as steak meant little, or money, or things. Hemingway, as much as they admired him, seemed to belong to a world they had left behind, no more real to them now than Maupassant or Baudelaire, whose graves in the sprawling Montparnasse cemetery they could just about see if they craned their necks through the skylight.

Everything in the outside world seemed unimportant and hazy. Far clearer, in Hendrik’s mind, were the new geographies of marriage: the bold contours of the perfume vial on the top of the dresser, the blue curve of the‘Secret de Bonne Femme’ perching on the sill, the ripple of van Gogh irises Angèle had pinned to the sitting room wall. He loved the soft folds of her dressing gown, hanging on the back of the door, the fragile peaks of her breath when he woke in the night. When he sat, unrolling new worlds in the dusty university library, the future he was building felt distant and vague; now, he was sated with smaller things. The rattle of shutters as the cafés opened on Rue de la Gaieté, the crackle of Count Basie on the record player he had bought in La Panne, the quiet authority of Angèle as she laid out plates in the morning. There was a stillness to their life he had not previously known, as if time, like a fortress, had wrapped itself around them, giving space to their joys. When he studied at the small wooden table, he would glance up from his books and feel that Angèle, reading Le Monde or altering last season’s dresses, must surely be eternal, for how could the delicate wrist, the furrow of forehead, the dimple of cheek, disappear? 

For Angèle, too, Montparnasse was an island. The life she had left flickered briefly then faded; now she belonged to each day, and woke with a lightness that still caught her by surprise. In the warm mornings, she would walk through the city, admiring windows and exploring streets they did not yet know. Sometimes she would stop for a grenadine or a café au lait, eavesdropping on lovers and friends who sat at the marble-topped tables with brass edges, griping about neighbours and waving cigarettes. Sometimes she would go to the Louvre or the Jardin des Plantes, storing what she found to share with Hendrik later. For him, she annotated the city, claiming it as their own. When she saw that La Grande Illusion was screening at Le Champo, she thought of the musty auditorium in Brussels, the reach of Hendrik’s hand as Gabin, thigh deep in snow and violins, travelled the screen. When she sat on a sun-kissed bench in a quiet corner of the Luxembourg gardens, she felt his arm on her back, the grain of his jacket against her cheek. Through cobbled streets and wide boulevards, she moved on a cloud, anchored only by the anticipation whose urgency grew through the day, leading her, always, to the Rue Froidevaux and the quiet armchair, to wait for the race of his shoes on the stairs, the scramble of an impatient key in his hand.

There was a moment, then, when they stepped outside time. He, framed by the door and she, tilted like a flower to the sun. In that cloven breach was everything, and nothing. There was no Guernica, hanging in the Spanish pavilion at the World’s Fair, no swastika in the Trocadéro for the wind to buffet. Fear did not exist, nor courage. Angèle’s hand, as it held in her breath, was not scratched by the forest in which she would hide with their child; Hendrik’s thirst did not yet know to suck pebbles. There was no man hiding under the floorboards of their house, no Oranjehotel, no Villa Windekind, no Stalag X-B. There was no funeral for their son, no wedding for their daughter. There was no survival, no silence, no noise.

And yet there was everything as Hendrik stood and watched his bride, time suspended like the dust in the apartment on the Rue Froidevaux, where the past did not matter and the future was on hold. Time was just a whisper on the late summer breeze, which slipped through their small attic window and, seeing that it had come too soon, only grazed their skin and then drifted away.

by Fiona O’Brien

Fiona O’Brien is a writer, journalist and lecturer based in Kent. Her fiction has been published by White Rabbit and Spirit Duplicator, and she has been shortlisted for Wasafiri’s New Writing Prize. She can be found on Twitter @fiona_obrien. 

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons.