Not long ago I had a really bad, weird accident that somehow spared my life and face and ability to walk and talk. It’s one of those stories that are probably too far-fetched to be believable and if you ever tried to turn it into a screenplay the guy in the suit would throw it in the bin saying Yeah Right As If. I can still barely believe it happened myself. It’s utterly, mind-bogglingly surreal. But every word is true.
The story is long, but I don’t know how else to write it. It just is. I’ve split it into four sections to make it more digestible, which I'll post over the next four days. I wonder what you'll think.
It was January. Paris was dark. That particular deep winter dark that shrouds the short days with its moody hue. Some Paris winters were all blinding whites and blues and yellows, but this one, I remember, was especially dark: pitch black in the morning when I tore through my icy apartment to the shower, street lamps aglow outside; still night as I stumbled out my door, fumbling for the switch to light the chilly stairwell; dark indigo turning navy as I hurried down the rue de la Chine to the metro stop past the warm glow of the already buzzing boulangerie; deep royal blue as I mounted the steps at Vavin, the tall grey buildings above beckoning me towards the day; misty slate grey after the morning class as I crunched my way through the Luxembourg gardens beneath the looming chestnut tree skeletons; thick and hazy as I clutched my phone by the gate, straining to hear the new lover’s voice so far away in the golden light of Melbourne summer; and night already as I arrived home in the late afternoon to my Frenchman-less apartment, the odour of his absence hanging thick in the damp winter air. My plants were dead. His clothes were gone. It was dark. I would sit with the lights off and gaze at the patterns the streetlights made through the pretty latticework outside my windows and across my floor. The shapes told stories. I would watch, and wonder:
Was my time up?
Despite my love for Paris and the appeal of this intense melancholy, I was beginning to seriously question my reasons for staying. It had been four years now, my scholarship was over, as was my engagement, and I was studying French at the Sorbonne just to keep my visa. I had just returned from a blinding Melbourne summer full of sea air and romance. It had been a sort of revival.
But here I was, back in my little home on the hill with its lovely shadows and strange new quiet.
“Come at 6 o’clock,” Mathilde had said, in French of course, she didn’t speak a word of English and even at the word ‘ello would blush a deep red. Mathilde was the most genteel modern woman I had ever met. She was a graphic designer and we had worked together on some ads for a paper company. She had alabaster skin, wild dark curls and full rosebud lips and she spoke with a soft, measured olden-day voice, using words like ‘mince!’ if she dropped her metro ticket, which is like saying ‘drat!’ She wore beautiful clothes and had a big, rickety white apartment in the same arrondissement as me, full of light and lots of dainty things.
She had called me as soon as I landed back in Paris.
“Tu m’as manqué,” she said, and I was surprised and flattered as we hadn’t known each other that long. The trip had gone too quickly for me to miss her, but now that I had been back a week and felt the darkness around me I couldn’t wait to sit on her couch and sip tea with her and Lilou, her beautiful 4-year old daughter. It had taken a while for Lilou to warm to me but last time I was at their place she had asked me to bathe her in her little tub, and I did, creating underwater kingdoms with her mermaid and ship.
I did some shopping on the rue des Pyrénées. A big bag full of fruit and some gorgeous stinky cheeses. A hot, fluffy baguette, the crusty end of which I was biting into when a man near collected me on his scooter. “Pardoooon,” his called as he disappeared down the hill, and I brushed him off with my hand, more interested in the bready goodness before me than my brush with death. I was normally more careful crossing the road, you had to be, even on a green man. But it didn’t matter. At home I placed the cheeses on the ledge outside my window as they were too stinky for the fridge. I shoved a fig into my mouth even though I hated them. It tasted like dirt but that was ok, I was training myself to be exotic.
At 5:50 I walked downstairs to my bike. It had been raining and was ink-dark in the courtyard where Bikey was locked up. Luc, the propriétaire of the fancy restaurant on the ground floor of the building, was collecting his mail.
“Ça va Rabbit?” he asked.
“Et toi?” I smiled. He told me he had some new wine and that I should come in soon to try it. I agreed and pushed off down the street.
It started to rain as I sailed down the rue de Pelleport. “Il pleure,” I thought to myself and smiled, The Frenchman once found it poetic how I would confuse the words ‘it’s raining’ and ‘it’s crying’ in French. It was crying quite hard and I wished I had put the furry Davy Crockett hat on to protect my ears. Belts of hair slapped my cheeks and neck and eyes. I blinked my eyes as traffic honked and weaved in its never-ending insanity. I thought about Australia and I thought about helmets. In Paris they are simply not worn, not enforced. Never mind the brain damage, they are uncomfortable and affreux for the hair. Life is too unpredictable for such precautions anyway. Just look at this traffic. Madness. Madness is the code. Smoke, eat fat, drive like crazy, love openly: just live, live, live, look out, be smart, be free. Things here are so mad there is little point in wearing a helmet anyway, being knocked off or nudged from time to time is part and parcel. There is a sort of built-in ultra-awareness: an accident is just around the corner, at any time.
By the time I locked up my bike the rain had stopped and I punched in the code to Mathilde’s door and entered the beautiful old foyer. 6 o’clock on the dot. I walked up the thick, red-carpeted stairway past the beautiful old wrought-iron elevator, which I had never taken; Mathilde lived just two flights up. The long wooden box stood upright at ground floor behind its pretty art nouveau gate, waiting to be summonsed up up up through the intricate birdcage to the top. I didn’t pay much attention to it. It was just another lovely elevator, I had been in plenty of them, of varying scarynesses. You know the type, the ones you close the little gate on downstairs as you press the button and ride up, your neighbour’s cigarette breath on your neck. You can see them from the stairwell on their journey, and even sometimes wave to the people inside. Sometimes you can even touch the lift as it climbs up. They normally make lots of scary noises which make them even more exciting and terrifying but the one in Mathilde’s building was deathly silent. Not a sound. It was well maintained.
Outside Mathilde’s door I rang the bell and waited. Nobody home. Strange. Suddenly, I felt an intensely overwhelming desire to see them. To hug them. It rose in me like a wave. I decided to call Mathilde to see if she had forgotten I was coming.
“I am just outside the building,” she said, “I just picked Lilou up from school.”
The big glass door downstairs clicked and banged as they bustled in the front door. The sound of a polite man’s voice saying bonsoir.
“Maman,” said Lilou, “Est-ce que Rabbit est déjà dans notre appartment?”
The sound of feet on the carpeted stairs. I walked a few stairs down from the second floor. I could see them.
“Lilou!” I called. “I can see you!”
She looked up excitedly. I could see her dark little shining eyes blindly searching for my face as I peered down at her. Her pale skin and sweet little monobrow vacantly peered up as she clutched Mathilde’s gloved hand. Mathilde murmured and they continued walking. I waved.
“Lilou! Je suis là haut!”
And still her little face searched with the fun of the game but she couldn’t see me. I leant a little over the banister.
And that’s when it happened. Life. All the ‘what ifs?’
* If that man didn’t happen to arrive home just before Mathilde and Lilou.
* If he didn’t happen to press ‘appel’ outside the elevator in the foyer at that split second.
* If the lift didn’t happen to be up on the fifth or sixth floor when the man pressed ‘appel’.
* If Lilou didn’t happen to have been doing painting at school that afternoon and taken extra time to clean her little hands.
* If I hadn’t happened to arrive on time - a rare occurrence.
* If I wasn't knocking six foot in heels.
* If they didn’t happen to live on the second floor.
* If I hadn’t had such an overwhelming need on that day to see them.
* If I hadn’t just returned from Australia, broken up with The Frenchman…
But it’s silly to think like that. Things just happen, don’t they?
A very curious feeling.
I can still see them walking up the stairs, but I can’t play any more. My head is stuck, the cool breeze of the open elevator shaft whistling eerily into my left ear, the right, which is somehow jammed under something cold and metal. A great weight. I don’t understand. The lift seems to be on my head. It has stopped. I am still standing, my feet on the stairs, hands on the rail. Mathilde and Lilou are walking up the stairs, I can see them, they are holding hands and Lilou is chattering about a painting, can she show Rabbit her nouveau peinture. I try to call to them but no sound comes out.
And then, a realisation. I can’t breathe.
A moment of panic: a rage, a mounting.
Stay tuned for tomorrow’s instalment of ‘The Night I Nearly Got my Head Chopped off by an Elevator.’!