I tried to line up the shot. Something to work from later. But my hands, shaking and clammy, didn’t agree and I slid my phone back into my pocket, where it lay, baking uselessly.
It had been aggressively warm in Paris that summer. The air was as stagnant as the low Seine and the flies had claimed every bin in the city, swarming angrily at anyone who carelessly got too close. The artists in Montmartre mixed paint with sweat to create new colours which put off the tourists, who themselves were swarming angrily by bins and pillars of postcards. And ice cream dripped like paint onto the shoes of the sweating tourists as they bumped against each other, stumbling into sticky messes all over the arrondissement.
We were sat at a table in the shade drinking away hangovers and smoking the cigarettes that we only smoked away from home, mostly, and watched them all pushing off of each other so that nobody got too close to the centre, where the artists worked. We didn’t see a single painting get sold the whole time. I was in a bad mood and she was too. I could taste copper and my own attempts to sketch had been frustrating; cheap caricatures of the tourists, or street scenes which were ruined by sunshine and blue skies.
“I wonder if we could make a living here for a summer,” April said.
“Painting shitty replicas of the Eiffel Tower? Huh. My glass is half empty.”
Another British couple rushed to a table beside us which had just become free. They were middle aged and the colour of merlot.
“Garssson! Uhh, duo beers seal-voo-plate.”
I caught the waiter as he left their table. “Two more for us too, s’il vous plaît.”
As was my habit I drained the rest of my tankard and then had to wait ten minutes before the garçon paresseux brought them over. The merlot couple had to wait even longer, and when he did bring their drinks he did it with a malicious smirk.
“I think Jim Morrison is buried around here,” I said.
“I think that’s Montparnasse, not Montmartre. Wilde is around here though,” she replied.
I shrugged. “It’s all the same thing. Mountains of dead. Why does everyone come to Paris to die? It’s no wonder they needed to build catacombs.”
She swatted a fly away from her face. “Not van Gogh. He left.”
“He faked his death.”
“Based on what?” She was as annoyed as I was. It was too hot for civilized conversation and too hot to sketch. “Let’s go to the Basilica to cool down,” I said. I paid the man, the exchange featuring a tense moment when he held onto the change, waiting for the tip. I tried to wait him out, but my resolve broke and I told him to keep it.
As soon as we got up we were sucked into the crowd. The beer was working and I pushed the fetid tourists out of the way until we reached the Sacre-Coeur, in pride of place atop the hill from that movie and with postcard views of the city, which could be bought in reproduction every few yards outside the building.
Everywhere tourists were taking photographs of the holy decor. One took a photograph of the “no photography” sign. We sat amongst the pews, surrounded by the quiet weeping of the easily overwhelmed.
“The church isn’t even that old,” I whispered, then added, “Christianity is the religion of the secular,” for good measure.
She ignored me, and began praying. Her clasped hands and closed eyes blocked me out completely.
I leaned back and looked up to the great dome, from which I supposed God was meant to be staring back at me. It was high enough for the vertigo to hit me on the ground. I pulled into it. It blinked like a camera shutter. I closed my eyes and tried to enjoy the coolness of the huge room but my breath filled with incense and cumulative sweat and that was that, and I craved the outside air again.
When she was done I asked her what it was for. I had never seen her pray.
“Well why the fuck shouldn’t I?”
I went into a sulk, glaring at the saints. “You know, I don’t think Jesus would have appreciated all of this ornamentation. Or the language.” I had always been comfortable speaking on Jesus’ behalf.
April continued to ignore me so I got up and walked around, hoping to ease my general discomfort. At one side was a small gift shop. It was too packed to get into, but I could see the shelves of little Sacre-Coeur replicas and plastic crucifixes through the glass. A sign said “All proceeds go towards the upkeep of the church” in several languages. It was beside another “no photography” sign and some postcards, and wooden icons which were proclaimed to be handmade by nuns.
April found me. “You know what Jesus did with the money lenders,” I said.
“Did you take any photographs?”
I shook my head. “Good,” she said. “I want some wine.”
We pushed through the Americans, carrying their souls in their fanny packs, and found a quieter spot when the Sacre-Coeur was out of sight and took a table on the terrace. It took a whole cigarette before the Garcon appeared.
“Un carafe de blanc, s’il vous plaît,” I asked him, and he smirked in the Parisian way and brought one over. The brasserie was red and gold in a way that would look cheap anywhere else.
We sat both facing the street, watching the beautiful braless Parisian woman walk by, the ones who would disappear into smoke if they were to leave the city. They could be found nowhere else in the world, and they were every bit as distant and untouchable as the ghosts who walked the catacombs below. We admired them as we admired the classics in the Louvre. Our own love was more modernist. I asked her if she had read Walter Benjamin. She said he was pronounced “val-ter ben-ya-meen”, and that she preferred Louis Aragon”s take on the Arcades. Actually I had read neither, but I was pissed off at being corrected on my pronunciation of anything. I wondered if I would get into trouble for sketching the breasts of the passers-by.
We took the Metro back to Belleville - tangible Bohemia - where we were renting a room which was even stuffier than outside. We had to take turns sleeping by the open window because otherwise it was too stuffy to sleep at all. There was no way to make any contact with each other without becoming intolerably warm. She napped a little and then washed and got ready for the evening as I took my turn to nap. After sweating out the wine from the night before I was beginning to feel real again.
It was so hot in the room that I had to wait until we got outside to button my shirt up. Even as it reached early evening it was claustrophobically hot outdoors.
Along the Boulevard de Menilmontant the flea market was noisily packing up, leaving behind a wreckage of single shoes and torn cardboard, which were in turn picked through by a diversity of scavengers. They would find a shoe and then search a while for its mate. Giving up, the shoe would be dropped some metres from where it was picked up, before being picked up by someone else. The shoe travelled further than if it had been worn on somebody’s foot.
We passed Halal butchers throwing out dirty water and Asian grocers packing away exotic produce as we went searching for a general supermarket, which we had to walk more centrally to find. We bought bread and champagne and took it to the mouth of the canal to enjoy in the hazy evening. The canal was busy with a mix of the local bohemian scene and the authentic homeless, chic in their ownership of the trope, ironically drinking by the waterside. And of course the bohemians sipped from bottles of craft beer and the homeless glugged red wine and we all had beards, except the cool lesbians who sipped chardonnay and didn’t need them. And the water was still and reflected the Paris lights which glinted like stars among us, and everyone was too perfect to sketch.
I opened the champagne with a pop as April tore from the bread with her hand. We said “salut” and drank from plastic throwaway cups, the gas making me burp like Oscar Wilde, and feeling drunk already. “Maybe van Gogh should have stayed in Paris, he wouldn”t have felt so much pain.” As darkness fell,the water met the feet of the drinkers and mixed new colours called “Paris Night”, rats took bread from around our feet and smoked cigarette butts as the artists in Montmartre packed up and drank cognac alone in their bedsits, and nobody could feel pain in this city where rock stars come to die.
“What have we got planned for tomorrow?” she asked, holding out her cup for a top-up.
“Stay in bed and have sex.”
“You’ll be lucky!” she laughed. And of course it was an issue. It was on and off, and I had felt a stirring in the Orsay looking at l’Origine du monde which was quite the testament to Courbet’s stroke, but no stroking had occurred since. Most nights we were too drunk to do anything, and the room was too hot anyway. We went to bed carefully making sure no limbs were touching, so as not to spread our hot, smelly stickiness, so as not to infect each other with it.
In that museum we had stood in awe of van Goghs own brushstroke, his self-portrait, as we barged aside tourists to feel him, to feel his breath on our faces. To inhale. To exhale. And we had wine in the restaurant upstairs, behind the clock face, served to us by handsomely timeless French waiters in fine clothing, who were conducted by a single large man who stood in the centre, and who could somehow flick a waiter from decanting wine at one table, in to taking an order for apartifs at another on the other side of the room. We toasted glasses of sauvignon-blanc before looking at Impressionism.
And then on the other side we were walking up from the canal, past the unblinking lights of McDonalds, back to Belleville.
“I want to see the Albert Camus street,” I said, and detoured us through narrow side-streets, lined up and down with scooters. We were quite drunk and laughed loudly in English and made grizzly impressions of Rodin sculptures and Renoir’s penchant for larger ladies, getting the names mixed up every time. “This scooter is the most beautiful thing in Paris,” I said, gesturing to one of several identical in the street. “I shall paint it!” I was getting giddy. Dark figures were talking ahead of us, illuminated by streetlight.
They had stopped talking, and were looking at us.
“Do you actually know where we’re going?”
“The streets of Paris are a gallery themselves, this is the city of the flaneur; we are always going somewhere.” But I took out my phone nevertheless, searching for Albert Camus and getting nowhere, of course.
Then my phone was gone and I was left looking at my hand, empty and impotent. I looked around in confusion. The dark figures ahead were suddenly here. I had wandered towards them without realising it.
There were three of them, men. I couldnt see my phone. One of them smiled.
“Hey, fuckin English, this is passpor” control, let me see what you got.”
I reached into my pockets and passed him forty euros from my wallet, everything that was left from the day.
“Fuckin” English,” he repeated, taking it. His friends laughed behind him. “Is fuckin” common market, non?”
I was drunk, but not drunk enough to say anything back. They left, still laughing.
April came up behind me. Asked if I was OK. She had discreetly stepped back when she saw what had been coming, while I had ignored the hint. I spat on the ground, a bubbling copper ooze on the dry pavement. It was the most important thing in the world for a few moments. It sat there, like the dome of the Sacre-Couer, and it winked at me like a camera shutter.
I felt sick. I didn”t want to be drunk any more, or maybe more drunk. I needed someone to tell me what I needed. The next morning I would throw up brown bile while sprawled sweating across the bathroom floor, and I just wanted the reassuring presence of my phone, and it ached like a phantom limb pain. It felt like the end.
We reached Camus” street sign, which had been graffitied and meant nothing any more, and then walked back in near silence. The streets were alive with rats, always just out of sight, rustling waste bags and scurrying through gutters and drunk on cognac. There was no point in reporting it to the police, who were too busy guarding tourist attractions with assault rifles to hunt a lost cause. The rats grew fatter over the waste which built up on the streets every night. April tried to call my phone and it was turned off, the only silent thing in Paris.