George had just received the kind of offer men seem incapable of refusing. I know that because he’d told me so over a glass of champagne in Kettners.
“Darling, I really can’t see how I can say no,” he smiled between sips of Veuve Clicquot. The irresistible offer in question was a transfer to the Paris office of the large publishing firm he was working for at the time, entrusted with launching a new series of children’s books, which naturally sank without trace. I think we even toasted to its success.
In truth my husband had no need to bribe me with premeditated bubbles. I readily pictured myself wandering through all those wonderful fashion houses, sipping coffee in the sun, and discussing poetry and politics into dawn over packets of Gauloises. I guess I viewed myself as a latter day De Beauvoir, only more chic, to George’s Sartre, though I’m not sure which of us was most miscast.
At first the city proved as vibrant as I had imagined. We’d gate-crash pretentious openings by never to be remembered artists, and sleep in late only to be awoken by the smell of freshly baked bread from the boulangerie below or to the noise of the young couple above making love. Weekends we’d cycle off into the country before crashing – sometimes literally given the wine we drank – into an auberge for the night, or stay up to the early hours listening to Serge Gainsbourg songs and debating the rise of the Far Right.
But soon even I became bored of the shallowness of this existence. Honestly there’s just so much Chanel, Dior and Farhi a girl can pack into a day let alone her shopping bags. I’d never before been out of work. Not that I was one to slavishly throw myself into a job as I did upon men, far from it, but just like the uncle who tells off-colour jokes at Christmas ordeals, life somehow appeared less in its absence.
Like so many women who have followed their hubbie for his career, I found myself lost, after all there are only a certain number of ways you can spin a salad. It was a chance conversation during one particularly tedious dinner party with George’s obscenely xenophobic business colleague and his smugly pregnant wife that set me on my wanderings.
The newspapers were full of this story. A young girl had been knifed to death in the 19th arrondissement in broad daylight. White and a medical student destined for great things, her attacker was an unemployed Arab seemingly headed in the opposite direction until their paths crossed as he attempted to snatch her bag. She resisted and was stabbed through the heart for her efforts. A street full of bystanders watched on and did nothing.
“Should send them all back home,” George’s older and all-knowing but still non-senior colleague said, presumably of the muggers rather than the bystanders, although I had lost the gist of the conversation somewhere between the second and third bottle of Nuits-Saint-Georges. Fortunately asceticism just like mantras had become a thing of the past by now.
“I’ll never let my daughter walk alone like that,” his expectant wife echoed thus condemning her progeny to a lifetime of infantile servitude. “It’s just not safe.”
George nodded throughout, while I bit my lip.
On the way back home George and I quarrelled. This was no uncommon event, in fact it was becoming as much a habit these days as fine red wine and nicotine. Though this time I was in the right. After all he could hardly deny that his colleague was a fucking racist pig although perhaps I should have refrained from shouting this at him as he bade us farewell on his doorstep.
I’m not sure what proved the trigger – our argument, the soon-to-be mother’s maternal over-protectiveness or just the endlessness of our beautiful, bourgeois existence – but the following day I found myself walking down the exact same street where the poor student had lost her life, my camera ready for action.
They say a city reflects the people who live there. Paris is like a swan. Beautiful and haughty above water, but beneath the graceful surface, there lurks an underbelly of frantic activity that keeps it all afloat. It was this I sought in my wanderings.
I had no real plan. Perhaps I convinced myself I was creating a reportage of the people who lived the streets of Paris that respectable, pregnant mothers dared not tread. I still had hopes of becoming a photographer back then. Though that is probably me trying to install a meaning upon a period in my life that was distinctly Brownian. Perhaps I just needed to get out of the house.
I chose not to share my daily excursions with George. On the seldom times he asked what I’d been up to that day, I simply said I’d taken a few photographs or read a book. He never did ask what was the subject of my book or the object of my photographs. Our relationship had progressed beyond that point.
The day I met Yousuf was much like any other. I was wandering the streets of the 19th arrondissement conspicuous in my efforts to be inconspicuous, my head hidden under a black hoody, my camera wrapped tightly around my wrist lest I befell the same fate as my inspirational student. I had bought a pair of combat trousers which I mistakenly believed would help me blend into the background, as if I were in no man’s land.
My intention, as such, was to visit a small market noted for the freshness of its vegetables. Instead I became distracted by a narrow street filled with balconies overflowing with washing that shimmered in the low autumnal sun. I spent hours trying to capture the image I had in my head but proved incapable of doing the glorious light any justice. I gave up once the rumbling in my stomach became too loud for me to ignore any longer.
By now I was at the far end of the street in an unfamiliar neighbourhood. I would not say that I was scared. After all this was Paris not Kabul or Basra with taxis rather than helicopters awaiting to evacuate me at the first sign of danger, but still I felt a shot of adrenaline flow through my veins for the first time in ages. Like everywhere in Paris there was a local café close by where a group of men huddled outside discussing politics, football or the latest tabloid gossip while smoking Gitanes.
I walked inside trying to be as invisible as a young white woman can in a café full of older black and Arab men, all the time careful not to catch their already ensnared eyes.
I took up a vacant seat by the window and started to flick through the photos I’d just taken. As the waitress came to take my order, I glanced up and that’s when I noticed Yousuf seated at the table next to mine. Half his face was bleached by the sun the other half as dark as the mahogany panelling of the wall that framed him.
Our eyes met for just a second, but that was ample time for him. With a certainty you can only find in Paris, he approached my table and more presumed than asked to join me. Then he took my camera in his hands and pausing briefly to see that I had no objection – I think I was too paralysed to oppose anything – he flicked through my photos before placing it down on the table between us.
“You are a very beautiful woman,” he said once he had finished. “But inside there is nothing.”
I almost stormed out on him like a sulking schoolgirl, stamping my shoes on the bare floorboards. Nobody had ever spoken to me like that. Not my husband, not mama and papa, nobody. But there was something about his certainty that transfixed me. That and he had the body of a black Adonis.
“You have an eye but no soul.”
I opened my mouth but nothing came out, something of a rarity it must be said.
Before I’d finished my coffee we’d agreed to visit a nearby orphanage where he volunteered.
It was a short walk but on the way we stopped to buy some sweets.
“Kids love candy,” he said betraying an American education.
I offered to pay but he refused.
“Next time,” as if the sequel had already been penned in Holywood.
The school was a run down building that had previously been an asylum. As we arrived a young boy in a Lionel Messi shirt was painting a butterfly on the building’s white walls. Beside him a volunteer etched a sunflower while monitoring the child’s creativity.
Yousuf clasped the man’s hand firmly in all-too-evident camaraderie and then departed. Soon all the children were lined up in front of the building and I wandered through their ranks handing out sweets as though they were emergency relief rations.
Each child smiled at me and said “merci” with a slight bow or curtsey as I handed out their treats. When my bag was empty, they all shouted a final “merci madame” before hurrying back into the building.
It was only once Yousuf took me around the back to a trough with running water and a bottle of liquid soap, that he explained all the children were HIV+.
A little girl who had taken an instant shine to me dragged me towards the assembly room where most of the children sat on the floor while a few of the older kids and some volunteers stood on the low stage singing songs and nursery rhymes. As other kids were pulled from the floor to join them on the stage, the whole place erupted with laughter and uncontrollable squeals of delight. I think I was the only one crying. The girl held my hand throughout.
“Most of them became infected through their mothers,” Yousuf explained as he walked me towards the nearest Metro station. “Some were prostitutes, but most were addicts. Now the children just have us.”
I did not know what to say. Perhaps there was nothing to say. So, instead we air-kissed each other’s cheeks as if from a different universe to the one we had just visited, and arranged to meet the following day at the same time in the same café.
That night I tried to explain to George the strange events of the day, but he returned home late and exhausted, and just wanted to watch some American series on Cable.
And so my dual existence began. By day, Yousuf would introduce me to a side of Parisian life that the city’s respectable society chose not to see, while at night I would play the dutiful wife, preparing meals for the occasional times that George returned on time from work, or attending interminable dinner parties where his friends would drone on about the scroungers in whose company I had just spent the day.
At first there was nothing sexual to our relationship. Not that we lacked physical attraction. I still have yet to meet another man with as powerful a physique as Yousuf’s and even withstanding my lack of soul I was always aware he found me beautiful.
But there was something godlike about the Yousuf I beheld that transcended the sexual. He took me to places I would never have dreamed to visit on my own, made me do things I would otherwise have shirked from. I helped out in soup kitchens for refugees, held the hands of women who had suffered acid attacks from jealous husbands, I even managed to sing Frere Jacques, the one song I could remember from French lessons at school, on the orphanage’s narrow stage my devotee smiling next to me.
The one time we did make love was late at night after a fundraising exhibition of some paintings by the orphans. George was in Toulouse attending a conference. I doubted his motives, more than once lately he had returned home at night doused in the same woman’s cheap perfume. Yousuf’s apartment was very simple. Exposed floors and walls, a small balcony that opened out onto the adjoining building. What space it possessed was dominated by the huge bed and its crumpled, unmade sheets.
After so many weeks of foreplay it’s hardly surprising that the first act concluded shortly after the curtain was raised. He’d hardly put his condom on before coming inside me. The second act was much more satisfying, for me at any rate.
We lay until three or four in the morning, my head resting on his chest listening to his heart rise and fall, toying with his tightly curled chest hairs before drifting off into a deep sleep.
Yousuf was still asleep when I woke later that morning and tripped my way through our discarded clothes to his bathroom. The signs of another woman were there for all to see. He’d made no attempt to disguise the fact when going to the loo the night before. Make-up removal and Absolue Nuit night care lotion shared the flimsy shelf above the basin with his electric razor and toothbrush. Why should he conceal the truth, after all I was married woman and we had never discussed any future? But still as I saw a disposable shower cap hanging from the curtain rail, despite Yousuf’s shaven hair, I could not help but feel betrayed.
The following week I got the result of my test. Despite being over a month late, I could not believe I was pregnant. The last time George and I had made love was on a weekend away at the country retreat of one of his colleagues after imbibing far too much wine. That must have been a couple of months ago now, but still my GP confirmed my condition, before adding I was two months gone, putting Yousuf out of the picture paternally speaking.
Still, it was to him I turned the day I received the good news rather than to the unborn child’s father. I gave him directions to our apartment explaining I had a delicate subject to discuss with him that needed some privacy.
I’d swear his face almost turned white the moment I delivered the news.
“Don’t worry it’s not yours,” I tried to put the poor man out of his misery.
His palpable relief was totally out of synch with the highly romanticised image I had developed of the not-quite godlike man who stood before me.
“It’s just I have so many children already,” for the first time since we met he seemed flustered. “At the orphanage.”
I nodded more out of sympathy than understanding.
I’m not sure how long we would have stood there standing awkwardly in silence, nor what I had really expected to hear from him.
I guess something along the lines of: “Maria come run away with me. I’ll bring your baby up as if my own.” But instead I realised my unwanted child had to stand in line when it came to Yousuf’s paternal instincts.
Fortunately we were not allowed to remain in this state of limbo for long. For at that moment my husband chose to return home early from work for the first time in weeks, clearly the worse for drink.
It was as if I had lit the blue touch paper without retiring to a safe distance.
“What the fuck is this nigger doing in my house.”
“What did you call me?” Yousuf moved close to George, so their noses almost touched, as if courting Eskimos about to kiss. “And for your information your wife invited me here.”
I’m not sure which surprised me the most – Yousuf’s latent aggression or George’s repressed racism.
“Okay, and I’m telling you to fuck off,” my husband informed our guest.
Squashed between irresistible force and immovable object, I decided that immutable truth was the best course of action.
“George, I’m pregnant,” I stated as calmly as I could to my husband as he clenched his right fist.
The shock had its desired effect.
“Is it mine?”
“Of course she (instinctively I knew our baby was a girl) is, you numbskull.”
Reassured, my husband took my hand.
“Yousuf. I think maybe you should go?” I said to my love.
“If that’s what you want?” He replied a bit too readily for my liking, distilling his godliness even further.
“Yes it is,” I reassured him, though in truth I longed for him to challenge my husband to a duel and preserve my fallen honour.
“Absolutely.” I managed a false smile.
Yousuf left almost as quickly as George had arrived, but still I think he had time to wish us both all the best for our baby. They didn’t quite high five, but still I felt as though a dagger had been plunged through my heart, as surely as that student’s.
I never saw Yousuf again. Call it pride or the disrobing of a false idol, but I never did return to our café in the 19th arrondissement. And maybe it was his own pride or the relief of escaping unscathed from such a close paternal call, but Yousuf never did call me again.
I can’t say that I ever forgot Yousuf, but I did relegate his memory to a deeper recess in my mind. In truth I grew to think more of the girl who befriended me at the orphanage than I did of him. And I truly believe I would have risked bumping into Yousuf again in order to meet her if it were not that I was soon to have a child of my own who would need my undivided attention.
And then just over seven months from the day I last saw Yousuf, George drove me to the local hospital, where I gave birth to a 3.5kg baby girl, Sophea. I think even then he was relieved that she was whiter than the wrap in which the midwife placed her, but maybe that is just my unclipped wings flapping. We had not spoken of Yousuf since that fateful day.
And as George held our daughter in his arms, I began to fool myself into believing that the three of us might just become a happy family one day after all.