Waking up earlier than expected after a Friday night’s excursions, the dimmed light of a Parisian courtyard morning streams into the room; dusty sunbeams reaching eyes glued shut with lack of sleep. I reach out for the phone to text a friend, and wind up unrolling myself from the duvet, dressing haphazardly like a child let loose in a parent’s wardrobe, and descending to the street below; passing through the concentric circles of flat, building, courtyard, street before exiting into the city outside.
Walking through the streets between my house and his, the sky is still bleached by the suggestion of light, and has a similar hue to eyes caught in bright sunlight, or faded jeans. Not quite blue enough to be blue yet, but somehow blue all the same. The late September air makes the pedestrian beginnings of this Saturday morning seem dreamlike; old ladies carrying their empty shopping bags down the street for filling; the men who’ll laminate literally anything you want for €2 are setting up their trestle table on the corner of Rue de Faubourg du Temple, where it joins on to Boulevard de Belleville; the birds aren’t singing, but perhaps it’s too late in the year for that now.
My friend lives a few short streets away, past a school, and a bar that sometimes puts Jazz on, but this morning seems to have shouldered off the night to be standing oddly naked on the corner. The hum has already begun, although perhaps it never stopped. Fringes of conversation brush at me, music flowing from car windows, I am buffeted – or perhaps carried – by a current of noise. Ushered onwards by it. Hold the line. In french, the phrase used for keep in touch is Tiens au Courant. Hold the currant. Whether that means hold it at bay, or hold onto the current so you might be reachable later I’m not quite sure. Make yourself a damn so that the current collects in you; or merge yourself with it so that, whilst you’re waiting to hear, you’re in the flow.
I reach my friend’s flat, I punch in his digicode and enter through the first door. Through to the courtyard and the the second code is given, and I move to the stairwell. From here I ascend through layers of house. Old bannister in the centre looping itself in what seems like ever tightening circles from which different lives and different flats stream off like a web. Each loop splintering into different branches like a family tree except most of these branches communicate so rarely with each other. Each loop a distinct microcosm of self and space; I’ve met his neighbours on the stair and besides the bonjour/bonsoir greeting and response we say no other words to each other. Existing and not existing within each others’ worlds. Flashes on the rim. Sparks in the ether.
I greet my friend at his door and we pass some hours eating breakfast (which itself consisted of about three courses and cured any thought of a hangover).
His flat is bathed in misty sunshine. The suggestion of other lives being lived behind the ranged windows of the apartment buildings outside clamour at his small balconetted window. Immeasurable lives being lived in the same conditions as ours, rumbling along, the hum of each other’s bodies like a collective heartbeat, a collective breath. The jagged edges of roofs cutting a ragged silhouette into the opening expanse of sky. After breakfast, we sit talking, nursing a mug of Earl Grey each and the conversation turns to his impending purchase of the flat next door. He asks me if I’d like to see it, and being nosy and loving a bit of architecture, I’m obviously going to say yes, so he gets from the draw a big old key, and leads me out of the front door, and immediately to our left to an apartment bearing the name Blanche D’Arceneaux.
Blanche’s flat is like the Marie Celeste. Cast adrift in time behind a door bearing her name, we enter into a space that seems untouched in the last 20 years. The morning mist seems to press heavy at the windows, cutting it off from the rest of the world. I think if i turned and opened the door again now, I’d find the same mist behind it; the corridor of his apartment building behind ceasing to exist.
Photos of Blanche’s daughter are placed around the flat, so that it seems that at any angle she might be visible. Inside the cupboard are some conversions for the old franc into the euro written in the slightly shaky handwriting that seems unique to older women. Still elegant, but somehow without the old grace of a fluid hand movement.
She could’ve just walked out of the door.
She could have just left, on a September morning in 2002, to take the freshly printed euro notes out to the marked on Boulevard de Belleville. She could have been any one of the elegantly turned out women on the street, breaking the freshened air with their chatter and cigarette smoke, clattering the wheels of their little shopping trolleys over the haphazard cobbles.
On a receipt roll attached to the wall in the kitchen, a shopping list has been begun. Eggs, bread, milk, potatoes, oranges, onions remain unbought.
The world outside Blanche’s flat seems to recede. It could be 1999 out there. It could be 2050. In here the feeling that Blanche has just left through the door we entered is palpable.
In her bedroom, her clothes are still in the little cupboard by the bed that’s half open, boxes and boxes of what I think must be photographs are stacked on shelves behind a little curtain in the other cubby. The bed itself looks freshly turned, though it can’t have been slept in, in years. The Lino is peeling up under the window, and the original terracotta tiles are peeping their ruddy faces up through layers of dust.
Who was blanche?
What did she do?
In my mind she is wearing a navy skirt made of that heavy kind of wool, that always looks like it would be rough but is actually secretly soft. It’s lined in a similar navy, and fastens at the back. My grandmother had so many skirts like this, that it’s hard to imagine a woman of a certain age not wearing one. Gran used to wear them to church. So, I imagine this woman on a Sunday now, making herself ready for mass. She wears a navy skirt, and a white shirt that is functional, but also quite pretty. Over that she throws one of those royal blue cardigans you often see older women wearing, with brocade on the hems and gold buttons. Her hair, though grey, hasn’t a piece out of place, and she’s made her face up in the mirror, looking out onto the street below, and the flat of the building opposite. She’s got black shoes on, and a handbag that’s become more like a companion over years of use.
When she smiles, there’s a suggestion in the eyes that she’s in on a joke that you haven’t quite got yet. That something funny is about to happen, and Blanche has had prior warning. When she laughs it’s that throaty laugh that comes out like a cough, but is actually a guttural chuckle. When she speaks it’s quiet, but becomes riotous in good company, and in high spirits.
Her hands are small. She wears big rings. She’s always got a cigarette in the left.
She’s so real to me, now that I’ve conjured her from her surroundings, that I can almost imagine her poking her head out of her tiny kitchen to make eye contact with me and my friend in her dining room. take a seat she’d say, I’ve put the coffee on. I’m sure I’ve something nice to nibble on in here too.
Oh no, Blanche, don’t worry we won’t be staying long. Besides we’ve just had breakfast and we don’t want to disturb you.
And she’d reply: Do sit down. I get visitors so rarely now. It’s nice to talk.
Then she’d disappear back into the kitchen. The clatter of cutlery, of coffee cups being arranged on a tray, of the cafetière being filled with coffee, and then with water, and then the whole lot borne into the room by the tiny woman I have dreamed into existence for a second – a vision in blue/grey – like the morning before it has broken. The steam of the cafetière, merges with the suggestion of cigarette smoke, becomes just eddies of dust caught in September sunlight, streaming from the kitchen window into the tiny hall. Blanche herself has dispersed into the air again. Just dust. Just mist.
My friend says it’s funny, how it seems like nothing’s changed.
I think it would have been nice to sit in here a while. Maybe make a coffee in Blanche’s kitchen and drink one for her. I saw some in the cupboard, a black and gold brick on top of a packet of coffee filters. Not a cafetière woman after all.
We stay a little longer, looking at the last remnants of a person left behind. Remind me to make sure my flat is clean before I die, hers is immaculate. I don’t feel intrusive though. it doesn’t feel like that at all, really. It strikes me as strange, being intensely private about my own personal space, that I wouldn’t feel the unease I usually feel in someone else’s without them there.
As we make our way out of Blanche’s flat I think I catch a glimpse of her crossing the back of the dining room into the bedroom. It was lovely having you. It’s so nice to know your neighbours; people don’t do that any more.
and we’d say – let us know if you need anything, Blanche, five flights is a long way up and down and we’re nipping out later.
and she’d tell us not to worry, and have a lovely day, and stop by again soon
Bonne journée say we; Bonne Journée, A bientôt says Blanche.
as we’re leaving I think I hear her say Tiens au courant. And I think that we’re all always in the current, we just need to put a hand out. Hear the hum. Listen.
We both go out into the hall and cross back into my friend’s flat.
The hour is late. We’ve days to be getting to.
I pull my coat back on and leave his flat for the stairwell and trundle down the stairs, down through the vine of lives, hand steady on the central branch of bannister.
On the third floor: Bonjour Monsieur, I say to a man coming out.
Bonjour mademoiselle, says he.
We follow each other down the stairs from the 3rd to the ground. I open the door and hold it for him to go into the courtyard.
Apres vous, say I
Merci, says he
De rien, say I.
Crossing the courtyard, he then holds open the door to the street,
Apres vous, says he, laughing.
Merci, say I
De rien, says he.
We laugh and say Bonne journée to each other and we each go a different way at the door.
I turn right, for boulevard de belleville, and he turns left. Probably heading out to a boulangerie to pick up a baguette or a croissant for breakfast. He might have been going to work – but he had a slowness of movement that suggested easing into the weekend. Perhaps he needed to pick up eggs, bread, milk, potatoes, oranges, onions.
Walking the few streets back home, I pass the ladies who went out with empty bags, returning with full ones. The two men with their laminator are smoking little brown cigarettes and laughing loudly with someone who wants to get something very small laminated. I wonder what it is.
The sky is actually blue now. The sun fully up, holding court with the clouds.
I put in my code and enter into the first circle of home.
I go from the courtyard to the stairs.
I climb them.
Turn the key and I’m in.
I wonder if a Blanche lives next door to me.