The old, old story (John Clanchy)
Spring in Paris. It was the spell cast by the words themselves which had drawn her there. Which had led her to squander on airfares and a cheap hotel the seven thousand dollars that she’d slogged through a semester’s teaching to save, and which she’d mentally reserved for buying herself out of bondage. For purchasing the space, the time to write. And had splurged instead on three talismanic words. Spring in Paris. Simply in order to be able to say to herself, to other people, Spring in Paris. Paris in Spring. I’m going. I am here. I was there.
What had she expected to find? Not love surely? Not that old story?
On her first morning there, a Monday, it had rained. Not the melancholy, misting rain which, on a postcard, could ravage the heart, but hard slanting rain that drove in under her jacket and umbrella and chilled her bare legs. People – mostly young people, students at this hour – ran for the bus stops, for the metro, heads down and hands clutched about their midriffs, protecting bags, papers, books beneath their coats. One or two muttered ‘Pardon’ as they side-stepped around her, pursuing their lives. She might have been a fire hydrant.
The rain eventually drove her indoors. Into scenes straight from the Middle Ages – their gloominess lit, as her eyes adjusted, by an occasional shaft of coloured glass. By a glint off ivory, or enamel. A stone set in gold.
She moved slowly around the exhibits, half-taking them in. At least it was warm in here, quiet, the subdued lighting restful to the eye. It would be astonishingly easy, she thought, to believe that people’s lives had been as inspirational as this. As inventive, as artful, as devout, as dreaming as this. Instead of the bleak, possessed squalor that she knew from history books and from the gargoyles on the walls outside that it actually had been.
Because it was a Monday, and early, the Musée was virtually empty. And silent. Even the sounds of the traffic from the busy morning streets outside, from boulevard Saint-Germain on one side and boulevard Saint-Michel on the other, were unable to penetrate the metre-thick stone walls.
And yet there was one sound. A hissing which went on and on in a continuous stream. And which rubbed on her nerves. It had pursued her, she realised, from the Ground Floor up here to the First, and therefore couldn’t just be a leaking heater or air vent. She peered around, her annoyance giving way to anger, as she tried to identify the source of the sound. The hissing that was driving her nuts, simply because it was so low in all this silence. And because she both knew and didn’t know what it was.
Until she spotted them. An old couple, gnomically small, in long raincoats that reached almost to the floor, the man in a beret, the woman’s hair bare, absurdly yellow, and flattened against her skull by the rain. Their backs were to her, but she knew instantly then what the sound was. It was a human voice, pitched deliberately low, but persistent, practised, unstoppable. She looked for the tell-tale cord, the black box of the audio-guide from which the voice must be issuing, but could seen no sign of it. The couple’s heads were locked together, the man’s face actually resting on the top of the woman’s head, as the low hissing commentary went on.
She moved away to another corner of the room then, but the sound pursued her. As the couple themselves did – their figures still attached, moving as one, a single block of coordinated shadow in the already gloomy space. While the voice continued. Until it was interrupted by a different voice altogether.
‘Yes, but what is it, Maurice?’ the woman asked. When, even from a distance, it was obvious what it was. A bible. An illuminated page, with the capital gleaming, as if still wet with gold. The woman had her nose against the glass. The man’s lips lay against her hair, behind her ear. He was old, she could see more clearly now, the reflection of the capital laying down patches of dull yellow on his forehead, his cheeks, in his thin beard.
‘It’s a bible, luv,’ the sibilance returned, and the instant of compassion she’d felt when she’d seen the age, the tiredness in his face, was negated once more by the stream of unbroken commentary. ‘It’s an illuminated page of a bible from Basel. The capital’s a V, and it’s done in pure gold . . .’
My God, what a know-all, she might have breathed aloud, as she wrenched herself away from this slightly sinister couple – the man’s left hand, she now noticed, clamped on his wife’s shoulder, on her neck, as if permanently fixed there. She shuddered, seeing a whole life of possession. Of a hand on a neck. A voice. Still announcing.
‘It’s fourteenth century . . .’
She longed all of a sudden to be outside again, to feel the rain in her face. Breathe air that hadn’t been recycled through centuries.
She looked quickly into the last room, spent a few distracted moments glancing at carved altarpieces, at choir stalls, reliquaries, and was about to head for the exit when she spotted them again, slipping through a narrow wall-slit into another gallery she’d not seen for herself. She would still have gone but for the way the man seemed to drive the woman before him, never letting go of his purchase on her neck, even when they had to pass singly through the narrow doorway. She convinced herself that she had to look – not from fascination or repulsion – but just to make sure the woman was all right.
As she approached the slit in the wall, the sound reached her, seeming to issue from the stone itself. Then it stopped, mid-sentence, and she was compelled to look in. The couple stood no more than four feet away. The man looking back at her. A miniature frieze of guilt – and what, for a moment, looked almost like pleading. His left hand was on the woman’s neck but his right hand was closed over hers, their fingers, tightly entwined, tracing together a carved apostle’s head on a wooden altarpiece. PRIERE DE NE TOUCHER PAS. DO NOT TOUCH, the sign in black capitals over their heads spelled out.
Don’t tell, a child’s face emerged from within the old man’s. We meant no harm.
The woman’s head turned slowly then, following the direction of the man’s gaze – though that could only have been by instinct, or through long years of habit and companionship – since the eyes, when they finally landed on her face, were opaque, sightless.
She directed a tight smile at the old man. Whose secret, her smile tried to say, would be safe with her.
Spring in Paris. Her heels rapped out the words on the wooden floors as she hurried through the empty rooms and back out into the wet streets. Having already seen enough for one morning.